Every year, Lincolnshire Field Products expects to invest £3m in new plant and machinery. According to commercial director Martin Tate, this is one of the main reasons for the success of the firm, which currently has a turnover of around £140m and has seen strong growth over the past 15 years. This year saw it win the prestigious Vegetable Grower of the Year Award.
Martin had an unconventional introduction into growing. Brought up in Hull, his parents ran a fruit and vegetable shop. After leaving school in the mid 1980s, he was due to go to university. However, after a year working for a firm that supplied fresh produce to small supermarkets, he never looked back.
He worked for a packing firm, buying in produce. He then moved to Kent, where he worked for a major importer, before starting work with LW Van Geest Farms. After a period working for another major importer, he moved back to Lincolnshire to work once again for LW Van Geest Farms in 1992, this time as sales and marketing manager.
Buying the business
It was there that he met up with Robin Hancox and Aubrey Day. Five years later, the three of them bought the entire business from Geest. "It was much easier to borrow money from the banks in 1997 than it is now," remembers Martin.
The three remain together, still running the firm today. "We get along very well," says Martin. "We respect each other's skills and don't interfere in each other's areas of expertise. We spend a lot of time just discussing business. Most firms will have a board meeting every few weeks - we have a board meeting about three times a day.'
Martin lives locally with his wife and two sons. His day usually starts at around 6.30am and ends at 5.30pm and he regards himself as a six-day-a-week man. "I think that it's important to put in the hours - I don't take lunch," he adds.
He does most of the customer-facing side of the business, talking to buyers and to growers in Britain and abroad. Hancox is responsible for farming and distributing and Day handles the finance.
At the heart of the business is a 6,500ha farm. Just over half of this area is given over to brassicas and there are around 1,200ha of cereals, a similar quantity of sugar beet and around 600ha of potatoes. The farm has a turnover of £95m a year and the distribution business accounts for the remaining £45m.
The entire production at the farm is conventional. However, the firm distributes organic broccoli, cauliflowers, cabbage, leeks, courgettes and parsnips, which it buys from other growers, to Tesco and Asda. Sales of organics have been relatively stable - comparisons taken last month indicate an 18 per cent growth in the past year.
Martin believes that much of the success of the business is linked to cautious but steady investment. "Over the past 15 years, the retail business and suppliers have both consolidated. We've had to enter into farming agreements to take advantage of this." To meet the needs of customers, the firm has slowly built up its land hectarage over the years.
Much of the investment has been on the technical side. Large tractors mean that the farm is able to plant when the ground is frozen or waterlogged. Vehicles are fitted with GPS to ensure the most efficient use of pesticides and fertilisers. There is a new high-humidity cold store for vegetables. "Brassicas are highly perishable.
The new storage capacity allows us to hold stock longer and we can roll stock to cover poor availability," explains Martin.
The firm has also invested heavily in distribution. At present, it has a fleet of 250 articulated lorries - all refrigerated. "We focus on flexibility. We are not just a haulage company that shifts vegetables. We'll move the produce in the way that ensures that they are in the best condition," says Martin. "If it's better for the produce to be moved in the afternoon, rather than at 8am, we'll arrange that."
Money is currently being invested in the farm site. A system for capturing rainwater from the buildings is being installed and three new lagoons, which can contain a total of 20,000cu m of water, are due to be completed over the next year or so.
As for the future, Martin is equally positive. He is not simply interested in expansion for its own sake. "We don't want to be the biggest, but we want to be the best," he says. Because of the wide variety of products, the firm has been able to ride out any market fluctuations, he adds. "The industry is very fluid at the moment. We need to keep our options open because we're in it for the long term."