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Thinking past the farm gate

Published: 27 June 2018

For Priory Farm, near Redhill, Surrey, diversification to reflect changing consumer trends has become a core strategy for futureproofing the business. However, it’s been strong management and regular performance reviews that’s turned opportunity into success.

The 120-acre Priory Farm site has been in the Shinner family for 61 years, but in that time it’s seen a wide mix of agricultural enterprises. Combinable crops, sheep, chickens, a pig breeding centre, pick-your-own fruit and a plant centre have all been hosted at the site. More recently, it has developed a successful family attraction that seeks to service the needs of the local commuter-belt population.

Priory Farm’s 40-acre Discovery Walk allows families to enjoy nature trails, tractor rides and a play area, then be refreshed at the site’s coffee shop. Gifts and local produce can be purchased from its award-winning farm shop, as well as from a selection of small businesses operating from converted pig sheds.

“Our evolution has really been about survival,” summarises Nic Shinner, son of the farm’s first owner John Shinner. “Take our pick-your-own offering – my father set it up in the 1960s and for a while it was a runaway success. But as soon as fruit could be bought all year-round in supermarkets, we knew we needed to do something else.”

It’s this ability to closely monitor consumer trends and regularly review the farm’s operational performance that has been fundamental to Nic’s decisions and success.

Diversification strategies

As well as more traditional farming practices, the farm has hosted a range of ventures to help increase revenue streams. “We’ve had a mountain-boarding enterprise – complete with a mini ski lift – and also set up a corporate entertainment business,” says Nic. “Many of these add-on businesses have since been rented out to other operators or divested completely so I can focus on projects that bring in greater returns.”

Strategy for growth

Jon Drew, Regional Agricultural Manager for AMC, has worked closely with South East based AMC Agents BTF Partnership to support Nic’s plans. “We originally supported the family’s succession plans, and later worked to reorganise the supporting security needed when plans for the sale of their plant centre were being progressed. More recently, we’ve helped support the Discovery Walk development, and this has included fostering the commercial relationship between the project, the farm shop and the commercial tenants on site.”

Investment in diversification

In the future, Nic plans to enlarge the shop, winner of the 2014 Farm Shop of the Year. He’s also considering a number of other leisure-related ventures, monitoring sector trends to reflect the needs of the local urban population.
“So far for our projects, there’s been very little in the way of set-backs,” says Nic. “Generally, the council has been hugely supportive, which helps. Maybe it’s because renting out the pig sheds to local businesses has created employment opportunities.”

The leasing of these units to outside enterprises and the tough decision to sell the plant centre has created advantages for all parties. “As we hoped, people attracted to the Discovery Walk visit the farm shop and the nursery. It’s very symbiotic,” says Nic.

Constant review and analysis

While Nic’s story may sound like smooth sailing, there’s been a strong focus on business management and attention to detail throughout the developments. “Nic monitors the performance of the farm’s key enterprises weekly, against budgets and previous year’s results. This allows Nic to swiftly act on opportunities or attend to challenges when good or bad trends have been identified,” says Jon.

Nic highlights that AMC’s knowledge of the sector has also been key. “I’ve been with mainstream banks in the past, but frequently struggled with their lack of detailed knowledge of my business and of how the sector is affected by weather and changing seasons. They rarely seemed to take the time to understand our business like AMC does,” he explains.

The hard work is paying off – the farm shop has grown 10% year-on-year for the past five years, while the Discovery Walk has grown 200% in the same period. Nic says he’s now considering appointing a company to manage their online presence. He realised early on how important social media was.

“We recently had a YouTube blogger visit the Discovery Walk. Within hours of the video going up, views to our website shot up as did subsequent visitor numbers in the coming few days,” he says.

Harvesting opportunity

Nic says he’s sure the future of Priory Farm won’t include mainstream farming: “Farming has changed materially in my lifetime. We now need to look at new opportunities that both complement our farm’s character and generate strong returns on our capital investment. That means always looking to improve and develop our offering, so we are visitors’ first choice when they consider where to spend their leisure time and money.”

Jon notes that Priory Farm is an inspiring story about how a farm can best use its core asset – land. “The original farmland gave Nic space, and that space provided opportunity. However, it has been Nic’s focus on strong management, financial control and performance review that has turned opportunity into success. It’s helped him deliver a truly unique product, while successfully running a retail business in a very competitive sector.”

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