Building loyalty by listening to growers

In July Botanicoir had intended to celebrate a special 15th anniversary with customers and friends. Since 2005 the company has been supplying soft-fruit growers in the UK with quality coir products. Building personal connections with growers has been central to the way Kalum and Samantha Balasuriya have developed the business. Good witnesses of these changes are the Drummond family whose farming business near Ross on Wye in Herefordshire includes strawberry production. They’ve been working with Botanicoir for over ten years and Eric Drummond has visited the Sri Lankan production facilities twice, most recently in February.

The Drummond family has been farming in Herefordshire since 1956 when Eric’s father moved down from Scotland, and the farm remains a mixed farming operation. Today the business is based around poultry production, fruit growing, and arable and potato enterprises. After a spell of travel and university, Eric’s son Ben came back to the farm in 2005 to manage the soft-fruit. With his father, brother Sam, and a dedicated management team, they manage and oversee the partnership’s day-to-day operations. Originally a member of Berry Gardens, the farm switched to direct sales to Morrisons in 2008 and three years ago they took over some local cider and top-fruit orchards. Eric says that the 200 acres of cider and 140 acres of dessert apples fit well with the strawberry operation. With 125 acres of tunnels and eight acres of glass, the farm supplies strawberries to Morrisons from early April until mid-November, producing in the region of 2,000 tonnes annually.

This year the major challenge for soft-fruit growers will be sourcing sufficient seasonal labour. Ben says, “Our aim every year is to grow a good crop which will help to keep and attract the best people. We employ about 200 seasonal workers, in the past mostly from Eastern Europe. We need to be the destination of choice with the best facilities and best crops so that pickers can earn the most money.” For this year”, Ben says, “We have a number of sources and whilst we are still [employing workers] mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, 15% of the workforce will be British. This is mainly to replace our Pilot Scheme workers who have been unable to travel”.

The substrate supplier has been Botanicoir from the start, working with their UK partners Agrovista. “We’ve never used anyone else’s bags and have no cause to do so”, says Ben. He has been pleased with the performance of Botanicoir’s latest innovation – Precision Plus Ultra – which combines three different types of particle, giving the mix a more open structure and better aeration. Mark Davies, Head of Fruit at Agrovista, stresses that the Botanicoir Precision Plus Ultra bags contain cubes of pith, not husk chip. He explains, “You can’t buffer the husk chips and they will break down and release high levels of sodium and potassium over a period of time.” The open structure and better aeration suits Ben’s operation well. He describes the Precision Plus Ultra mix structure as “very steerable – in spring the bags wet up more quickly and easily and continue to drain well as they get older; two-year old Precision Plus Ultra bags still perform well, and we can go for a third year of life with confidence, with more ultra-particles in the mix helping aeration”.

With two visits to see Botanicoir’s production facilities in Sri Lanka, Eric Drummond is well qualified to comment on the progress the company has achieved in the last five years or so. “On my first visit it was clear that they were making a very good product, very much ‘hands-on’, labour-intensive and using the sun’s energy to dry the coir”. Eric continues, “This year, on my return visit, there was manifestly a huge leap forward – far more sophistication in manufacture and mechanisation, whilst still being supportive of the local community with jobs in the factory. A lot of the machinery has been specifically made for them and huge strides and investment have been made to partially automate all of the processes”.

Eric was particularly impressed with the major investment in the specially designed drier, fuelled by a biomass boiler. As Eric points out, “Unpredictable weather worldwide is causing havoc, including monsoon rains, so the investment by Botanicoir in a state-of-the-art drier is reassuring. This is the most significant aspect of the leap forward that we saw, so the company is no longer reliant on the sun to dry the coir, which gives them consistent output whatever the weather”. This is the first mechanical drier of its kind; previous attempts at the mechanical drying of coir had resulted in damaged particles and a loss of quality in the final product. However, through years of extensive research, development and testing, the team of German engineers that worked with Botanicoir were successful in designing a system to avoid this sort of issue.

“The reason we use Botanicoir bags is that they are of consistent high quality, to establish our crops and fit with our production cycle”, says Eric. “We don’t believe there are other manufacturers doing such a good job. By working alongside and with us during our planning process they have always delivered product to our farm when we want it. They have the ethos of a family business, you get to talk to the principles and that’s how I like to do business.”

Mark Davies adds, “2020 has become a challenging year for many businesses. By their very nature, soft-fruit producers are very resilient and adapt to change very quickly – it goes with the territory. I have seen many fine examples around the country of growers making changes one step at a time, to ensure that their businesses are as watertight as possible in the face of much uncertainty. The recruitment of labour, housing and transport have all had to be re-assessed. In the midst of this we are asking growers to make decisions on planting plans for 2021, earlier than ever. Several weeks of lockdown, in both Sri Lanka and India, will undoubtedly affect the availability of coir raw material for the coming season. As a consequence, we are doing our best to help Botanicoir construct the production plan ahead of time, to enable us to secure supply. Growers have been very understanding, and our loyal users have been happy to provide the information for us to plan as well as possible. Without this, things could look very different in the autumn. I guess this is where working with farms for over 10 years has its advantage. There is a great deal of trust – both ways.”

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