How turning around a hop farm re-branded a whole farming sector

British Hop Association director Ali Capper  will be speaking at this year's Farming Conference at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern, which will focus on resilience in farming
British Hop Association director Ali Capper will be speaking at this year's Farming Conference at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern, which will focus on resilience in farming

A decade ago being a hop farmer no longer looked like a viable future business for Richard and Ali Capper, but in a quest to turnaround their farm Ali ended up raising the profile of the British hop industry.

Ali is a director of the British Hop Association and is a partner in the 200-year-old hop and fruit farm Stocks Farm on the Worcestershire and Herefordshire border, and she will be speaking at this year’s Farming Conference at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern, which will focus on resilience in farming.

“In 2011 Richard and I set a three year deadline for the future of hop growing on our farm, and to do that we had to take on the challenge of changing the whole way the industry talked about hops,” says Ali.

“The hops on the farm were not making enough profit, so we had to set a time limit because it just wouldn’t have been sustainable beyond that point.”

Ali carried out a great deal of research including a Nuffield Scholarship, on the international hop market, across Europe, the USA and Asia.

She worked with brewers, merchants, hop authorities, co-operatives and growers to rebrand the National Hop Association (of England Ltd) to the British Hop Association and to start behaving like a brand in the market - a subtle change which started to make a huge difference.

“What it did was help us understand what made British Hops special and different and to give British Hops a voice,” said Ali.

“Nobody around the world was talking about the hops from this country, but when it became British Hops, that changed the game.

“We developed a trade association logo, a ‘Brewed with British Hops’ logo for brewers to use and a website, and all this happened just as the explosion of the British craft beer scene took place.”

Stock Farms went from growing five hop varieties to now providing 10 today, plus over 25 experimental varieties, many of which has led to award winning beers.

A brewery, The Hop Shed, has also opened on the farm to maximise the most from the farm’s hops.

“This allowed us to not only continue hop farming, but also to grow and reinvest in the business too,” she says.

This was just one area of resilience Richard and Ali created around their business. Ali also set about looking at how the farm could make best use of other areas such as its production and supply of cider apples.

“If you look at the cider apple market, there is just a massive oversupply of them in the UK,” she said.

“What we decided to do was to start focusing on exports to grow our business and help it survive. Thankfully our exports are targeting the US market and not Europe, as with Brexit this could have been more problematic.”

That is not the only challenge Brexit has posed to Ali and Richard. She says Brexit has caused an even greater shortage in seasonal workers from Europe, something which is a focus in the work she does for the NFU as Chair of the national Horticulture & Potatoes Board.

“When you are trying to be resilient as a business, you identify an issue and rise to it by working to make change,” Ali commented.

With unemployment at a 41 year low in the UK and with lower unemployment rates across eastern Europe, Ali says it is becoming tougher to recruit the amount of staff needed, but that getting labour is essential.

“What a lot of people don’t understand about the horticultural sector is that between 40% and 70% of business turnover is labour cost,” she said.

“If you haven’t got workforce then you haven’t got a business, it’s a zero sum game. If we have no workforce next year we will not be able to pick, pack or grow our crops - we would go bust.

“Herefordshire alone needs between 8,000 and 10,000 seasonal workers a year, and yet the unemployment level is at only 2.4% compared to 3.8% nationally.”

Building a reputation as great employers and offering top class facilities which go above and beyond can help encourage a returning workforce.

“What we have done at home is put a massive investment into a new accommodation block providing free WiFi, right next to the brewery so workers can relax on a Friday evening when it is open to the public. It’s about making us an attractive business to work for.” she says.

Ali will speak at the evening conference as part of a panel aimed at inspiring farming businesses to achieve success.

Ticket to the conference prices are £20 in advance and £22 on the day, or for students, £10 in advance or £11 on the day.

This includes admission to both the afternoon and evening conferences and a networking buffet, taking place at 5pm before the evening conference.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit farmingconference.co.uk or call 01684 584 924.