01 May 2019

Making a virtue of variety

From beef cattle, pigs and orchards to anaerobic digestors and glasshouses, the Hunnifords certainly haven’t rested on their laurels when it comes to growing the family farm business.

“Sometimes I wish we’d kept things a little bit simpler but as a business we’re always looking to the future and asking ourselves how we can make things better,” says Richard Hunniford, whose father, also Richard, took over the farm aged only 21 when his father died suddenly.

When he started running the farm in the mid-70s, Richard Sr focused his attention on the cattle, apple orchards and 12,000 or so egg-laying chickens, building up a very successful traditional farming business. He also invested significantly in the farm’s land bank, buying local land and even purchasing 400 acres in the south west of Scotland.

“That steady process of building up our land bank has put us in a strong position to invest in new enterprises and it means we have strong collateral to set against loans,” explains Richard Jr. And the family have certainly taken an entrepreneurial approach to growing the business.

A family affair

Having grown up ‘at Dad’s feet’ on the farm, Richard Hunniford’s sons always intended to come back and work with their father – Victor after he left school at 16 and Richard Jr after completing an Agriculture and Machinisation course at Antrim Agricultural College.

The three of them now run a very successful business turning over some £4m a year, with around 16 full-time employees. They each look after their own area – Richard Sr on beef and apples, Victor on cereals, Richard Jr on the anaerobic digestors – but support each other whenever needed.

“All the various parts of the farm have a role to play; some as money-makers in their own right, while others allow us to invest in new projects,” says Victor.

“The diversity is also really important as it gives us the security if one part of the business is struggling. For example, we lost 100 acres of grain with wet weather in 2017 but the income from the waste business helped fill the gap.”

Building up our land bank has put us in a strong position to invest in new enterprises.

Richard Hunniford Jr, Hunniford Energy

Profiting from waste

That waste business started with the Hunnifords collecting waste from local factories to use for land-spreading. While the farm enjoyed a good income through the gate fees received for collecting waste, Richard Jr saw an opportunity to build that side of the business even further by installing a 500-kilowatt anaerobic digestion (AD) facility.

It is the anaerobic digestor that probably represents the biggest investment for the Hunnifords in recent times, and they’re leading the way in Northern Ireland in this form of green energy.

“Our anaerobic digestor was the first in Northern Ireland to utilise food and bio waste exclusively,” explains Richard Jr.

“It’s now running well but we’ve learned some lessons along the way. We had developed our plans for the plant, but following a visit to a similar facility in Aberdeen, we ripped up those plans and started again. Like so much of what we do, it’s been a steep learning curve!”

The processed digestate now feeds back into the national grid and any electricity used on the farm comes from the digestor plant, reducing the Hunniford’s energy costs to zero.

“It’s been an excellent investment for us and despite the initial outlay has helped us significantly reduce costs from energy to the fertiliser we use on the farm,” says Richard.

“It is also a good story to tell for the factories that supply us because their waste is going to produce green energy.”

Diversification

While investing in the anaerobic digestors made sense from the beginning, buying a one-acre glasshouse from Holland, over the internet, may not have seemed such an obvious business decision.

It does, though, reflect the Hunniford’s entrepreneurial spirit and desire to futureproof the business so the family farm will continue to thrive for the next generation and beyond.

As Richard Sr says: “If you stand still in farming you will struggle in the future. You have to take chances in life and I’ve always backed the boys in whatever plans they have.”

The glasshouses are a case in point. Richard Jr is aware that they have a lot to learn about growing flowers but is confident that their initial outlay for the glasshouses will prove to be a sound investment.

“We’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way,” he says. “In the first year only half our lilies were ready for Valentine’s Day. The ones ready the next day were worth half the amount. You have to time your growing to the day, but if you get it right, there’s a lot of money to be made.”

If you stand still in farming you will struggle in the future. You have to take chances in life and I’ve always backed the boys in whatever plans they have.

Richard Hunniford Sr, Hunniford Energy

Valued support

The Hunniford’s desire to explore new opportunities and make the investments that will ensure the farm’s long-term future has been ably supported by the HSBC agriculture team.

“Since we moved our business to HSBC, their support has been invaluable and they’ve been willing to provide the loans that have allowed us to invest and grow the business,” says Richard.

“Nigel Young obviously knows the industry inside out and he’s taken the time to get to know us and the business. He knows what we’re trying to achieve with the business and their support has enabled us to invest in things like the glasshouses that will have a really positive impact on the business.”

Learn more about how your business could benefit from specialist support from HSBC UK by visiting our Agriculture pages. To speak to an agriculture specialist, please call 07387 245208 (Lines are open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday except public holidays).

You are leaving the HSBC Commercial Banking website.

Please be aware that the external site policies will differ from our website terms and conditions and privacy policy. The next site will open in a new browser window or tab.

You are leaving the HSBC Commercial Banking website.

Please be aware that the external site policies will differ from our website terms and conditions and privacy policy. The next site will open in a new browser window or tab.