Mee Farmers is an established arable farm in the Nene Valley, Northamptonshire, owned and managed by husband-and-wife team Peter and Zoe Mee. They both recognised that with increasing cost pressures in the arable market there was a need to diversify to maintain optimum use of their land and resources, including the farm’s irrigation licence, as well as to create a sustainable business for the future.
Following a two-year period of research and exploration, Zoe and Peter identified blueberries as a potential new business. Blueberries are the second most popular soft fruit after strawberries, and growing at a rate of just under 9% annually. UK production accounts for only 18% of all blueberries sold in the country, clearly indicating business potential to reduce reliance on imported fruit and to reduce the carbon footprint.
Peter and Zoe developed a business plan to include financial and cash flow projections, planting and variety schedules, planning permission for polytunnels and increased staff resource — all to be underpinned by membership of the Berry Gardens co-operative, giving the business access to agronomy services, shared learning, Driscolls plants, packing facilities and UK supermarket channels.
Since the decision to launch was taken, the business has secured planning permission for 15ha of polytunnels with a high level of support from the local village. Some 10ha have been erected and 15ha of blueberries have been planted, including two early and three late varieties to provide constant supply. As well as securing funding to ensure a healthy cash flow as the business established itself, Zoe and Peter have also secured an additional grant to build on-site intake and dispatch fridges as well as a blast chiller.
In 2016 they began supplying Tesco, adding Marks & Spencer and Morrisons to their customer base in 2017. In 2018, the harvest volume is set to more than double to 40,000kg.
To develop the business further, a packing line and grader will be installed in 2019, enabling the business to supply the freshest blueberries to local depots and customers with the added benefit of flexibility in terms of pack sizes and combinations, ensuring current and future customer requirements are met.
In just three years Mee Farmers has successfully diversified into the blueberry category while retaining its original arable business. With the public’s ongoing love of soft fruit, the market is forecast to continue growing, supporting the firm’s increased production and expansion plans.
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