How Growing Rural Enterprise Ltd is helping county farmers
PUBLISHED: 09:00 27 May 2014
Derbyshire Life visits Julie White and Nick Platt of Growing Rural Enterprise Ltd, recipients of a Prince's Countryside Fund Grant
As office locations go, Growing Rural Enterprise’s would be hard to beat. Set in the heart of the rural community it serves, the project is based in what was once the estate office for Sudbury Hall, along the picturesque village’s main street, hidden from the busy A50, and opposite the historic 17th-century Vernon Arms. It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic place to be at work. This impression is reinforced after just one step inside the comfortable office where Julie White and Nick Platt, accompanied by terriers Spikey, Jake and rescue dog Fluffy, extend a warm and friendly welcome. By the time a mug of tea and a large tin of biscuits have appeared, it’s obvious that Nick and Julie are the type of reassuring and capable people you could trust with your problems and rely on to give you the best advice – or, if they don’t know, they’ll know someone who does.
The Prince’s Countryside Fund is committed to preventing the decline of rural communities by supporting rural enterprise through a variety of projects. Growing Rural Enterprise is currently benefiting from its second grant allocation from the Fund. Nick and Julie are the backbone of the project they set up to offer business help and support to rural businesses to help them start, develop and grow. They can provide an essential objective eye and impartial advice that helps members of the farming community look at their existing resources and explore new ways of working.
Julie and Nick first worked together at a land-based college – Julie’s background is in horticultural education and Nick’s in agricultural – and they began working with the farming community after the ravages of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001. The devastating effect of losing both income and pedigree stock that had in some cases been built up over generations left many farmers needing to look at ways of diversifying to maximise income. Nick and Julie also believe passionately that people should do something that they really love. They set up a 30-week course to look at diversification and when it proved a success, the obvious next step was the formation of Growing Rural Enterprise.
Nick explained, ‘A lot of people were suffering and there was a lot of stress in the rural community. We worked with various organisations supporting farmers, aiming to help them look at where they were and where they wanted to go. For many it wasn’t simply a case of losing animals: the crisis broke up families.’
‘The project is all about farming and supporting the people who manage the countryside. We believe in keeping the core business but also looking at extra activities, for example looking at the viability of new ideas to create a living wage for sons or daughters so they can stay on the farm. We look at alternative strategies, providing a combination of training, business advice, mentoring and accounting. I suppose you could call ours a holistic approach. We can advise on everything from basic marketing and finance right through to producing five-year cash flows or helping to write a health and safety policy.’
Nick acknowledges the debt they owe to the Fund: ‘The Prince’s Countryside Fund has been invaluable in allowing us the freedom to get on and do what needs doing. It’s fantastic for us and the farmers because there are no barriers to how we can help. People visit us for help on all kinds of things: a bit of IT support, web-page design, budgeting, marketing skills, and next-generation planning – which is another really important thing. A few hours talking about planning for the future of a farm now can save thousands or even tens of thousands in the future. Having the help of the Fund has allowed us to get in early, open up lines of communication and start the process.’
An important part of Nick and Julie’s job is to look at the nuts and bolts of a project, putting together financial plans with a dispassionate eye and advising whether an idea is workable or not. Nick also comments, ‘You don’t really want people to go down a road that won’t feed something back into the community – whether it’s financial, social or to do with conservation, there has to be some sort of feedback, too.’
Projects so far undertaken include working with Andy and Annamarie Stone’s Walled Garden project and the turkey business of Richard and Deborah Calcott. Julie also mentions working on setting up a farm holiday cottage and helping a young man keen to run his own contract tree surgery and horticulture business. Another success story has been Staffordshire Savoury Eggs – producers of the delicious scotch eggs familiar to many from farmers’ markets and food stalls at local shows. Based at Stanley, near Endon, Debbie Hodgkinson and her husband had free-range eggs and pork so decided to marry the two and have created a successful business that now employs a staff of five. From initial help with costings and research to more recently looking at IT solutions, use of smartphones and packaging, Nick and Julie have provided invaluable support. Other projects have included bed and breakfasts, basket making and making woollen goods, weaving and spinning for small flocks, fishery, a farm shop and setting up a children’s farm.
Although assisting younger people and upland farming are priorities, Nick and Julie don’t deal exclusively with those businesses, and although their clients are mainly in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, they have worked further afield. Nick says, ‘We never say no to any client who comes through the door. They have our email address and we offer continuing support. That’s why the PCF has been so good for us – we’re on our second allocation of funding and it’s allowed us to continue supporting people… Things change, you have to keep up to date and be flexible.’
Nick and Julie also run training courses on such things as practical butchery and sausage or burger making, media, marketing and using social media and hope to expand these in the future. Other future plans include the WELLIES project (Wellness Education Learning Laughter Inspiration Environment Skills) they set up in 2009 which offers therapeutic activities on farms with animals, plants and the countryside for people recovering from mental illness. So far 700 people have benefited from days out on farms, fishing, creating flower arrangements, harvesting vegetables and making soup. A key part of the day, cooking and eating lunch, has even resulted in WELLIES’ own recipe book.
As Nick concludes, ‘Farming is a way of life and it’s important to find the best, most efficient way of working. It’s also important to enjoy what you’re doing and the more the project progresses the more we realise the richness and diversity of countryside businesses that are vital to the rural economy.’
For details view www.growingruralenterprise.co.uk
The Prince’s Countryside Fund – The public can make a donation online at Virgin Giving at the Post Office or by text. Text PCF to 70300 and a £3 donation will be made to The Prince’s Countryside Fund.