When Lochy Porter was knee-high to a grasshopper, he would spend his days on his father’s farm picking strawberries. Fast-forward 30 years and he supplies 15 per cent of all strawberries eaten in the UK. Funny how these things turn out.
Porter is a man of the land. Hailing from a family of farmers, he was raised in the wilds of Arbroath, near Angus, working his father’s mixed-crops and soft-fruits farm. So, when Porter arrives at Real Business HQ, we’re expecting a burly beast of a man, with a hearty Scottish brogue and a kilt to boot. Instead, a quiet, good-looking businessman walks in and introduces himself with barely a trace of an accent. But then, the farmer-cum-entrepreneur did spend his twenties travelling the world, observing wool producers in New Zealand and picking up the finer points of apple farming.
When he returned to Britain in 1990, travel weary and eager to start his own business, Porter took an HND in agriculture at Edinburgh. Schooling done, he talked his father into lending him a plot of land and set about establishing his own soft-fruits farm, growing strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. Soft fruits in Scotland, though? Isn’t it a bit chilly up there? Porter laughs. “That’s the clever bit,” he says. “The soft fruit season in England finishes in June and early July. Scotland, being further north is cooler. Its natural season is July and August. The big win for me was to fill up those months with soft fruit from Scotland. Big players such as M&S and Sainsbury’s were looking frantically for late seasons of production. It really was very strategic.”
He worked out a business plan using the basic cash-flow lessons he’d picked up at college and managed to talk the bank into giving him a £20,000 overdraft. “You wouldn’t be able to start a soft-fruits farm for £20,000 nowadays,” he chuckles. “And it rained the whole first year, so I had to tear up my predicted revenues and start again.” Refusing to be deterred by the weather, Porter ploughed on. “They were hard times,” he says. “I pushed to produce more and more fruit, juggling meetings with customers with plans for next year’s poster seed. They’d go, ‘double it!’ and I’d have to work out how to double it.”
Porter’s salvation was his love of science. He became the Harry Potter of farming, magicking ingenious plastic tunnels over his plantation to protect the delicate flesh of his raspberries and strawberries from the elements and launching an R&D laboratory that would be more at home at Hogwarts than on a commercial farm. He pioneered the use of pesticide-free farming techniques in the early noughties. “The EU was launching a raft of directives to reduce pesticides anyway, so we embarked on a five-year journey to go pesticide free,” he says.
In 2007, Angus Soft Fruits launched its Good Natured range, farmed without chemicals. It’s been a roaring success, turning over £2m last year and currently generating ten to 15 per cent of Angus Soft Fruits’ turnover. That’s around £300,000 of revenue every month. “It was a massive challenge,” recalls Porter. “Traditionally, we’d all been involved in producing food for the masses. With Good Natured, we wanted to keep the yield high without using any chemicals. The things we discovered had never been done before in soft fruit. Or anywhere, really. Organic farming uses a certain protocol but what we’re doing is quite, quite different.”
Indeed, the growing methods applied at Good Natured are unconventional to say the least. Porter gives an example: “Red spiders destroy plants. They cause a bronzing in the leaves that takes away the chlorophyll. So we bring in another insect that’s the same size as the red spider but a little bit hungrier. It’s called phytoseiulus persimilis and it eats the red spider.” Porter also uses levitation to keep his fruits healthy, growing them on tables that are raised off the ground. “That prevents grey mould or mildew,” he says. “It allows the air to circulate and the plants don’t pick up fungus.”
When Real Business contacted the Organic Farmers and Growers body, they’d never heard of Porter’s futuristic farming techniques. “We don’t know of anyone raising crops off the ground,” says a spokesman for OF&G. “But it’s a far cry from organic farming. We wouldn’t tamper with natural predators.” Porter has no intention of taking on the “organic” label. Good Natured profits from being a cheaper alternative for consumers who don’t want the pesticides but aren’t too fussed about the official stamp of approval. “Plenty of people trade up from standard and even more trade down from organic,” he says. And distancing Angus Soft Fruits from the “organic” moniker could actually be an advantage for the firm at the moment. In the wake of recent FSA claims that organic food is no better for you, organic food firms have been rushing into the fray to defend their wares. Porter simply says: “It hasn’t affected us at all. We’ve still got strong sales.”
The entrepreneur has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to keep Angus Soft Fruits firmly in the black. For example, if the fruit is a bit too small, or knobbly, it’s graded as Class Two and rejected by the supermarkets. Porter sells these rejects to jam makers and wholesalers. But this is always a last resort and Porter uses all the techniques at his disposal to assure that “90 per cent of our fruit gets into Class One”.
