n A highly sophisticated growing and processing operation has picked up a top NFU award. Julian Hunt reports Aroot vegetables business in Suffolk, which has invested £6m in a 77,000 sq ft state-of-the-art processing factory in the heart of its main growing region, has been named farming entrepreneur of the year in the NFU President's Awards 2002. The judges were impressed not only by the scale of Frederick Hiam's investment but also by the fact the company could demonstrate how it was bringing the food chain closer together, taking advantage of new technology and benefiting the rural economy. Frederick Hiam's Christopher Wilson says: "The investment was made to stabilise fluctuating returns, provide long term security for the business, allow us to become closer to the consumer and to support the local farming community." He adds: "The factory is one of the largest of its kind in the UK and is able to take produce directly from the field and process it to varying levels of sophistication, right through to peeled and ready to eat. "We are preparing to embark on a further investment to allow us to cook, add sauces and marinades and fully prepare our own ­ and other growers' ­ vegetables. To date we have been successful in developing business with multiple retailers, other prepared food manufacturers and supply direct to the major wholesale markets." The factory is run by Frederick Hiam Foods, the company's prepared foods division, which is headed by Wilson with an expert team brought in from the prepared foods industry. The business prides itself on being a totally integrated producer, says Wilson. "We can take product from the field and prepare it for point of purchase all under one roof. We have cut out a number of middlemen and offer technical integrity, reduced food chain costs and response times not associated with traditional, fragmented channels of supply. By dealing directly with the ultimate marketer we can grow crops and process them to the exact needs of the consumer in an efficient and effective way." He adds: "The business is in the middle of our main production area, so we can monitor our crops and minimise the transportation of raw materials ­ bringing quality, environmental and economic advantages." Technology is at the heart of the new facility, with particular attention paid to the way product is handled through its lifecycle. One impressive feature of the factory's design is the ability to use water drawn from boreholes, which is then cleaned and stored ready for irrigating crops. That makes the factory a "net zero user of water", according to Wilson. Although Frederick Hiam was the runaway winner in this category ­ sponsored by Asda and The Grocer ­ the judges were highly impressed by the runner-up. John Davies, aged 72, set up the Welsh Hook Meat Centre with his brother 10 years ago in a bid to boost the profitability of his lowland beef and lamb enterprise. The business is now the leading specialist in organic meat in Wales and turns over more than £2m a year. The Great British food award was won by Mark Houghton-Brown of Wiltshire-based Pertwood Partners whose ability to build a strong brand that fills a gap in the market impressed the judges. He produces five types of oat-based, wheat-free breakfast organic cereal appealing to consumers with allergies and high cholesterol. He also produces seven stoneground flours, milled by water power in the traditional way. The products are targeted at high-end consumers interested in a healthy lifestyle and, in two years, sales have increased tenfold to £10,000 a week. His cereals and flour sell through health food and farm shops, farmers' markets, supermarkets and direct to the consumer. The business is going so well, in fact, that the farm must source produce from other Wiltshire organic growers. Other winners were: young farmer of the year, James Coleman of Creedy Carver Ducks; farming woman of the year, Gillian Van Der Meer of Oak Bank Farm; biodiversity award, David Passmore of Mays Farm; David Brown award, John Pudge of Hop Pocket Craft Centre. n {{FEATURES }}