CHANGE: Diversify, Adapt and Pivot
“I have chosen to commit to the long hours required to run a business and would choose that every time over an ‘easy life’. If something is easy, it’s generally not worth having.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock / Anna-Maria Casas Pictures: Warren Page
Robert and Laura Strathern talk to Essex Director
While farmers continually look for additional ways to boost income as they face the unrelenting challenge of securing their economic future, there is in north-east Essex perhaps one of the most striking examples of agricultural diversification.
After all, not many farmers can say they have built a crisp factory on site, but that’s exactly what husband and wife, Robert and Laura Strathern, did to harness the full potential cycle of their potatoes, churning them out as one of Britain’s favourite snacks.
Located on the outskirts of the stunning Dedham Vale (an Area of Outstanding Beauty) in the village of Wormingford, near Colchester, Fairfields Farm was established in 2000 by Robert’s father as a traditional arable farm.
After moving onto the family-owned farm in 2004 and setting up their own potato producing business, Robert and Laura were keen to achieve a fairer price for their crop and spotted an opportunity to diversify by taking a bite out of the UK snack food market.
Two years later, they launched the Fairfields Farm Crisps brand, turning their potatoes into hand-cooked crisps, a venture that eventually led them to building their own crisp factory on site in 2011 – and they haven’t looked back since.
So where did it all start for this entrepreneurial duo, who have successfully juggled bringing up a young family with the daily graft, meticulous operational planning and radical transformation of their traditional farm into a modern day agricultural business?
Both sides of this farming family story began three generations ago in Scotland, before economic circumstances led them to a decision to migrate southwards to East Anglia.
“Laura and I are both from farming backgrounds,” says Robert. “Laura’s family farm is at St Osyth on the east coast of Essex, whilst my parents’ home farm is in Layer Marney, near Colchester.
“The Strathern family originally came down from Scotland in 1930 during the economic depression when English farmers were walking off the land. It was a period in history comparable to a land rush, with many Scots migrating south to take on farm tenancies or buy land during this period.
“My grandfather moved to Birch, near Colchester, then Layer Marney, and my father took over the family farm when he was 23 after my grandfather, unfortunately, passed away following a farm accident. My father expanded the farm, adding to the area throughout his lifetime and diversifying into arable crops and varying businesses, such as compost production and reservoir construction.
“Growing up in and around agriculture, it was always the only career I really wanted. As soon as we could reach the pedals on a tractor… as soon as we could lift something, we got involved,” adds Robert, who grew up on the farm with his younger brother and elder sister, who today runs the green waste recycling business their father established.
Similarly, horse lover Laura (nee Gibson) discovered her passions in life early on helping out on her family’s potato farm. “I remember going on the potato harvest, hand picking them and putting them into baskets. Growing up on a farm you get used to no lie-ins and I had ponies to look after, too – I started competing when I was about 10, show-jumping, cross country, and then I got into showing.”
Laura and her elder sister became fully immersed in farm operations at their respective ages of 23 and 25 after their father sadly died from cancer during the middle of harvest season, leaving the siblings faced with tackling the daunting task themselves. Laura’s sister went on to run the family farm and a livery yard with her husband.
Robert, a former pupil of Philip Morant School and College in Colchester, and Laura, who attended the neighbouring St Benedict’s School, did not meet until the age of 19 through the local Young Farmers Club.
It was only after they began dating, they joke, that Robert – who went on to study at the agricultural specialist Writtle University College, Chelmsford – discovered he had a severe allergy to horses, triggered by Laura’s close contact with her favourite animals.
In 2004, four years after Robert’s father bought Fairfields, the couple moved into a mobile home on site.
“It was easy living, straightforward, and very cheap,” reminisces Laura.
“We got into potatoes really just as my father was getting out,” adds Robert. “We’d always wanted to paddle our own canoe, so that’s why we set up a separate business from our parents.”
The couple lived in their mobile home until 2008, moving into a house they built on site a year after marrying and just before the arrival of their first born child, Angus (later joined by his sister, Imogen). Robert and Laura rented Fairfields Farm from his father for around 10 years at commercial rates, before taking on full ownership of the land in 2020. During that 10 years, Robert and Laura built the crisp factory, packhouse, cold storage of 5,000 tonnes and the Anaerobic Digester (AD) plant.