And there’s more. Angus Soft Fruits may be the leading supplier of soft fruits to the UK multiples – 45 per cent of all the raspberries you’ve bought from your local supermarket come from his growers – but Porter is totally unemotional about soft fruits per se. He would diversify in the blink of an eye to stay on top of his game. “Farmers are famous for grumbling,” he says. “But I don’t like to grumble. I like to look at opportunities.”
Porter explains: “There is a hill farmer up the road. He’s 75 now. He started out farming sheep. His wife kept 100 hens or so – they used to get blown off the side of the hill. But the hens were making more money for their eggs than the sheep, so he became an egg farmer. For the past 50 years that’s what he’s done and now he sells two million eggs a week.”
Porter is less laid back about the recession. “I’m still not selling strawberries at the same value I sold them at in 1994-5,” he says. “And with labour costs up by about 200 per cent, it makes things… interesting.” But he’s spotted a silver lining: “We’ve seen more pickers than ever. That’s a direct result of the recession.”
Porter’s scientific flair has yielded anti-recessionary innovations. In 2003, he invented his very own strain of strawberry, called AVA. It took six years and around £1m worth of investment, but this sweet, juicy strawberry with its trademark white petals fast became the premium strawberry in British supermarkets, pushing Angus Soft Fruits turnover up to £65m last year.
Porter can only grow so many soft fruits here in Britain. This is why he has extended his grower network as far afield as Chile, Uruguay and Egypt to guarantee a steady flow of strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries all year round. “We license them our technology and our exclusive varieties and sell their produce in return for a percentage,” says Porter. Around 200 growers worldwide produce fruit for Angus Soft Fruits andPorter spends a good part of the year on a plane, keeping these relationships sweet and masterminding the flow of fruit. “Just now we’re planning for Egypt,” he says. “In terms of time span, Holland – Dutch class – gets going in late October; then Egypt in December; then Spain. Then you have to work out volumes and plan for volatility; there might be a frost in Spain and suddenly there’s no fruit. So you hotfoot it to America, or wherever, to find it.”
Farming soft fruits is certainly no picnic. For one thing, yield varies hugely from week to week. This makes for interesting cash-flow management and even more interesting forward planning. “It’s not like running a factory,” says Porter. “You can’t just knock out fruit like a tin of beans. Our turnover varies massively week to week because of seasons.”
Doing business with the supermarkets has its challenges, too. Angus Soft Fruits has to undergo separate audits for each high-street chain. “It’s hugely time-consuming and expensive,” says Porter. “Of course we should be producing food in a safe environment but let’s just get one standard!” Profits are squeezed too. “Supermarkets are tough operators,” he admits. “We’re working on two to five per cent margins.” This makes the industry “extremely competitive”, Porter says. But when Real Business tries to squeeze out stories of espionage and plotting, he shrugs. “There are four or five other companies doing this,” he says. “I prefer to be fair to everyone and that’s stood us in good stead. It sounds corny but we’re pretty straight.”
Angus Soft Fruits’ main challenge is securing shelf space. “If cherries are piling in, shoppers come along and think, ‘I’ll take cherries instead of strawberries’,” says Porter. “And I’m even competing with myself. When I launched Good Natured, my main rival was the private-label fruit that I was already supplying to supermarkets.”
At least Porter isn’t worrying about competing with newcomers to the marketplace. “Everything’s covered with a tunnel these days and that costs up to £30,000,” he says. “That would be a big investment for start-up firms. My first 150 acres of strawberries didn’t have a tunnel over them; I built them as the money came in. And I also got lucky with the land. My father had a farm that I could rent off him. In 1995, I bought it outright for £600,000.”
Willie Porter, Lochy’s father, is still very much tied to the business. As is his brother, Gus, and his cousins, James and Andrew Gray. Angus Soft Fruits is a family firm through and through. If you ask Porter about his role models in life, he answers categorically: “My father.” And he aspires to hand the business down to further generations, too. “I’ve met friends that have family firms that are 150 years old,” he says. “That’s quite something.” And if Porter can keep up his agricultural wizardry, Angus Soft Fruits could last even longer. He’s got plenty of tricks up his sleeve to ensure his firm’s survival – rolling out Good Natured fruit and veg for the masses, for one. And, of course, thatmagic touch of his doesn’t hurt.
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