Interview: Marion Regan, managing director, Hugh Lowe Farms; chairman, KG Growers.

Surprisingly, even in the 21st century, a daughter taking over a farm from her father is still a rare occurrence. But Marion Regan, managing director of Hugh Lowe Farms in Mereworth, Kent took over the business when her father Hugh Lowe retired in 1995. She has made a great success of leading her team, running one of the UK's showcase soft fruit enterprises.

The 480ha farm, started by Regan's great-grandfather, has been in the family for 115 years and now specialises in soft fruit, producing more than 2,500 tonnes of strawberries and 300 tonnes of raspberries annually.

These are rotated with arable crops so that all the tunnel-covered crops are located within 6.5km of the central packhouse, which opened in 2003.

A glasshouse unit at nearby Hadlow village supplies the early raspberry crop.

Regan has never regretted leaving her research scientist career to run the farm and regards this sector of horticulture as youthful and trendy. "There are lots of young people involved in soft fruit growing and all the healthy eating trends are going our way now," she says.

She remembers her grandfather saying that strawberry growing was "a young man's game" - and Regan interprets this as the need to be able to bounce back each year with new ideas and enthusiasm.

"You solve one problem and another will pop up ... if it was easy then everyone would be doing it."

She has also recently persuaded her husband, Jon, to leave his career in IT and join the management team as operations director.

Hugh Lowe Farms (HLF) was a founder member of the UK's largest soft fruit co-operative, KG Growers (KGG) - and all its berries are marketed through KGG's part-owned marketing company Berry Gardens. KGG now has 75 members and a £116m turnover.

Regan says: "KGG is well situated to meet the trends for healthy, good-value local provenance produce as it is an assemblage of independent - often family - businesses, spread nationwide."

In January of this year, Marion took over the mantle of chairman of KGG from Angus Davison - thus continuing the family association (her father was KGG chairman for many years). She is also a director of Berry Gardens.

"I really believe in the effectiveness of KGG," she says. "It's the route to market for my fruit and it's made a difference to our business over many years. However, if members are not prepared to get involved then you mustn't be surprised if growers lose their strong influence in the supply chain."

Regan sees the formation, which took place in February 2007, of Berry Gardens - a jointly owned company between KGG, US company Driscoll and Spanish Alconeras - as opening up a global network allowing connections with growers in other countries and an exchange of ideas and techniques.

Perhaps because of her early years as a botanist, Regan thinks genetics is likely to offer the widest solutions to technical problems facing growers - she suggests research can "breed your way out of any problems and use new varieties to meet technical challenges".

With this passion for science, it is hardly surprising to find that Regan is a trustee of the East Malling Trust for Horticultural Research. So what are the main technical challenges? Regan immediately looks at this from a customer-focused view: "Firstly, we need to consider value for money - we need good-tasting fruit that doesn't cost the earth - and secondly we must consider picking costs. We need consistent crops, bigger fruits and less grade-out - as our soft fruit manager Tom Pearson puts it, crops that are 'a joy to pick'. All these can have a genetic solution."

She views the future as pretty exciting, and, to ensure this raising of the bar, Berry Gardens is investing in breeding programmes.

Meanwhile, KGG is focusing on technical excellence and innovation to give members an edge in the marketplace but also to drive down production costs. Benchmarking within the co-operative has proved a very useful tool due to the wide spread of growers in all berry crops and all regions.

Regan uses key performance indicators such as yield, picking costs, packing losses and quality to allow the management team at HLF to produce weekly performance reports and stay focused throughout the season, now stretching from May to October.

"We obsess over a 0.5p change but we need to know how things are going along, and sometimes we really can make useful management adjustments in response."

The third trend she identifies as good for growers is the environment. HLF is Linking Environment & Farming (LEAF) Marque-accredited and environmental initiatives include: a new drainage water collection scheme with clay-lined reservoir; tree planting and woodland management; hedge stewardship; and planting and soil conditioning trials. Within KGG, Regan is keen to promote biodiversity plans on the farms and thinks they are a great help to get over the environmental message about modern farming to consumers. As she points out: "We have a great story to tell."

CV

1980s: Studies botany at Oxford university then undertakes a Master's degree in horticulture in the US

1987: Starts working at family business Hugh Lowe Farms

1995: Becomes managing director of Hugh Lowe Farms when her father retires

2007: Berry Gardens is formed

2008: Becomes chairman of KG Growers.


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