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The impact of lockdown on a small Sussex farmer and producer

Tom Stephens and Pete Hazell at Wobblegate farm

The economic impact of the current lockdown will have long-reaching impacts not only on the hospitality industry but also other businesses across the food and drink chain. Nick Mosley talks to Tom Stephens of Wobblegate Farm in Bolney to see how the lockdown has impacted a small Sussex grower and the outlook for the future.

Whilst we are all still buying food and drink from supermarkets, many small farmers and food and drink producers are struggling to get their produce to market. Typically these are businesses that don’t have the level of production that can supply the volume demanded by national chains, yet are well recognised brands that we have come to know and love in Sussex’s farmers markets and independent food stores, restaurants and bars.

Wobblegate is a producer of apple juices and ciders, and will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed the restaurant and bar scene of Brighton and Hove over the past ten years. Operated by Tom Stephens, the apple orchard and processing is located at Bolney on the family-owned farm. The country life sounds like a dream to many cooped up city dwellers at this time however this is not the first time an economic slump has badly affected the farm.

“In the early 1990’s there was a crisis in the fruit market”, said Tom. “It led to many orchards over the country having to shut down, and force farmers and growers to diversify into other things to survive. My dad was one of those but, unlike many, we still kept our orchards. So in 2009 I decided to try and resurrect them, save our farm business and give it a future by making the best juices and ciders we could”.

Today Wobblegate produces a range of crushed fruit juices combining apples with raspberry, elderflower, pear and rhubarb, alongside canned and cask ciders. Made using traditional apple varieties and methods, these high quality products have been a constant on the menus of many local hospitality businesses and also won Tom and the team numerous accolades at local and national levels.

“We’ve been hit massively”, said Tom. "Of all of our trade customers, the majority are cafés, restaurants and pubs. With everyone closed we have had to do the same. Our direct to trade sales account for about 90% of our business”.

The Cider Tap shop and tap room opened at Wobblegate farm last year

Seeing a chance to diversify and grow income, last year Tom invested considerably in a new on-site tap room featuring a range of both his ciders and a selection from other small producers from across the south of England. With the lockdown, The Cider Tap and its adjoined shop are firmly closed.

“It was an effort to take the reliance of our business away from just trade customers”, said Tom. “Our tap room is seasonal and relies heavily on summer weekend trade. We are yet to see what the situation will be like over the next few months, but we don't expect to be doing an awful lot of trade direct to the consumer this year from our tap room”.

The lockdown has created a greater impetus for businesses to adapt their model and bring forward plans that had sat on the back burner.

“Our shop too is currently closed”, said Tom. “We are having to look into what other opportunities there are with our retail business when we reopen; whether stocking items other than our juices and ciders would make it more viable to keep open. We are looking at opening an online shop to run parallel, making us a more consumer-focused business, although that means new types of packaging for our products”.

Perhaps surprisingly, Tom feels that the government hasn’t really stepped up to support farmers such as himself.

“Farming is a bit of a grey area when it comes to support from the government during this crisis”, he said. “Even though we are a small business – and our tap room falls into hospitality – we don't qualify for many of the grants. As we have lost nearly all of our sales we have fortunately been able to make use of the furlough scheme with the majority of our team furloughed until we can start trading sufficiently again. This has helped us protect their jobs which is crucial to our survival”.

The closure of the hospitality industry is not only impacting Wobblegate. Across the UK, dairy farmers are finding they have a milk surplus because coffee shops and cafés are closed; it goes without saying, it’s hard to turn off the tap – or teat – of dairy herds when the demand for fresh milk drops. Equally some poultry farmers are in the unfortunate position of having to destroy perfectly edible freshly laid eggs because overall market demand has fallen.

In terms of the just-in-time supply chain that we take for granted in the West, many farmers are struggling to know when – or even if – to pick their crops because they don’t typically have the capability to store their produce on-site; it goes straight from the field to processing.

A typical harvest at Wobblegate farm

For Tom, he’s thankful that it’s not currently picking season for apples, but looking to later this year he has concerns about keeping his team socially distanced and whether it will be financially viable to pick the entire crop this year.

“We’re a small team, and fortunately we don't intensively farm our crop, so luckily the orchard doesn't need an awful lot of maintenance at this time of year”, he said.

“When it comes to harvest time, with picking we will be able to stick to social distancing however for some bottling tasks we won’t so we will have to look at how we can address that and potentially have to outsource”.

“We also have to look at the affordability of employing staff, whether to pick all our fruit and how much product we make, if we are still struggling to sell our products”.

Whilst confident in the future of Wobblegate with its ability to be flexible and adaptive within a rapidly changing marketplace, Tom is less optimistic about the hospitality industry that he serves and has built the mainstay of his business on.

“I think the hardest times for businesses like us will be when things initially re-open”, he said. “There will be no money. [Trade] customers will want to restock on credit and we will have to try to afford that, though we will need to restock ourselves”.

“If businesses can – that's if they can – they will borrow more, but a lot of businesses in the hospitality industry purely run in debt, and there's the issue of old debts and invoices to be paid”.

“My fear is a lot of businesses in this chain will see that this is all too much debt and fold, leaving big holes in finances of other businesses. There will then be a ripple effect on businesses folding over the next two years at least. It’s going to take a long time to recover, but we will”.


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