Royal Oak Farm – taking on the organic challenge

Royal Oak Organics is a great example of how you can make small-scale growing work. Adrian Tatumtalks to Cheryl Carrithers about what it takes to make it a success.

Lancashire is home to some of the best vegetable growing land in the country and home also to some of the best vegetable growers. Ormskirk-based Royal Oak Farm was always going to work as a business. Indeed, it had to. It was given to two sons, Peter and Andrew Lydiate, to manage after their father died at a young age in an accident. But like many growing enterprises, the farm initially struggled to survive financially. This led to the creation of a new business – Royal Oak Organics – as the farm was converted to organic production after years of conventional growing of crops such as carrots, swedes and potatoes.

The extra margins from growing organically got the farm back on track after the company started by supplying Huntapac with cabbage and a few other crops. “But we didn’t enjoy the experience of supplying the supermarkets and so we decided to move on by supplying a wholesale market and the business grew from there,” says Cheryl Carrithers partner of Peter Lydiate – owner of the farm.

Now the company supplies several wholesale markets including ones in London, Bristol and Scotland with a wide range of vegetables crops, grown over 300 acres, including novel crops such as red sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli. “We are keen to trial and grow as many different crops as possible. I think at one stage we had over 100 different ones but that has been scaled down to about 70.

“Many of our customers supply veg box schemes so they are always looking for different and exciting new products to put in them. I think consumers almost expect something different in their boxes every time they receive them – they don’t just want the regular stuff anymore and that presents a really exciting challenge for us,” she says.

But although the margins are higher in organic growing, so are the costs. “The difference we noticed straight away even though it has been 20 years since we converted, is the difference in cost. Organic growing is much more labour intensive. You can’t use the same machinery and the weeding costs more. These costs are rising each year while there is pressure at the same time to keep the cost price of organic produce at a lower level than it was before,” adds Ms Carrithers.

The biggest challenge to the business in the last few years hasn’t necessarily been financial though. It has been the weather. “Just two years ago we wouldn’t have mentioned the weather if you had asked that question,” she says, “but in the last few years we have had crops wiped out by floods, and last summer’s drought, as well as the Beast from the East which we witnessed in March last year, which made things very difficult,” she adds.

In 2018 Royal Oak Organics also had a crop of carrots and beetroots destroyed by the heat. One was an expensive, novel variety and that meant everything had to be re-sown. “We just don’t know what is around the corner next. This financial year we will be down on income and profit but we will survive and we may gain from improved prices for cauliflower and broccoli which we’ve witnessed in recent months,” says Ms Carrithers.

“It does make you think about the approach we take. We will have to carefully ‘cherry-pick’, certain varieties in the future that are more hardy. However, we don’t want to divert from our plan of growing the more unusual varieties because that is one of our many USP’s as a business.”

When it comes to machinery on the farm, Peter Lydiate’s experience as an engineer has come in handy because of the constant need to maintain and adapt equipment. “We have adapted mechanical weeders that have been admired by other growers and it is important that we continue to invest when and where we can,” she says.

Will fully-automated machinery ever be needed on the farm? “The idea sounds fantastic, but I am not sure it will really work on many organic farms because they just don’t have the huge acreages to make this sort of equipment work,” says Ms Carrithers.

How is the business coping with rising labour costs? “There’s massive pressure on any business no matter how small or large. For us it is still difficult, but you just have to pay. We are paying agency staff £10.40 an hour now which is big money to find for a small business and good labour is hard to come by. It has also been difficult recently for the foreign workers on this farm. They feel victimised and like they shouldn’t be over here. They have been working with us for years and are very hard working, so it is a real shame.”

Ms Carrithers feels that the popularity of organic produce will continue despite the challenges of the last recession. “It had a big impact on us and other growers. Many left the sector but that did leave us with some very dedicated growers who wanted to try and continue no matter what, and the interest from the public is on the rise again.”

While supportive of the Soil Association’s (and other key organic organisations) support for organic farming as well as the ethics and sustainability, Ms Carrithers thinks that more needs to be done to promote the taste of organic produce. “A lot of focus is on the sustainability, environmental and health benefits, but we rarely hear about taste and any grower knows that is vital. The first time I tasted organic produce it was the taste that resonated with me more than anything,” she says. “I think that is part of the reason why we have had the policy of trying to grow varieties that are a bit different; we want the public to experience these great new innovations which makes growing them all worthwhile.”

Back on the farm and much effort has been put into improving soil structures. “Obviously rotation is crucial and it is surprising how long it takes to get that right, but it is also about what you put into the soil. If you put the right thingsin, you get the right thigs out. We will add as much manure and other organic matter at the beginning of the growing process as we can, and then add foliar feeds such as seaweed as well.”

To combat pests and diseases, the farm has used liquid garlic with great success. “It is expensive but does address a number of issues for us. We find it will distract pests from attacking the roots of our plants as they can smell the garlic instead of the plants” says Ms Carrithers. “We are also focusing more on what is grown in our field margins and that has worked in terms of encouraging more natural predators into the fields at the right time,” she adds.

And so to the future. What is in store for Royal Oak Organics? “At some point we would like to invest in a small pack house with refrigeration, as we think that could make a real difference to the way we operate. We tried to do it a few years ago but that was curtailed by two challenging seasons in a row. I think apart from that, everything will be a balancing act. We want to grow and expand still but can’t do so too quickly. We have learnt the hard way in this business. It is a lot of hard work and your family life does suffer. But we have enjoyed the journey and feel better for growing this way.”