While keen to make their own mark, Robert and Laura have made full use of family expertise. Robert’s father was responsible for reservoir construction supporting their use of the land, and they spread ‘green’ compost on their fields, produced by Birch Airfield Composting Services, the family business now run by Robert’s sister nearby at Layer Marney.
“We use digestate from the AD plant and compost wherever possible, instead of imported synthetic fertilisers. The green manures are much better for the growing crops and soil structure, as well as helping towards our carbon neutral status” explains Robert.
Over the last 23 years since the farm was first bought, the area of land used for potato production has expanded from 15 acres to 1,000 acres today (the equivalent of 750 football pitches), which now serve the site’s additions – a packhouse and crisp factory. While only early potatoes were grown on the farm originally, the Stratherns now farm a variety of potatoes – from early to medium to late crops.
Robert and Laura have recently bought up additional land locally of a further 550 acres. Together with rented land from a dozen neighbouring farmers, acreage now covers an area that stretches clockwise from Colne Valley, Aldham and West Bergholt, to Tendring and Thorpe Le Soken on the east coast, down to Tolleshunt D’arcy and Tolleshunt Knight, and back up to Birch, Layer Marney and Stanway.
The expansion has allowed them to rotate their crop so that they always have access to fresh and rested soil, as well as swap fields with other farmers growing different crops.
The business has also diversified in the range of crops it grows to include maize and rye, which feed its on-farm AD (Anaerobic Digestion) plant. The nutritionally rich digestate bi-product that forms is spread over the land.
Feeling the Crunch
But the biggest change has, undoubtedly, been the couple’s decision to take control of their destiny, fuelled by an overwhelming need to achieve a fairer price.
The need for farmers to innovate and diversify, not just to survive but to be successful, has been thrust into the spotlight more recently by programmes like Clarkson’s Farm.
After a year of research, the Stratherns’ first bold move was to establish their own packhouse, rather than selling in bulk to a packer to wash, pack and sell on to supermarkets or caterers. Then, they stepped into completely unknown territory and launched a crisp brand, Fairfields Farm Crisps.
“The standard challenges of farming remain the same as they always have been in terms of being at the mercy of the variable UK weather,” observes Robert. “However, the main challenge for farmers over recent years has been achieving a fair price to reflect the input costs and risks of growing the food crops we need.
“Our decision to enter into the production of crisps and pack our own potatoes was driven by the need to achieve a fairer price for the crops we grew, as opposed to accepting what the commodity prices are on the day, or a contract offered by supermarkets which were not enough. We were frustrated and we really wanted to add value to our product – and move up the supply chain a bit.”
Entering the Crisp Market
Setting up the packhouse was a big step for the couple, but establishing a crisp factory required significant investment, along with production and marketing know-how that neither had.
“We couldn’t afford to invest in a factory at first, so we started with a small wash line for packing our potatoes by hand, bought a van and carved out a new local market of small outlets, such as milk to the door dairies and local pubs,” explains Laura.
Finding a manufacturer nearby that would take on initial production of hand-cooked crisps for a small start-up was a task in itself, but eventually Robert and Laura found a company willing to take them on – provided they supplied all the raw materials upfront.
The couple began with small steps for distribution, their first order of six pallets containing 5,000 packets of the nation’s favourite crisp flavour, Lightly Salted, along with Sea Salt & Aspall Cider Vinegar, and Chilli.
“To choose those flavours, we decided to get a stand in the foodhall at the Suffolk Show in May 2006 before we even had any packaging,” recalls Laura. “We had samples of all the different flavours and asked the general public what they liked and didn’t like so much. After that, we tweaked the flavours and came up with a top three before launching that autumn.”
For branding and marketing, the couple harnessed the expertise of a cousin, John Howie, but they knew from the outset what they wanted the brand to be called. “I don’t think there were any other contenders for it – Fairfields Farm has a nice ring to it and it’s who we are,” says Robert. “We just tweaked the packaging over the course of about six months until we were happy with it.
“In the early days, I looked after running the farm, growing the crop, and dealing with the factory producing our crisps, while Laura delivered them to local farm shops, pubs, cafes and foodhalls – anyone within 25 miles – and looked after sales, marketing and bookkeeping, too.”
Laura adds: “It was hard and very daunting knocking on doors. I got a few knock-backs – and you take everything to heart because you’ve put everything into this, but we got there in the end.”
Setting up a Factory
The couple had a relentless thirst to learn about crisp manufacturing. They honed their knowledge through their dealings with the offsite factory, as well as a visit to a fries and crisp making kit producer and factories in the US in 2008 while Laura was expecting Angus. Four years later, with turnover still under £1million, they decided to take the plunge and invest in their very own onsite factory.
