Ready to turn her hand to anything horticultural, farmer’s daughter Sarah Calcutt has never been far from an orchard throughout her career. Her varied CV spans Hadlow College and apple marketer Norman Collett to being the current chair of The National Fruit Show and a previous branch chair of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), and many more roles besides. We talk to the Nuffield scholar about how setting up her own marketing business was a natural move and why she believes the fresh produce sector could step up a gear
As I sit in Sarah Calcutt’s farming cottage garden, she flits between taking promotional photographs for one client’s website and arranging a complete branding redesign and re-launch for another. There’s a peaceful hum of productivity with a delightful dash of high energy in the air, as Calcutt joins me to talk about everything fresh produce – something she has done with vigour for years.
After proving herself to be a force of nature by abandoning her career as a retail department store buyer in Cardiff to join her father on the family’s Kent top-fruit farm at 24, 19 years later Calcutt has become one of the most versatile go-to people when it comes to the fresh produce supply base and marketing.
“I started off pruning mature Conference pear trees in the snow and sweeping my dad’s yard on a paid mature apprentice wage,” says Calcutt, who also studied at Hadlow College during her apprenticeship.
“Six years later, I was running the hop picking machine. I went from apprentice to farm supervisor and became the branch chair of the NFU. It was then that it became apparent there was more about the industry that excited me than actively farming. Everything I had done up until farming was about people, chatting, selling, shouting and telling stories, and I couldn’t do that in an orchard with a pair of secateurs.”
Calcutt’s can-do attitude led her to farm auditing and then back to Hadlow College as a business development manager, which saw her put the college back on the map for horticultural studies.
“The main job we had to do at Hadlow was to tell people what they did,” explains Calcutt, who describes her job at Hadlow as the most exciting up until starting her own company, Partners In Produce (PiP).
“They had to stop being so closed to the industry and the outside world. There was a regeneration going on in the college at that time and we had to stop it from being shut off. It was real skin of the teeth stuff – I tackled all sorts of people on Hadlow’s behalf. I stood up and said what had to be said.
“I started to miss the actual fruit farmers though and when I was offered a technical manager post with Norman Collett, I jumped at it. The main aim was to highlight Norman Collett and engage with its supply base, and basically tell the good stories. A year later, I was Norman Collett’s marketing manager, which brought me round to doing what I’m best at: talking.”
In 2010, after the birth of her child, Calcutt left Norman Collett to initially be a stay-at-home mum, but after four months she ended up starting her own marketing company SEC Consulting. Two years later, SEC Consulting was merged, along with Carol Ford, into new company PiP, of which Calcutt now has full ownership.
“It wasn’t scary setting up my own company as I didn’t realise I was doing it,” she explains. “I was going to play mummy, but then the phone kept ringing and my husband said, well, you’ll go mad if you don’t get involved. It started off as setting up the odd website for a company or representing them at an expo and then it turned into 16 hours a week and three regular clients on average. By the time my daughter, Aurelia, was three years old, I was working four days a week.”
Understanding how communication works
The fresh produce industry was blatantly not going to let her go, and so Calcutt’s main aim with PiP became to bridge the gap between the industry and consumers; acting as the clients’ marketing department and becoming part of their team.
“There is an awful lot behind marketing; it is not just pretty words and nice photographs,” says Calcutt. “You have got to understand who you are talking to. You cannot just shout – the pretty words and nice picture aren’t going to go anywhere unless you put them in the right place.
“In several fresh produce sectors, there is a total lack of understanding about how communication works and how people find out about food and how people want to be spoken to about food.
“There is loads of data out there and lots of opportunities to go and talk with consumers and find out what they are looking for. You have to analyse patterns and make sure that what you do doesn’t offend, irritate or bore them.
“A lot of people think that it all works like it did 10 years ago and it doesn’t. You can put a lovely picture in a magazine, but I personally haven’t bought a magazine or newspaper in years, and there are a lot of people like me.
“There is a large proportion of the consumer base out there who are looking for answers about their food. They want reassurance that it was grown with care and professionalism. Many view what and how they eat as part of their aspiration to have a better lifestyle. Campaigns like Pink Lady apples are a great example of this.”
Knowing your audience
A great believer in social media, Calcutt pushes any client to understand its audience and learn the correct language for all the modes of communication available to them. “Use a range of platforms and analyse the impact as to which performs the best,” she explains. “Also, when people interact with you, is it between 8pm and 9pm on a Thursday evening, or is it on a Monday – maybe for chefs, who have the day off – or mums when they have done the school run?
“Linking Facebook and Twitter, and posting once a week isn’t going to do you any good. You need to keep these separate because they are different audiences, and you also need to respond and share additional information. Don’t broadcast and then wonder why it does no good.”
Having worked closely with the retailers over the years, Calcutt says time spent assisting driving footfall through supermarket doors and raising the profile of a variety won’t be wasted. “You can engage with a retailer’s marketing team and share the view from your orchard, or film a quick video with Bob, who is picking tomatoes today, or just offer a simple recipe to make with the kids in the holidays,” she says. “It makes it all very human and real, but also comforting. People who are offered real food will always react well.”