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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
comprising wheat, barley,
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.
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.”
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