As part of a series of NFU Mutual podcasts called ‘Ahead of the Field’, we heard how the Ramsbury Estate in Wiltshire has diversified into brewing.
The Ramsbury Estate in north-east Wiltshire was a 3,000-acre arable and livestock farm until the end of the last century, when the new owners decided to branch out into the brewing business.
Overseen by estate manager Alistair Ewing, today the estate covers more than 19,000 acres, boasting a brewery, a gin and vodka distillery, a smokehouse and an oil press.
Here are some of the big factors that have helped this farm to make a success of their diversification, which are worth bearing in mind if you’re considering a similar move.
1. Focus on quality
While food and drink may provide an apparently simple route to diversification, Alistair argues that it’s crucial to focus on delivering a quality product above all else.
“One thing that really is paramount is that if you’re going to do it, do it well. Don’t cut corners - if you can produce a product which is superior to 99% of the others, then you’re halfway there,” he says.
2. Cut out the middle man
Alistair explains that a big motivation for bringing the brewing process in-house was the realisation that the farm wasn’t getting a proper return on the high-quality malting barley it was already producing. This was simply a result of having to go through a host of middlemen before it could be turned into beer that consumers can drink.
Alistair says: “With farming, it has always been boom and bust. And we saw a lot of margin on the crop whittled away, through layer after layer of the process. We just thought, how can we circumvent that?”
3. Tell your story
Getting the marketing right is key to making a success of moving into brewing. Alistair admits that this is an area which wasn’t his strength, which is why the estate brought in Will Thompson as head of sales and marketing.
Will says that the key to good marketing is “telling your story to the right people at the right time”.
He adds: “Up here the story is so fantastic that as a marketer it’s a wonderful opportunity; we just have to explain what we do, and [get] people hearing about it. The fact that we are producing very high-end products, in a sustainable way and from one place, is really exciting.”
4. Find your route to market
Developing the facilities to produce beer on your farm is just the first step. In order to make the diversification a success, a significant amount of thought needs to go not just into getting the production of your beer right, but how to then reach your target market of customers.
Gary Pope, Ramsbury’s local NFU Mutual agent, notes that food and drink is a logical area for farms to diversify into. But he cautions that there have been plenty of examples where farms have invested tens of thousands of pounds into ventures which end up going nowhere, because insufficient thought has gone into how to reach the target market.
He adds: “These are the questions you need to answer: where are we going to take this product and how to get it there so it works, not just to sit on the farm waiting for someone to pick it up.”
Will agrees, noting that working out the route to market can be particularly difficult, and only comes from understanding your market and how it works.
He continues: “For instance, with spirits you have many layers before you can get your product listed in a bar. There will be a distributor, a wholesaler, a buying group and then a bar, so working with people that know that route to market is really important. Learn how the structure of the industry is put together and work with it and you'll succeed.”
5. Do your homework
Before proceeding with any attempt at diversification it’s important to do research, to ensure there really is a gap in the market that you can fill.
Gary suggests starting with a simple search, to see if there are similar ventures in the local area. If there are a host of rival firms locally then you may need to think more carefully about whether it’s worth it, or how you could do it better than them.
6. Make the most of your farm
The Ramsbury Estate doesn’t just produce beer and spirits, it also hosts tours and visits from local schools.
While it has focused more of its attention on brewing, Alistair and his team have also focused on how they can adapt the farm itself to make it more appealing to these visitors.
As Alistair explains, the brewing process could be carried out in an industrial estate in the middle of Swindon, but it is a conscious effort to hold it within the farm.
He says: “When people came in initially, it was very stark; it was just buildings and concrete, and we wanted to soften things up, for example with the flowers, to take that starkness away. This is a farm after all, and we wanted to capture some of that sense of rural well-being.”
7. Use diversification to retain talent
Branching out into different areas, such as brewing, can be a powerful tool in retaining a family interest in the business.
Chris Walsh, NFU Mutual’s rural affairs expert, points out that not every son or daughter wants to stay in farming, as they may not see a future in it for them. “But if they can own or run parts of the diversification business, then that's a brilliant way to really own something, market it, develop it, sell it and that will keep them on the farm hopefully,” he adds.
Alistair agrees that it is important to find a diversification route that you - and your family - feel comfortable with.
He adds: “You may not necessarily have any knowledge of that type of business, but you can buy that knowledge. You need to find something that fits into your system, that will fit with your family. Just because your neighbours are doing something, that doesn’t mean you should too.”
8. Find easy ways to add value
In any diversification it’s important to find areas where you can add value simply, with little in the way of additional costs.
For example, Alistair says the Ramsbury Estate’s press could be used for all sorts of different pressing, as it is multipurpose, but they have elected to focus on oilseed because it is the simplest way to add value.
He continues: “We use oilseeds on the basis that we grow it and that’s part of the system, so we can add value at not too much of a cost.”