Saying yes: The Road to Busi­ness Success

The Cornish pasty has been a staple in the diet of Cornish people and further afield for years, but what is it like to supply the vegeta­bles that go into this famous regional deli­cacy? Aaron Finu­cane and Ruth Wills find out.

Set on the rugged Rame Penin­sula, the fields which are filled with bright daffodils and abun­dant with vegeta­bles have one of the best views of the coast­line in Corn­wall. It sounds like an idyllic place to farm, and is one that Jeremy Oatey knows well, having built his busi­ness up to 1,456ha, including the Antony Estate. But it’s not the future he had planned for himself, so how did he get there?

After grad­u­ating from Seale Hayne Agri­cul­tural College, Mr Oatey worked in a national farm busi­ness manage­ment company, managing land for pension funds in Hamp­shire, Wilt­shire, East Anglia and York­shire. “I was in my late 20s when I was head­hunted to come back to Corn­wall by a Dutch man, who was based in Lincolnshire and had bought a farm with a daffodil busi­ness, so I moved back to run the busi­ness,” he says. “Through that we started a share farming agree­ment to grow daffodils on the Antony Estate.”

If you have good people, you have to look after them.

Jeremy Oatey

In 2004, he was offered the oppor­tu­nity to take on the estate’s 121ha potato and daffodil busi­ness on a contract basis. “I rotated the crops around the estate with another grower, but after a while the estate just wanted one person to manage it, and I was the lucky one. So, I ended up taking on the whole 404ha of arable land overnight. It was a bit like – say yes and then work out how to do it after.”

From there, he had more offers of contract farming arrange­ments. “I had worked with contract farming in East Anglia, but it was quite a new concept in Corn­wall at the time.” This allowed him to grow the vegetable side of the busi­ness. “Because of the Cornish pasties, the vegeta­bles were a massive market right on our doorstep.”

Cornish Pasties

A pasty is a British pastry in which an uncooked filling is placed in the centre of a flat short­crust pastry circle. The tradi­tional Cornish pasty is filled with beef, sliced or diced pota­toes, swede (also called yellow turnip or turnip) and onion, and it is seasoned with salt and pepper. The edges of the short­crust pastry are pressed together to seal the pasty, then it is baked.

Vegeta­bles for the Pasty Industry

Mr Oatey now supplies the Cornish pasty industry. “We were already supplying wheat for the flour in the Cornish pasty pastry, and they were looking for a new supplier for pota­toes. I saw it as a way of adding value, so we started supplying washed pota­toes, and it grew from there,” he explains.

“They were finding it diffi­cult to source onions because once they’re peeled, they have a very short shelf life, so we started doing a small amount of peeled onion just to shorten the supply chain. And it expanded from 1there with other pasty bakeries in the county. “We have diver­si­fied from there, into the wider food service market – peeled and prepared vegeta­bles,” he says.

“Our pasty customers have grown and gone into supplying super­mar­kets, doing different types of prod­ucts, so they need leeks, carrots, butternut squash and sweet pota­toes.”

The busi­ness now processes between 140 and 150t of vegeta­bles every week.

Growth in the customer’s market has also led to the devel­op­ment of a prepa­ra­tion and pack house at the farm which allows the vegeta­bles to be prepped to different spec­i­fi­ca­tions from washed to finely diced. “It evolved over time, so we didn’t have to invest massively all in one go, and as time has moved on we have worked on improving effi­ciency.”

They now process between 140 and 150 tonnes of vegeta­bles a week. “It started as a farm diver­si­fi­ca­tion then, as the busi­ness got bigger, we sepa­rated it to become a food busi­ness that sits along­side the farming busi­ness.”

But it wasn’t where he thought he would end up. “If you’d asked me when I was 18, I would have said I would prob­ably end up being a live­stock farmer, but when the oppor­tu­nity presents itself, you have to take advan­tage of it.”

In terms of land manage­ment, he has grid sampled all the fields to combat fertiliser price infla­tion. “Any fertiliser spread will be at a vari­able rate according to what’s needed, and we have started switching to liquid nitrogen because that seems to be more effi­cient, with more precise appli­ca­tion. “Severe infla­tion concen­trates the mind on what you need. We cut our nitrogen levels back last year from 220kg/ha on the wheat to 180kg/ha, and we had higher yields than normal.”

Jeremy grows onions for Cornish pasties, as well as supplying other food service outlets.
Because of the reli­a­bility and the good distrib­utor, Jeremy Oatey uses John Deere trac­tors.

