Director, Watts Farms
headquartered in Kent, UK
Q: In anticipation of attendees getting to visit Watts Farms, could you share background about the company and a preview of the tour?
A: We’re a farming business split into a number of companies. Our Farningham operation, where we are meeting to do this interview, is Watts Farms Packing, Ltd., and we are a farming and packing business that supplies into the major retailers in the UK. Then our sister company is Watts Farms Catering, Ltd., based in Dartford, which is about 10 minutes down the road from here. That business specializes in supplying fresh produce into the hotel and restaurant and foodservice trade. This part of the business grows lots of different crops, which then go into the food service sector, but also that company works with other UK growers at the local level here, but then does the importation business as well. So if it’s out of the UK season, the product is imported in. We offer product 365 days a year, and we can’t just become seasonal.
The UK season in general is from round about now through October on a vast majority of salad crops, legumes, anything that needs warmth, and the beginning and end dates all depend mostly on how harsh the winter is. Veg wise, we go into the latter part of the autumn, and the early part of the spring. It’s too cold and too wet in the winter to produce anything outdoors. And then we import, and those products come out of places like Southern Europe, Spain, Southern Italy, and then to Africa, East Africa, Israel, Cyprus Turkey, those kinds of places much warmer than us.
Q: What percentage of your business is foodservice versus retail?
A: We run about 50/50. So the supermarket business is about 50 percent, and the foodservice is about 50 percent.
Q: Do you see growth in one segment more than another and if so, why?
A: The growth has been in the foodservice part. That is because we do a very good job at it! It’s a young business. We’ve only been going about seven years on it, and the difference is that we’re producers and growers and packers as well, so we control the entire chain. As growers we understand, not only what quality is, but also how to manipulate so we ensure that we get the very best quality into our customer. We’re also pretty strong in product innovation and new product development. We run lots and lots of trial work on our farms and in our glasshouse operation, developing new varieties of crops to grow in the UK. We’re the largest grower of fresh herbs in the UK. We grow items like chilli peppers in the UK as well, crops that weren’t particularly mass produced. So they’re almost niche crops although some of them start to become commodity as other people start to grow them as well.
Q: What are some of the trials you’re undertaking?
A: We’re doing melon trials this year, which normally people wouldn’t try and do because a lot of melons are coming out of Spain and South America to the UK. We’ve done lots and lots of work on different varieties, manipulating different levels of flavors in herbs. We tend to pick up a product, first learn how to grow it, and then try and improve on what we are currently doing, which is what most farmers set out to achieve. We’ve just got a larger range of crop than most.
Q: When you’re developing product, what are the trends you’re targeting?
A: There’s definitely been a trend towards people wanting UK-grown product. This whole local thing, is kind of a grey area. How’s local defined? What we’ve focused on is growing and producing it in the UK for a start, obviously I’ve got asparagus crops that grow six miles from central London, so to me that’s pretty local. But where does local start? If it’s 10 miles away, is it still local? If it’s 20 miles away, is that local?
Q: What constitutes locally grown is a topic of much discussion in the States as well…
A: We’re dedicated to minimize the amount of time that it takes to get product from field to consumer as well, which is quite involved.
The other trend in the last 15 years in the UK is that food has changed massively. You can’t switch on the television and not go straight on to cookery programs, and also probably since 2001, 2002, people have started to eat out more in the UK and taken a more European approach to eating then we used to. When I was a kid, we very rarely went out to a restaurant, and going to McDonald’s once a month was a big thing. And I wouldn’t have been in the minority.
Now when you’re in London, you can’t walk 10 yards without coming across food, and people are becoming more adventurous. You go into a bookshop – they still do have bookshops and of course there’s all the buying off Amazon, everyone has a cookbook out, even the wives of celebrity chefs, and there’s all the information on cooking that comes off the Internet. It makes people want the best ingredients and it all knocks back into the desire to buy UK product and to get it as fresh as possible. The trend is not just in produce, but in meat, cheese, and wine. There’s an increasing amount of wine being produced in the UK as our climate changes. Certainly in the southern parts of the UK, there are a lot of French companies that are starting to look at buying land because they’re predicting it’s going to be a new “champagne” region.
Q: How does this trend tie back into your strategies at Watts Farms?
A: We’re trying to work with chefs, for them to understand with seasonality when the produce is best, to understand the chain that we have in terms of harvesting the crop and putting it through our process. We encourage chefs and restaurants to come out and see us and get an understanding of what we do.
It’s something we’d like to do more of. We get a lot of restaurants that bring their trainee chefs out that have never been onto farms before and only see produce turning up in boxes at their back door. So it’s very good and rewarding for us and for them.
Q: Will attendees get to partake in a similar experience by coming on the tour?
A: A lot of the micro cress product that we’re going to see during the tour, when we visit our glasshouse growing operation, is a restaurant product. At the moment it’s not really in the mass market yet. It’s used as a flavor additive into salad packs and things like that but in very small amounts. The product is used in a lot of high-end restaurants, but it’s starting to move into other forms of restaurants as well.
Q: How large is your micro cress operation? Is it in the pilot stages?
A: We produce a couple of hundred kilos a week of it. Basically, we harvest at the first true leaf stage and product is sold with the cotyledons (seed leaves) and first true leaves attached. It’s got loads of flavor in it. We do things like coriander, thai basil, and garlic chives, an Italian watercress, red vein sorrel, red amaranth, pea shoots, roquette cress, mizuna, parsley cress, red frills and bulb blood; quite a range.
Q: What else would you like to highlight about your company?
