Sowing the seeds of future success

Sowing the seeds of future success

When it comes to farmers diversifying into new markets, few can have enjoyed as much success in these parts as Stephen Kilby, director of Wharfe Valley Farms, Wharfe Valley Stoves and GLO Eco Briquettes. Here the young agricultural entrepreneur tells BQ how he did it

Diversification has been a buzz word in the farming community for some years now with successive years of bad weather forcing many rural businesses into desperate action.
While some farmers struggle with the concept, largely because of a lack of time and resources, rising input costs and falling commodity prices have made it almost impossible for many owners to ignore the need to explore additional income streams.

Lilac Farm in Collingham, near Wetherby, is one such outpost that has successfully broken into new markets. Its growing array of complementary businesses have allowed the Kilby family to continue the job of running an arable farm while venturing into new and exciting business territories.

Responsible for much of this diversification is Stephen Kilby, third generation farmer alongside his father Geoff and his mother Sallyann. At the age of 32, Stephen has already spun out four successful ventures at the farm resulting in him winning the Institute of Directors (IoD) Yorkshire and North Humberside Director of the Year and National Young Director of the Year awards last year.

Stephen’s ability to make the most of the farm’s existing stock, most notably rapeseed, has seen the family business move into areas including culinary rapeseed oil, alternative fuel production and even bathroom suites.

Kilby 02However, things could have been very different for Stephen, who at a young age was encouraged to make his own way in life, rather than just fall into the family business.
He says: “My situation was different from my dad’s, who had to join the family business earlier than he had perhaps wanted to as his dad died very young. I think that’s why he’s always been open-minded with me and has encouraged me to do my own thing.”

Before trying his hand at other trades, Stephen worked at neighbouring farms while studying at agricultural college, an experience that  could have turned him off the idea of farming.

He says: “At the age of 16 I went to work on a neighbour’s farm to see if I liked it or not. Also, I don’t think my parent’s trusted me enough to let me loose on their farm yet.
“I’ve had some terrible jobs in the past. The worst was working on a pig farm, which was basically power-washing pig sheds out for most of the day. Thankfully the farming I do now means I don’t wash pigs, I just eat them.”

After this first experience of farm life it wasn’t surprising that, in 2001, Stephen decided to take some time out travelling in order to see what options life had to offer. However, this didn’t mean shying away from hard work.

He says: “I travelled Australia for six months in order to broaden my horizons. As much as I like pigs, I felt I needed to see other sides to life. I worked on arable farms and building sites mostly. The worst job I had over there was digging swimming pools in Perth by hand in a constant 30 degree heat. They like their swimming pools big over there so they were very long days. Working on some of the farms was a huge eye opener for me as I found myself working on tens of thousands of acres of land, sometimes herding cattle or even flying helicopters.”

Stephen’s Australian adventure came to an end when he was summoned back home to attend his sister’s 21st birthday party. It was then that he felt ready to join the family business having picked up enough knowledge and skills along the way. However, his family wasn’t ready to just let him walk into the business without being able to make a full contribution.

“When I went back to the family business there wasn’t a massive demand for me,” Stephen says. “Also, I didn’t want to put anyone I grew up with out of a job just because I was family. My parents weren’t just going to hand over the reins without me proving I could add to the business. Farming wasn’t doing great, so I felt a responsibility to bring new ideas to the table.”

Stephen enrolled at Harrogate College, where he studied to be an electrician part-time while still working at the family farm in peak season. With his qualification in hand, he now had the option of splitting his time between the family business and working as an electrician and found himself travelling the country to work on sites for retail chain Superdrug.

However, the challenge of unlocking new markets for the farm kept drawing Stephen back and it was a fellow farmer that gave him the inspiration he needed.

“I’m always looking for something else to get involved with,” Stephen says. “This is probably down to my parents, as although they have always used traditional farming methods, they have always diversified in one way or another, whether it be a livery business using horses or strawberry and raspberry picking.

“I had read an article about a farmer down south that was producing something called cold pressed rapeseed oil. Rapeseed was something we’d grown for years but had always sold it to the mass producers for things like bio-fuel or refined cooking. This guy was cold pressing it just like olive oil and producing a culinary product that was rich in nutrients.”

