Farming: Family dig in to become fastest growers in Wolds

The Bannister family have not been afraid to diversify and their brand of potato products have proved a runaway success.
The Bannister family have not been afraid to diversify and their brand of potato products have proved a runaway success.

What better way to celebrate a milestone year for your farm diversification ‘project’ than to have it named among the nation’s fastest growing enterprises.

That’s exactly what Hilary and Rob Bannister have achieved, 30 years on from taking the plunge into the frozen food market.

It was quite a diversion, from farming on the Wolds to processing ready-baked potatoes for the shop shelves, but in doing so they tapped into a niche market that has since propelled them to annual sales worth £20.5m.

Momentum is behind their Carnaby-based business, Bannisters’ Farm, which has just been ranked number 36 in The Grocer magazine’s Fast 50, an annual round-up of the fastest growing privately owned food and drink businesses in the UK which also saw the likes of cider brand Thatchers and craft beer firm BrewDog listed.

The journey to this moment took plenty of experimentation, as Rob explained.

“We started growing alternative crops to improve the profitability of the farm during the 70s, some of which were successful and some which were decidedly not,” he said.

“We tried cabbages, beetroot, onions, carrots, operating as straw and hay merchants – we even grew kohlrabi (a relative of the cabbage, widely eaten in German speaking countries).

“On the potato front, we converted a carrot washer to wash potatoes and so began washing and grading potatoes, and after a while built up a reputation for Wolds washed potatoes with London restaurants buying from the fresh London markets.

“So we’d already diversified in various ways before this business was started. The baking and freezing project was another way of adding further value to our farming crop.”

Rob has never been afraid of trying something different on or off the farm.

“The idea was not just to do with the returns from farming, but also because of Rob’s innovative mind,” said Hilary.

“At one point, one of Rob’s inventions was on Tomorrow’s World which was notoriously the demise of any innovation, so a business founded on in-home exercising combined with gaming didn’t succeed, but did lead to making BMX bike arcade games to export to Singapore for a short time. With hindsight, it was probably a bit early but we still have two of them rusting in the shed.”

Rob and Hilary baked the first batch of potatoes grown on their farm in a small commercial oven at Carnaby in December 1985 and sold them into the catering trade.

Now, they go head to head with the big brands for space in the frozen aisles of major supermarkets.

Their range of products include jacket and roast potatoes, and filled potato skins with spuds supplied both from their own farm, as well as from others across Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

The couple still run their farming enterprise too, and so to get the Bannisters’ Farm brand off the ground, they turned to their daughters – Zoe, who operates as commercial director, and Marie, as sales director.

“Between them, they have got our Bannisters’ Farm brand off the ground,” said Hilary.

Zoe attributed much of the success to her father, saying: “Dad has a passion for innovation and it is that which has ensured the survival of the business. In the 1980s, potato storage was not as advanced as it is today, so dad’s idea was to use the freezing process to preserve the best quality baking potatoes in their baked state, rather than fresh.

“Back then, the idea of a frozen baked potato was ludicrous to many people but freezing is one of the oldest methods of preservation and to my father, was the obvious solution to the quality problems of fresh potatoes later in the year before the next potato harvest.

“By mid-2000s, we’d been supplying the foodservice sector with frozen baked potatoes for years, and it was when friends and family to whom we gave them asked for more, that we realised there was a gap in the supermarkets too.”

Hilary said: “It’s been a steep learning curve butwe’ve had a very rewarding 30 years working in the food industry and we’re delighted that it continues to grow as a family business in the true sense of the word.”