Grower profile - Watton Produce

A forward-thinking approach and willingness to diversify has secured the success that led Watton Produce to win the Vegetable Grower of the Year 2008 accolade.

Since joining the Knights Farm Group, Watton Produce - based at Shropham, near Attleborough in Norfolk - has successfully implemented a three-pronged approach to fully embracing the considerable opportunities available in the expanding and ever-evolving carrot and parsnip sector.

This has involved: firstly, focusing on innovation, new product development and improved efficiency and quality in both production and processing; secondly, diversifying and thinking outside the box in terms of customers, with a long-term and forward-thinking relationship with important and groundbreaking national schemes; and thirdly, taking a positive position in its attitude to the wholesale and food-service sectors.

These three areas of development are set against a backdrop of the company's extensive, long-running and proactive policy of marrying wildlife conservation and sensitivity to other environmental issues with effective business practice.

As sales manager Stuart Mills explains: "Traceability is uppermost in our priorities. In the spirit of Marks & Spencer's Field To Fork scheme, the provenance of produce has become very important and we wish to reflect this."

The company was bought by director Paul Knights in 2005 and now has a turnover of £23m, processing more than 60,000 tonnes of carrots and parsnips per year. It is a constantly evolving entity, positively responding to changes in the market with precision, employing meticulous research to maintain awareness of what the customer wants, and keeping one step ahead of the game.

Watton Produce has a tradition of processing that goes back 30 years - and joining the Knights Farm Group brought together this expertise with more than 50 years of farming experience specialising in carrot and parsnip production. It is now fully incorporated into the group, integrating with a 52-week-a-year supply of produce from more than 1,000ha of land on the three Knights Farm sites at Moray Coast in Scotland, Jerez in Spain and the original farm in the Breckland area of Norfolk.

Watton supplies a wide range of retailers including Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl, Waitrose and Boots. Its identity as "the company that does everything in-house," says Mills, means that it can "genuinely live up to the reputation of being a 'one-stop shop' for carrots and parsnips."

The broad range of products supplied is a testament to the expertise, experience and innovation within the company. "We supply every type of carrot from ex-field to fully prepared," says Mills. "These include bunched, loose, pre-pack, peeled whole (launched in the Tesco East Anglian range in 2007) and half cuts, slices and batons, which are sent to Bakkavor, Freshtime and the NHS."

The company is always focused on reviewing policy, and encourages and engages with fresh ideas in all its prepared, fresh and convenience products, enabling it to take full advantage of consolidation within the market.

Successful new product development has seen Watton recently become the first company to supply UK-grown mini carrots with tops, marketed as Baby Tendersweet - a principal reason for the company winning the Vegetable Grower of the Year accolade at the Grower of the Year Awards 2008. Commitment to service with this demanding product is again at the forefront of its priorities.

"Tesco expects every carrot to fit within a 9-14mm diameter," says Mills. "They are hand-harvested from three specially selected sweeter varieties (Evora, Laguna and Mokum) which allow continual supply - and the crop is constantly monitored throughout the season. They are picked in the morning and off to the customer by that evening."

The company has a unique record in realising the potential for carrots as a snacking product, having recognised that traditional formats were appearing tired and that the market had both the demand and capacity for new developments. One example of this is its Crunchies baby peeled carrots, which go to the Boots Shapers range and are sold to other independent retailers under the Watton Produce brand.

However, it is Watton's work with the School Fruit & Vegetable Scheme (SFVS) that has applied radical thinking to bring fresh vegetables right to the doorstep of some of the country's most challenging consumers.

In an outstanding achievement, the company maintains a supply of 1.8 million carrots to children in 16,000 schools, providing one piece per child per week from September to Easter.

The need to plug the gap left in the supply of carrots led to the development of mini cucumbers (originating from trials in Israel in 2006) - of which two million per week were supplied last summer. "We are continually looking at new and appealing ways to develop carrots and other vegetables into handheld snacks for children," says Mills.

Allied with the new ranges has been £1m in expenditure on mechanisation and raising the bar on quality, by installing a new product development kitchen for the cooking and testing of products and the investment in optical sorting equipment and a Sormac knife peeler.

"The traditional technique of removing skin meant the carrot lost moisture," says Mills. "As with our new Tesco range, peeling improves the appearance and can lengthen the carrots' shelf life by up to two days."

The company continually adapts and applies different approaches to management in all its categories.

"It's all about cost efficiency and cost base," says Mills. "Everything is constantly being reassessed. We are always trying to find new ways of improving yield and reducing waste."

There have also been deliberate moves to improve efficiency within transport, with a dedicated transport manager ensuring that each lorry takes the optimum load for each journey.

Watton's involvement in projects such as the SFVS and the Five a Day initiative was a combination of recognising the need to be imaginative with future strategy and also identifying what was missing from the existing School Fruit Scheme, to which it introduced the idea of supplying carrots in 2004.

"We realised the opportunities for new approaches to encouraging the consumption of fresh vegetables," Mills explains. "It isn't just a case of simply moving with the times and reacting to changes, but making conscious decisions to actively diversify."

Mills also highlights the changing public attitude towards healthy eating and "back to basics" cooking as significant. "With the Five a Day initiative now part of everyone's lives, the potential was tremendous," he says. "The public's appetite for fresh fruit and vegetables in new and exciting formats is healthy and the sector is expanding."

Under the energetic stewardship of business and development manager Des Taylor, the wholesale side of Watton's interests has increased exponentially. The company has gone from zero to 70 per cent of the market for bunched carrots in just one year.

Wholesale now accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of the business. "Many of our customers who were selling 30 or 40 boxes of carrots per week are now ordering that amount per day," says Taylor.

Keeping in constant contact with customers, Taylor explains that his "aim is to provide a service of quality and continuity, targeting the top end of the wholesale market". His biggest customer is Pauleys, part of Brake Brothers.

"We have proved that despite apprehensions about wholesale diminishing, you can buck the trend and encourage growth with the right product, excellent quality and good management," he says. "We aim to continue diversifying."

The wholesale side of the business has also recently received the boost of a new baton machine to supply its food-service customers.

Watton Produce is also particularly proud of its track record with the rare wild birds on its land - such as the grey partridge, oyster catcher, stone curlew and lapwing. It has won many awards, including the RSPB UK Lapwing Champion Award, and ongoing conservation work includes training tractor drivers to spot nesting birds and give them a wide berth, so as not to cause nest abandonment. Local schools regularly visit the Breckland farm to see conservation in practice.

"Countryside stewardship and cross-compliance have never been a problem, as we have always enthusiastically embraced the principles," says Mills. "We try to use as few chemicals as possible in production."

Supported by the fact that its flagship product - the Baby Tendersweet carrot - uses recyclable labels and trays, the sound guiding principles and outstanding innovation of Watton Produce are clear to see.

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