Widely renowned for its jams and marmalades, over the past decade Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree in Essex has branched out into the fresh fruit trade; supplying strawberries and raspberries exclusively to UK retailer Sainsbury’s during the summer season. As the host of the Production Tour during The London Produce Show and Conference in June, PBUK catches up with Chris Newenham, Joint Managing Director of Wilkin & Sons, to gain an insight into the company, its flourishing fresh fruit business, and the tour planned for Friday 8 June.
Q: Wilkin & Sons is hosting the Production Tour on the final day of The London Produce Show and Conference for the first time this year. To put the tour into context, could you give us a potted history of the business?
A: We are a vertically integrated business, right through from primary production in the field, manufacturing, and retail; you can even consume the end product in one of our tea rooms.
The Wilkin family and their forbearers have been farming in this part of the world for over 300 years. We’ve been growing fruit on site for the last 150 years, and manufacturing jams for the last 133 years. We have held a Royal Warrant for the last 107 years (since 1911), a fact of which we are very proud.
We are a fiercely independent business. Wilkin & Sons is the holding company with a number of brands operating under that umbrella, Tiptree foremost amongst these. We also have other jam brands, a patisserie business, a tea room business, a Christmas pudding manufacturer and a growing fresh fruit offering too.
Q: Of course, Wilkin & Sons is a well-known manufacturer of jams, marmalades and other products, but, as you mention, there is another, expanding side to the business in terms of the fresh fruit market. Can you explain more about your role within the fresh fruit industry, and where you sit within the UK marketplace?
A: For the first 115 years of jam production, the farm’s raison d'être was to grow as much fruit as it reasonably could for onward processing within our factory. About 15 years ago, we looked at opportunities for broadening the remit of the farm. In the intervening period we have developed an ever-growing fresh fruit business.
We now produce fresh strawberries and raspberries for retail, which we grow primarily for Sainsbury’s, although we do supply a small number of local greengrocers too. It’s been a big growth area, and will continue to be an important part of the business as we progress.
Q: Was there a specific reason for looking to diversify? Are you planning to supply other fresh fruits and markets in the future?
A: For us there is strength in breadth. We don’t like to have all of our eggs in one basket. Our core business is very important to us as a manufacturer of jams and marmalades, but it’s important to have other strings to our bow, and we had a core confidence in growing fresh fruit.
Our growth will come from both our product line and our markets. Currently, we grow over 20 different types of fruit on the farm. While strawberries and raspberries will continue to form the mainstay [of our fresh fruit business], we do also produce sweet cherries, Victoria plums, damsons and greengages and we sell some of those fresh to the retail market as well, although the factory remains incredibly important.
Q: How large is the fresh fruit growing area presently? What’s your production set-up and supply capability?
A: We have close to 200 acres of fresh fruit, which is for both the factory and the fresh market. All of the fresh fruit that we grow for the supermarkets is produced on table tops and under cover. In a normal year, we produce soft fruit from early May through to late October.
Historically, one of our biggest challenges we’ve faced has been our soils. We are farming in the driest part of the driest [UK] county that usually sees only 20 inches of rainfall a year. But we have overcome the soil issue by growing soft fruit and cane fruit in coir – either in grow bags for strawberries, or in buckets in the case of raspberries.
Water continues to be a major concern in this part of the world, however. In terms of production and expanding production, we like to walk before we can run, and we’ve always evolved slowly; trying to match our production to the scarce water available. Virtually all of our water is supplied through winter-filled reservoirs because there’s no ground water extraction available. So we’re pretty efficient in terms of our water usage and the innovative application solutions we’ve put in place.
Q: You mention innovative solutions. What developments has Wilkin & Sons introduced lately with regards to your fresh fruit business?
A: We have to be increasingly efficient in terms of our resource usage. A key innovation is our pioneering New Tiptree Growing System (or NGS) for strawberries, which is the first of its kind in the UK. The installation of this cutting-edge technology helps to keep us right at the forefront of the fruit industry.