With the help of a fleet of ten trac­tors

And he has an impres­sive fleet of trac­tors, to assist with all the field work. “We have 10 John Deere trac­tors; the biggest is a 7330R, which mainly does our ploughing and culti­va­tions. Then we have 6250R which does a lot of drilling and have just taken delivery of two 6185 trac­tors which will do a lot of spraying and destoning, then a couple of 155Rs and a couple of 145Rs. Not forget­ting two John Deere combines,” says Mr Oatey.

“We used to have a mixed fleet, but we’ve found John Deere to be the most reli­able with a good dealer network – they have good people and really decent after sales support.”

Daffodils for super­mar­kets

One of the orig­inal crops he started with –daffodils – is still growing strong now, covering 80ha of both flowers and bulbs. “The flowers mainly go to UK and Euro­pean super­mar­kets, and the bulbs are mainly exported to the US and into Europe for garden centres,” he says.

“They are rotated with our cereal crops, and we try to leave seven or eight years between the daffodil crops. They are quite an inten­sive crop, January through to April is flower picking, then from June to August we are lifting the bulbs, then planting in September.”


1.456 ha 
in total

192 ha

809 ha
comprising wheat, barley,
oilseed rape,
oats and beans

Cattle and sheep that are outdoors a lot

Mr Oatey does still have a hand in the live­stock world, with a beef and sheep enter­prise. And he has recently moved away from lambing indoors in February, to lambing outdoors in April, to save money on feed and straw. “We didn’t really have enough shed space, and it was away from where the bulk of the sheep spent the rest of the year. It was so depen­dent on finding good people to do the lambing – that could make or break it,” he says.

“We have dabbled with seeing if we could lamb outdoors for a couple of years; the secret was to move it back late enough.”

On the cattle side, he buys in 120 three-month-old Angus cross dairy heifers a year and takes them through to finishing. “Ideally, they come in and have one winter inside then go back out to grass before coming back in to finish on forage and concen­trates.” Both lambs and heifers are finished and sold to leading super­mar­kets.

These sheep lamb outdoors in April. In total, there are 1,200 Mule cross Suffolk ewes plus 200 ewe lambs on the farm.

Versa­tile tasks within the company

With such a large busi­ness, how does he manage it all? One way was to take all the agronomy in-house. “I didn’t want to be tied into any one supply busi­ness, so I did my agronomy qual­i­fi­ca­tions and Rosie, who I employ, does the bulk of our agronomy. We source all our chem­i­cals through a buying group, to get the best value.”

All field work, aside from straw baling and lime spreading, is under­taken inhouse, too. “There are 15 farm staff and we might take on one or two more in the summer – finding good staff never gets easier.

We take on several students for year place­ments, but they tend to go home to the family busi­ness after grad­u­a­tion.” And some of Mr Oatey’s chil­dren get involved, too. “My daughter, Eliz­a­beth, runs the vegetable side, and my youngest son, William, does tractor work on the farm side, having just come back from New Zealand.”

The farm has its own processing facil­i­ties on-site, meaning it can supply a wide range of vegeta­bles, from washed to finely diced.

Finding good workers is a chal­lenge

So, what chal­lenges has he over­come along the way? “Finance and labour are the main ones – being able to grow the busi­ness. I started with nothing, so had to access finance to grow the busi­ness – the only way I can do that is with what I’m producing; I can’t go and borrow a lot of money because I don’t own the farm,” he says. “With labour – if you have good people, you have to look after them. We can provide them with a good career path if they want it – the oppor­tu­ni­ties are there.”

Success through coura­geous action

The busi­ness has gone from strength to strength over the years, with Mr Oatey’s ‘say yes’ atti­tude. “I think there have been a few occa­sions when oppor­tu­ni­ties have presented them­selves the year before you really want them, but if you don’t say yes, you prob­ably don’t get asked again,” he says.

For the future, he is working on effi­ciency throughout the busi­ness. “We can’t afford to waste time, so we’re focusing on atten­tion to the detail and costs, and training people to know the detail too.


  • 60-80ha of stew­ard­ship options, from grass margins to wild bird covers
  • 283ha grass
  • 1,200 Mule cross Suffolk ewes plus 200 ewe lambs, which then go to a Charo­lais or Innovis
  • Buying in 120 three-month old Angus cross dairy heifers a year for finishing