A: I think the thing that makes us different for the foodservice business is this connection with the production and the farms, whereas most foodservice businesses are middlemen, so they buy and sell, and they’re very big companies. We’re small in comparison. You have Fresh Direct and Reynolds that do hundreds of millions of pounds turnover. Yet, we’ve come into a very competitive market by offering customized service and great quality, and we’re farmers so we understand the entire business. And then what we do off of that is offer products like the cresses, which are not that unusual now, being around five years or so, but they’re still reasonably uncommon in the marketplace as not a lot of people are using them. What we can offer is the ability customize. If a chef comes a long and says I’ve seen this mint cress and would like to use it, we can grow it for them, rather than phoning into some automated system of a massive distribution center. And perhaps not getting that same kind of service they’d get from us.
At Watts Farms, there are four directors in the business; myself, Mike, Avril, and their son Ed. Ed and Mike look after the foodservice side of the business. I tend to deal with more of the retail side of the business and the supermarkets, and Avril looks after all of our workforce basically. We house our workforce during the summer because they come in from Eastern Europe and work for us during the season, but we’re all involved in the business, and it is hands on.
Q: And you’re all family…
A: Except for me. I’m the odd one out but I’m kind of family. They’ve adopted me.
Q: Could you tell us about your work with retailers?
A: We mainly work with ASDA, which is a Wal-Mart company. It’s our primary retail focus. We do a large range of products and have worked with them for a really long time, nearly 20 years. It’s a very different business. It tends to be very high volume, whereas the foodservice business tends to be a much broader scope of customers.
Q: ASDA is quite a contrast from your foodservice customer base. One might have expected you to provide a list of high end, specialty retailers. These are totally different businesses…
A: Yes, but ASDA has aspirations of moving into different markets and expanding on what they do. We do a lot of work for them on trying new crops. We’ve just put some baby turnips into ASDA, which is quite new, so we’ll see how that gets on. We’re developing things for them all the time. We’re a small player in the UK, so we have to have a point of difference and really give the customer something that perhaps other people are less likely to do, or it’s not as easy for them to do. We’ve got a very quick decision making process in our business. We literally meet once a week and if we decide we’re going to do something, it happens right away. There’s no chain of management that it has to funnel through, but we’ve got a management structure in place to help us run the business, of course.
Q: When you initially were developing the baby turnips, was that a targeted project for ASDA?
A: We had the restaurants in view when we were doing that. And then the ASDA buyers came down and they were interested in it. From there, it involved two and a half years work. So we’ve been through eight or nine different varieties, and we’ve ended up with two from those, which we’re now using.
Q: When you work with ASDA on a project like baby turnips, ASDA is differentiating its offering and providing unique products for its customers as well…
A: It’s in ASDA’s extra special range, where we do a couple of different lines.
Q: In such a competitive market, you’ve figured out how to gain a competitive edge…
A: When you’re a small player you have to be innovative in order to survive. You have to come up with ways of growing your business. We’ve grown really quickly, probably in the last five years we’ve gone from a £10 million turnover to a £30 million turnover. And we want to continue to grow. We constantly have to reinvest in the business to be able to fuel that growth, which again is challenging.
Q: For the tour, could you share a bit more about the glasshouse growing system people will see?
A: It’s a bench system, so the crop’s grown in water. There’s no soil. The bench is seeded with the various micro cresses. They take two to three weeks to grow and then they’re harvested off and sold. And it’s year round. It’s a glasshouse, or greenhouse. Basically it’s one and half acres, and we’ve had it for two years. I’ve been interested in increasing protected agriculture and we decided as a board that we quite liked the idea of the glasshouse. Our foodservice business had been buying micro cress from another grower and selling it on. We thought we might as well produce our own crop and sell it. Now all of the cress that we grow in that facility goes into our own foodservice business, which then supplies it to the hotel and restaurant trade in London.
Q: It’s one more example of how you have complete control over your entire supply chain.
A: Yes and it also shrinks costs out and time out as well. It’s a lot easier for our end business to order from us; to say, ‘we want 50 kilos of various cresses and can we have the order tomorrow morning. If we did that into another company, it would take all that extra time to process it, harvest it and transport it, whereas we can get it to the customer the next day so it’s very fresh. We do all of our own distribution in London.
And we cover all angles: retailers, hotels, restaurants, and wholesale markets as well.
I’m the chairman of the National Farmers Union for Kent. Basically I represent the farming community in Kent. It’s a lobby group in order to safeguard the agricultural industry in the UK, so we have lots of connections with people that grow either crops. And then I work on a national level as well with a producer organization and I sit on the board. They are a group of UK farmers that work together. So we’re very much integrated in the industry. There’s strength in numbers and it also gives us the ability to offer this great range of products. What we hope to do is be able to sell UK products as much as possible during the UIK season with great flavor and quality as well.
Q: You’re involved in such a wide array of ventures; it’s hard to take it all in…
A: Yes. There’s a lot going on. It’s always difficult to communicate what we do. Customers come here and they spend two days with me, It takes that long to get through all the aspects of the operation, but they can see how we produce things outside, or in the tunnels or glasshouses, and they follow the process all the way through to this facility where it’s chilled and packed. You start to get an idea of the extent of what we do and see the range of crops that we’re growing.
Produce is a really exciting place to be. It’s one of those things where the highs are really high and the lows are really low. I lost half a million bunches of onions three weeks ago during a hail storm. You get things like that, where we grew that crop all through the winter and got a week of away from harvest and lost the whole lot. You’re challenged with disease and pests as well. It’s a very challenging environment and strong competition. But on the flip side, when you develop a crop or variety for a couple of years and it comes to fruition, like the baby turnips, it’s also a great thing to achieve and you get the buzz from that. Of course the buzz lasts for five minutes! It’s like anything in agriculture, you have to be passionate about it or you won’t stay in the business. It’s a way of life because of the constant hours we work every day of the year.