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Carving a niche in modern farming

PUBLISHED: 10:25 03 April 2017 | UPDATED: 10:25 03 April 2017

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Paul Nixon Photography 07904296577

Post Brexit, few industries are feeling a sense of uncertainty more than farmers, but two young farmers from Colchester, Guy and Emily French, are working hard and with imagination to protect themselves for whatever the future might hold

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Agriculture has reached a crossroads with farmers in Essex and across the country facing an uncertain future post-Brexit. Surviving the fall-out and the inevitable reduction, or withdrawal, of Government funding to support the sector relies on farms building resilience by combining their knowledge of farming with sharp business skills. This involves understanding cash flow, diversifying where possible, seizing marketing opportunities and embracing innovation and technology.

This challenge is being embraced by one young couple farming on their own land at Colne Engaine and at rented sites across the county. Guy and Emily French have created a successful and rapidly expanding pumpkin and Christmas tree business, selling to both the public and wholesale, and now have plans to expand further with a family attraction based around a maze cut from a field of maize.

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The couple both hail from farming backgrounds, with Guy growing up on a potato and vegetable farm in Essex, and have strong opinions on the direction of food and farming. While at Harper Adams University in 2003, Guy was so outraged with the high prices of vegetables in the supermarkets, he decided to use his experience to grow his own.

This was still the case in 2010 when he met Emily, though he had decided that pumpkins were to be the focus of his efforts due to their overwhelming popularity compared to the other vegetables he was growing. With the pair enthusiastically working together to drive the business forward, Christmas trees were added to the mix and Foxes Farm Produce began to take off.

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‘My family has always grown pumpkins and Christmas trees, so I’ve grown up with it,’ explains Guy. ‘Emily and I just wanted to take this knowledge, use it to set-up our own business, and take it the way we wanted to take it.’

While Guy and Emily, who married in 2015, modestly make it sound effortless to create a profitable business, it’s worth noting that growing pumpkins and Christmas trees is a rather risky proposition. The trees are a long-term crop, taking six to 10 years to grow, meaning a lot of time, money, and care goes into nurturing them before any revenue can be yielded. Also, a business based on two crops harvested and sold at the back end of the year has to wait patiently for revenue rather than seeing it evenly spread over 12 months. And with unpredictable weather thrown into the mix, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Guy adds: ‘We realise that one of our weaknesses is that we are exposed to the weather when we rely on a condensed period of time for cashflow. Pumpkins are more volatile than Christmas trees; once you have built up a satisfied and loyal customer base you can look at repeat business with the trees, but with pumpkins people want the cheapest price from the most convenient location. You need to be innovative and work hard for that business.’

As well as offering a chance to open up another revenue stream in order to safeguard the business, the launch of Maize Maze attractions in Basildon and Colchester also gives Guy and Emily a chance to do something they are passionate about – teaching families about food, farming and the countryside.

‘We’re going to open throughout August into September, and it’ll be simple farm fun, very traditional,’ explains Guy. ‘We want children to come out and have good fun – jumping on bales, having fun in the open air, finding out about how crops grow. We don’t want to create too many boundaries, we want to let the children have freedom. We’re putting our farming message across to the public – we see ourselves as ambassadors getting a positive message out about farming.’

The mazes will be cut into special shapes that will be fully recognisable from above and the routes promise to be challenging, yet fun for all ages. There will also be a Potato Patch on the sites, where children can learn more about growing the vegetable, before being able to dig them up and buy them.

‘We’ve been born, brought up and bred on farms, and had the luxury of being able to get out into the countryside with no trouble,’ Emily says. ‘We have taken that for granted, but we know that for many that’s not something they have been able to enjoy very often – or at all. We really now want children to enjoy the outdoors lifestyle that we both enjoyed so much when we were younger.’

The further diversification of the business is driven by innovation and calculated risk and, as Guy is keen to point out, this is further illustration of what 21st century farming is all about.

‘Modern farming isn’t just about planting and growing vegetables,’ he says. ‘You’ve got all the record keeping, business management and marketing – a farmer is a business professional who has to wear a number of hats very well.

‘Everything that we do, from the little bit of land that we own and the rest that we rent as tenant farmers, is us. This is quite important in a farming context, because we don’t rely on subsidies or anything like that. We are a profitable business in our own right.

‘Many people of my age, my friends, they are all prepared to do something different and are moving beyond what I call conventional arable farming. They are all doing something “added”, like contracting, setting up other businesses, renting things out — in fact anything to future proof their businesses and make them resilient to events like Brexit.’

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