This system offers multiple benefits, not least of which is the ability to maximise production, to crop 100 per cent of the area and, in the process, to increase plant density. For example, with conventional strawberries we are cropping at the rate of about 50,000 plants per hectare, while with NGS at its most extreme we have had up to 200,000 plants per hectare.
With NGS we are now in excess of 90% self-sufficient in water and have no waste. It represents a huge opportunity to capture rainwater from the roof and, ultimately, to grow more fruit as a result. We have fully-integrated climate control, which means better conditions for workers and growing conditions for plants. Plus, we can produce strawberries for longer – from much earlier in spring to much later into autumn.
Ultimately, the great benefit of the system is the benign environment that it creates. The pest and disease pressure is much lower, and we can keep humidity levels low. All that leads to fantastic-tasting strawberries.
In other areas of the business, we are just setting out on refurbishing our factory, which is on an old site. Last season, we built a new packhouse and a new boiler house. There are always developments and changes happening on site.
Q: Why has Wilkin & Sons decided to host this year’s Production Tour for The London Produce Show and Conference? What’s the significance of being involved in this event?
A: It’s the right thing to do. We will be welcoming a group of enthusiastic people, and we’re always keen to satisfy demand like that. We’ve got a great industry and one which can be reticent about presenting itself. This is a good opportunity to engage with a group of interested individuals.
Q: Who will be hosting the tour? What do you have planned for our attendees?
A: The hosts will be Andrey Ivanov, who is the general manager of our farms, and myself. We’ll also meet with Mark Smith, the factory manager. On arrival, we’ll provide teas and coffees in our tea room, where Andrey and I will give the group an overview of where the business has come from, where it is today and some of the challenges which the future holds. After that, we’ll return to the museum for a buffet lunch, before heading out to the farm.
Q: What can they expect to see from an operations and production point of view?
A: They’ll visit our factory, farm, tea room and museum. We are going to give them a walk through our factory operations from start to finish, including the hand-sorting of fruit and increasing automation as we progress through the factory.
On our farm, the tour will take in the diversity of our crops and some of our innovations in terms of technology, given that we’re farming in such a dry part of the world. As it will be June, we’ll have strawberry harvesting under way at that time. But the group will also see our production of raspberries, quince, cherries, apricots, and plums. So, quite a variety of crops.
Q: What will they learn?
A: I hope they will get to understand the operation of an efficient business within the fresh produce industry. They’ll get a flavour of manufacturing and primary production processes, as well as some of the challenges we face. For the students on the tour, I hope they’ll go away enthused about a career in the produce industry. It’s a big world out there with interesting and exciting opportunities. I hope we’ll get an engaged party of people with lots of questions.
Q: What is Wilkin & Sons’ approach to production?
A: Quality, integrity and independence are the cornerstones of the business and everything that we do here. The mantra from Peter Wilkin [the great-grandson of the company’s founder], who remains a non-executive director on the board, is that we will never automate where it detracts from quality. Quality is King. So, if tradition is sound we’ll maintain a traditional approach. And, if we need to innovate, we do. During the tour, the group will see practical examples of that via some very traditional orchards on the farm, and also some very modern orchards and cutting-edge technology in our factory too.
We want to continue producing a quality product, and because we are fiercely independent we are not beholden to any specific marketing desk so we have more freedom perhaps than some others. That has its pros and cons, of course. In terms of varietal material, we don’t have access to any of the club varieties, for example. But we value our independence. We do a quality job, and we have a great team of people to produce great quality products as a result.
Q: I understand Wilkin & Sons aims to be self-sufficient in the fruits that you grow. How does that work?
A: Where possible, we want to be self-sufficient, but that has to be tempered with the fact that if there’s a disastrous season we have to source from elsewhere. We try to produce as much fruit as reasonably possible. Having said that, the UK is not very good at growing lemons, oranges etc., so there’s a whole chunk of production that we can’t supply. But we’re the sole source of supply for mulberry, medlar, quince and Little Scarlet strawberries (to name a few), which is a wild variety originally from the USA that we’ve grown for over 120 years on site. It’s also James Bond’s favourite jam!
To join the Production Tour, register to attend LPS18 here.
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Join us in London on 6-8 June!