Crushing rapeseed is a booming business, as Gary Scattergood discovers
I started working at the farm when I was 20 after being thrown out of agricultural college you'd have to ask them why! I took over the running of the farm when I was 22.
The Larchwood Foods project is a development of the conventional farming business a profession the Mason family has been involved with since 1785.
UK and indeed world agriculture is under considerable pressure and this was a development to challenge that in a way that would enable us to grow the business while targeting a sector of the oil business that we think has great potential.
About three years ago, a small group of us sat in a room for a few days and tried to decide how we would expand the business. The traditional model for a farm is to buy a field next door and expand that way. We looked at what was happening to agriculture and how to address the threats of being dominated by politics and put together a number of ideas.
The overriding guideline was that it had to be an area we understood, it had to fit in to our ability to control price and it had to be free from political interference in terms of being able to develop a long-term business plan.
We had noticed that the rapeseed was a growing sector of the oil market. It was, and still largely is, dominated by a vast number of very small businesses. I'm not saying they are bad businesses, but the evolutionary model of business starts with many small players, which are gradually sorted out into a few rational and efficient businesses as the sector grows.
Lower price point
We wanted to grow the market by bringing the cost down. When we started this project, the standard 500ml bottle that you'll find in the supermarket was priced at £5 a bottle.
We thought that was far too expensive to grow the sector. Yes, there are foodies in Islington who will buy it to impress their friends, but we thought that was unreal for most people.
In the supermarket today you can buy a 500ml bottle of Mr Hugh's Extra Virgin for approximately £3 a bottle, and the single most important factor in enabling us to do that has been scale. That then put us at a price point against olive oil, which we would argue is very positive, especially when you look at its other benefits.
Rapeseed oil's main plus point is that it has half the saturated fats of olive oil. In addition, we keep in the tocophorels that refined oils take out.
In order to develop the food business, we decided to create a modern factory, but we built it inside traditional premises. From the outside, it looks like a chalk and flint barn that is more than 100 years old but, on the inside, it is fitted with state-of-the-art equipment.
We first commissioned the factory in November 2011 and we went into full production in March 2012.
We cater for what we see as three independent sectors of the market: retail trade, wholesale foodservice and food manufacture. We make two products for retail: a cold-pressed rapeseed oil called Mr Hugh's Extra Virgin and a more exclusive variety called Mr Hugh's Gourmet. This single-seed variety has an enhanced nutritional profile.
Oilseed is grown on the farm, so if it has a Mr Hugh's logo on it, it has been grown on our farms. It goes from the combine to the yard, and then 30 yards into the factory. It's a fully integrated business. On our scale, I don't think there is anyone else doing it that way. There are small-scale operations that supply farmers' markets and such like, but not on our level.
We package in 250ml, 500ml, 750ml bottles up to IBCs (intermediate bulk containers).
Our products are available in Tesco and Asda and, since the turn of the year, Sainsbury too.
We also produce what we call a professional range for foodservice and food manufacture.
From a retail perspective, being able to reduce the price by 3540% ensured that we weren't overly concerned with setting up this business in a time of recession. In times like this, people are increasingly price sensitive and that provides a great opportunity for us. The fact is, you have to have oil to cook with. We want to be able to appeal to the 6.5M people who go into a supermarket each day. That's our audience, not the foodies I mentioned earlier.
You can always talk yourself out of doing something, but if you believe in the product, the people you are working with and yourself then there is never a bad time to start.
The cycle starts in August, when we plant 35 seeds per square metre across our land, which is within a seven-mile radius of the plant, for harvest the following year. Each plant will grow to between six to seven feet tall and three feet across. We harvest in July and clean it up and put it into store in preparation for crushing.
When the factory calls for it, it goes into another cleaner where we make sure there's nothing in there that shouldn't be. No pesticides are used in any stage of the process and, because we have control of the supply, we are very confident about saying that.
It then goes into the drop scale before going into the holding tank, and then into the expellers. The expellers act as corkscrews, cracking the coat and, as the seed goes down, the natural pressure increases and the meal is squeezed tighter and tighter, forcing the oil out.
We then collect the oil and take it to a holding tank before it is filtered. Before this, it looks like crude oil, but in the filter it becomes crystal clear. It is truly remarkable. It goes from near black to clear in almost the click of a finger. We then manually confirm the oil is clear before sending it through a polishing filter, ready for packaging, boxing and then distribution.
In terms of food miles, from the very start of the process to the end of production, we are often talking about metres instead.
We are currently running a single shift, but the plant is designed to run 24 hours a day, so it is clearly our aim to increase production over time. The expeller is happiest when it is running 24 hours a day.
I'm pleased with how we are progressing and that is down to our high-quality staff. Everyone here brings something special to the table. That said, we have had our hiccups along the way. We've been successful in areas we thought we'd struggle in and perhaps less successful in areas we thought we would do well in.
The retail sector has taken off much more quickly than we'd predicted, foodservice is about where we thought it would be, but food manufacture, at the minute, is not where we would like it to be. We have not been able to present our gourmet brand to manufacturers, which is very strong and very tough and very competitive when priced against olive oil in a way which should lead them to bite our arms off. We've got some work to do on that because we genuinely think it has a place in this area and will bring considerable advantages to our customers, both in terms of price and saturated fat.
We already supply a number of reputable food manufacturers, but we want to supply more of them. When we do increase the numbers of manufacturers taking our product, I believe that this side of our business will take off very quickly indeed.
LOCATION: Larchwood Foods, Fincham, Norfolk
STAFF: 18 (across the food and farming business)
PRODUCTS: Several rapeseed oils under the Mr Hugh's brand, for retail, foodservice and food manufacture
OPERATING HOURS: A full shift either five or six days a week, with the capacity for expansion
OUTPUT: 500,000l a year
NAME: Hugh Mason
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: This project is a particular highlight.
DOMESTICS: I'm divorced and have three children.
OUTSIDE WORK: I dive and enjoy skiing.