Pressing matters - Hillfarm Oils celebrates 10 years
PUBLISHED: 11:54 02 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:54 02 September 2014
Frances Hopewell-Smith visits the family business at Heveningham, celebrating their first decade of producing rapeseed oil
Spending time at the home of Hillfarm Oils is a very uplifting experience.
Arriving early in the morning at their tidy and tranquil farm, the office is already humming and full of people. Sam and Clare Fairs show me into their comfortable meeting room (complete with inviting armchair – just for power naps, of course) and over several cups of coffee it becomes clear that everything they do is done with endless enthusiasm and a genuine love of their brainchild business.
Sam’s parents have been farming in north Suffolk at Heveningham for nearly 50 years and until ten years ago the rapeseed they grew was used for animal feed and mass market vegetable oil. After the big recession every farmer was thinking of ways to diversify and it was at this opportune time that Sam and Clare decided to concentrate on developing their own rapeseed oil. They were the brave pioneers then but being the only producers in the UK meant every stage of the development took painstaking research and lots of trials and tests. No copycat shortcuts for them. Luckily they were young and full of energy and determination and, obviously, youth.
The tale of their early days is familiar to anyone who has started their own business – working ridiculous hours for six or seven days a week, pitching in and doing everything that needs doing and, like all successful entrepreneurs, it’s the belief in what they do that spurs them to find another gear when they’re on their knees with tiredness. Sam recalls a time when they used to finish work for the day, feed their two young children (and the dog) then settle down to stick labels on bottles while reading bedtime stories. So it’s not just women who can multi-task then.
The first ten bottles of rapeseed oil came out of their new press in 2003. The oil was tasted and tested and analysed and having got the all clear the Fairs launched their new product at the Suffolk Show in 2004. From then on most weekends were spent selling at farmers’ markets or shows and doing deliveries. Although, Sam says, because the children came too it often cost more in fuel and placatory treats than the takings. Clare has fond memories of Sam the farmer turning his hand to being salesman, persuading fellow countrymen to try this new-fangled oil. He obviously had a knack because very soon he was travelling around the country meeting deli owners, supermarket buyers and restaurateurs and convincing them that Hillfarm rapeseed oil was their missing ingredient. Then he landed the big one, a listing with Waitrose. The new business was up and pumping.
Outside of the office building I meet the cheerful production manager, Alistair, who runs the factory. He is very keen to show me all the shiny kit and I’m equally keen to see it. It may be strange but I always find machinery and factory workings fascinating and I linger over the newly-acquired gravity separator. Who wouldn’t? It’s gorgeous.
Next to it four enormous hoppers store millions of the tiny, poppyseed size grains of rapeseed ready to be fed into the pressing system. The oil is filtered and decanted into anything from handy bottles right up to massive 1000 litre containers. And that’s a lot of salad dressing. Alistair talks me through the production credentials: the factory is solar powered and there is very little waste. The pressed seed mush goes to animal feed and the oil residue sold as biofuel. Of course, there are more plans to reduce and re-use waste but I’m told in strictest confidence so my lips are sealed.
So we arrive in 2014 when Hillfarm Rapeseed Oil is a thriving, well-known business celebrating its tenth anniversary. Clare and Sam are immensely proud but still sometimes taken aback by what they have achieved and in spite of their trailblazing success they are no longer alone in the rapeseed oil market. Three of the big supermarkets even sell their own brand but, phlegmatically, Sam views this as an endorsement of rapeseed oil and says the competition keeps them on their toes. The Fairs are still full of ideas, the latest is a rapeseed hand wash and hand lotion set in a wooden tray. This is not, Clare explains, for the boutique hotels of this world, but for everyday use in ordinary homes. At its launch at the Suffolk show this year one elderly farmer, a stranger to handcare, admitted that not only had he never tried anything like the lotion before but that it was ‘quite nice’. Praise indeed. And both Clare and the farmer recognised this as a very special moment.