“We were so passionate about it, and we wanted to be in control end-to-end,” says Laura.
However, the brave move was not without trial and error.
Robert explains: “We built a large building and bought a discontinued crisp manufacturing line from Belgium, but shipping it back was a logistical nightmare and we encountered a lot of red tape at customs. Once we got it here, we had to convert a lot of the electrics to UK specifications, which was a steep learning curve.
“We had to learn very quickly about the kit and all the associated drainage and ventilation requirements – we had someone advising us on the potential pitfalls, but we still had to learn from our own mistakes.”
The offsite factory continued producing Fairfields Farm Crisps while the Stratherns spent the first couple of months getting the quality of their product just right.
“As the business developed and our knowledge grew, we began to build a team around us, with a strategy and a plan to grow sustainably,” comments Robert. “Funding was achieved by traditional bank support along with some grant funding.”
The Funding Process
With the help of Fairfield Farm’s agricultural agent, Laurence Gould, the couple applied for a European funded grant.
“We couldn’t have done it without the fund and having some good advice to put our application together,” says Robert. “It’s complicated and difficult, and there’s a lot of work involved, but it was all worth it in the end – we couldn’t have done what we wanted without it.”
Since launching their crisp brand (now available in eight flavours), Fairfields Farm has gained an admirable reputation very quickly – and achieved the sort of publicity and exposure that money can’t buy.
In 2009, Robert was approached to appear in the BBC reality show, The Apprentice, as a mentor and ‘crisp expert’ for one of the challenges. In 2010, Fairfields Farm then won an Essex Food and Drink Award, which was followed by Robert scooping ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year’ in the Colchester District Business Awards.
The Quest for Carbon Neutrality
More recently, Fairfields Farm has continued to go from strength to strength, with sustainability at the core of everything it does as it sets its sights firmly on being the UK’s first carbon neutral crisp producer.
It kicked off 2023 with the launch of the rebranded 10 Acre crisp brand, a new innovation in the plant-based crisp market, as a response to the huge increase in demand for vegan snacks that don’t concede flavour.
“It’s a low-fat, carbon-neutral, vegan, gluten-free product that most importantly delivers on taste and texture,” says Robert. “We’ve just started producing it in five different flavours, Cheese & Onion, Fried Chicken, BBQ Beef, Sea Salt and Cheesy Chilli.”
The Fried Chicken and BBQ Beef flavours were especially chosen after 10 Acre’s research showed that 80 per cent of consumers who are already reducing meat, still love the taste of meat.
The Stratherns are also looking to develop their online subscriptions offering of potatoes and crisps, which they launched during the Covid pandemic.
Now responsible for 50 staff – a ten-fold increase since the early days – Robert and Laura still take a very much hands-on approach, supported by their heads of department and wider team.
So, two decades on and after implementing huge changes, what are the challenges now of running a business while bringing up a 13 and 11 year old, and how do they keep motivated?
“All the challenges we face are the same that most businesses face, but enjoying what you do is key,” reflects Robert. “I have chosen to commit to the long hours required to run a business and would choose that every time over an ‘easy life’. If something is easy, it’s generally not worth having.
“I really respect people with a good work ethic and who are prepared to commit to something 100 per cent, pick themselves up when things don’t work out, and always keep moving forward with belief in themselves.
“In the early days before we had our two children, it was very much both of us within the business working together. In more recent years, we have split the roles with Laura broadly looking after the increasing demands of the kids and our busy home life whilst I look after the running of the business. Laura also juggles these domestic demands with working in the online subscription part of the crisp business.”
Away from work, the family try to spend as much time together as possible and encourage their children’s interests.
“The children are very keen on sport and Imogen is a keen horse rider – much to Robert’s disgust,” quips Laura, referring to his equine allergy. “As a family, we try to go skiing once a year in the winter now that the kids are growing up – it helps keep them interested in us! The farming seasons mean that summer holidays are not really an option, and Angus is now starting to get more involved when it is harvest time on the farm.”
Looking back on how it all started, the Stratherns have achieved so much – from modest potato farmers to snack food entrepreneurs, but it’s family that brings them the greatest sense of pride.
“Together, our greatest achievements are our two children, but we are also proud of the businesses we have developed and are ever keen to grow them further, for sure.”