With the help of a collective of interested parties, including farmers in Scotland and Suffolk, Stephen was able to secure a £10,000 grant from Regional Development Agency Yorkshire Forward to push ahead with rapeseed oil production in Collingham.

Stephen says: “Yorkshire Forward received a lot of applications from farm shops or people wanting to set up caravan parks. I don’t think they even knew what cold pressed rapeseed oil was. They gave us a lot of support, which gave us the confidence to push ahead.

“As a collective of farmers, we wanted to create something similar in prominence to British beef or lamb and between us produced a generic advert to promote rapeseed oil which worked very well. We don’t do so much partnership work now as we’ve managed to raise the profile of rapeseed oil, but at the time we definitely needed the push.”

The product is now stocked in supermarkets as Yorkshire’s Original Rapeseed Oil, as well as being a staple in many farm shops and independent retailers under the Wharfe Valley Farms brand, giving smaller outlets the chance to get their hands on new flavours and recipes before those on the high street.

A plug by James Martin on Saturday Morning Kitchen boosted sales, with investment in the farm’s bottling plant following soon after.

However, with demand on the increase the farm was now left with a problem – what to do with the leftover rapeseed husks. While the family succeeded in marketing this bi-product as animal feed, this was only a short-term solution for during the winter months, when livestock is kept indoors.

“We tried everything,” says Stephen. “We tried to use it in the same way as hemp and make a fisherman’s bait out of it, which worked but wasn’t really going to make us any serious money. We even tried to make it edible to humans after a friend mentioned that we could try to make burgers out of it and market it as a Quorn or tofu-like product. Suffice to say it tasted less than great so we abandoned that one pretty early.”

It would be a decision by Stephen’s mum and dad to have a new stove fitted at the farm that would fan the flames of inspiration.

“We tried the idea of a briquette as a solid fuel and did a little bit of research,” Stephen said. “The rapeseed takes one year to grow, meaning that it only releases one year’s worth of CO2 emissions compared to wood which can give off over a hundred years’ worth. We also discovered that it created temperatures greater than those of wood.”

And so GLO Eco Briquettes was born, with Stephen once again securing a grant from Yorkshire Forward, this time for £20,000.

Since launching in 2010, the brand has sold well in farm and camping shops and has attracted the attention of supermarkets including Tesco. However, as a bi-product of the rapeseed husks, supply became an issue.

“The problem is that we have to press the oil and then make the briquette so it’s all linked to how much oil we sell,” Stephen said. “What we don’t want to do is have to phone a large supplier and say sorry we can’t supply the required amount. However, the beauty is if we can’t sell large amounts as fuel we can still sell it as animal feed.”

Taking the product to its natural conclusion, Stephen converted an onsite barn at the farm into a stove showroom, with the fuel pitched as a major selling point for house builders and property developers looking to comply with eco-legislation.

Kilby 01As a result of increased interest from developers, Stephen expanded further still, with a bathroom showroom now occupying the top floor of the site in Collingham. The My Bathrooms brand now has a second showroom in Harrogate, while a second Wharfe Valley Stoves outlet has opened at a site near Leeds.

He says: “I built up a great relationship with a lot of builders and interior designers and architects and they would send a lot of customers around when they were having a new extension. When you build a new property you have to have something called a Code 4 standard, which means the property has to have a degree of environmentally friendly elements. A lot of people come to us as they are more likely to get planning permission if they have one of our stoves in there and equally we try to sell them a bathroom at the same time.”

From toying with tofu to selling stoves, Stephen has certainly made the effort when it comes to rural diversification and with excellent results. The business now employs 25 staff compared with 10 in 2010, with its bottling plant now taking on third party contracts from overseas producers looking to sell into the UK and Europe, including current imports of Avocado oil from Africa.

He says: “We still try to keep our traditional heritage at the forefront of our business model but it definitely has changed. Ten years ago my day involved ploughing fields, but now it makes a nice change when I’m able to get back on the tractor and do some ‘proper’ work.”