Winners Follow-up: Charlie Fermor, 2019 Diversification Innovator of the Year – Large

In the short time since Charlie Fermor claimed the Diversification Innovator (large) of the Year title at the 2019 British Farming Awards, progress is showing no let-up at the Kent family farm with new ventures afoot.

Pioneers in their field could surely be one term to describe the approach of the Fermor family, claiming exclusivity not once, but twice in the dried fruit market.

They have always tried to stay one step ahead and, testament to this ethos, were the first British producers of airdried fruit crisps back in 2011 before more recently going on to launch and patent a new range based on owngrown fruit pastes.

For third generation business owner Charlie Fermor, winning the Diversification Innovator (large) of the Year category at the 2019 British Farming Awards offered a welcome confidence boost.

“We have never gone for awards in the past, but after a good year in 2019 we were proud of what we have achieved so far,” says Charlie.

“In this business you need to tell people what you are doing to move forward. There is no future in being subtle in today’s trading climate.

“Winning the award really spurred us on and gave the whole team a boost and as our name gets out there more, it becomes easier to sell the product.”

Growth of the business at Perry Court Farm, near Ashford, Kent, has been considerable since it was bought in 1947 by Charlie’s grandfather, Lionel.

Now spanning some 405 hectares (1,000 acres), innovation has long been central to the family businesses approach, from their early days supplying supermarkets with strawberries, to being one of the first to supply London farmers markets’ with soft fruits. In the latter stages came the development of their own direct sales avenues via an on-site farm shop as well as pursuit of other avenues.

“Not being able to sit still when it comes to the business is in the blood I think,” says Charlie.

“Call it bravery or stupidity, we’ve always been good at jumping into something new.

“Sometimes it does not work, and we have had countless failures, but when there is success, you are ahead of everyone else on the trend.”

Since the first fruit crisps went on sale in 2011, this arm of the business has all but doubled year-on-year. And, together with the new fruit paste venture now gathering pace, there have been some changes to the farm’s business structure since last year’s British Farming Awards ceremony took place.


Charlie is now solely responsible for the dried fruit side of operations, while the farming side is managed by Charlie’s parents, Martin and Heidi.

The initial move into dried fruit came about 10 years ago though, stemming from a surplus of apples on-farm and a distaste for waste.

Charlie had been experimenting with drying fruit as a way of minimising this, but it was after he completed his degree in agriculture at Reading University that the idea of potentially providing the farm with a new outlet was born.

“Dry fruit bars were a great trend about 10 years ago, but all of them were coming in from the United States,” he says.

“After spending some time over there garnering ideas after university, followed by a bit of trial and error at home, we came up with the idea of apple crisps.”

A major initial investment, Charlie says, was the drying machine to process the fruit which was specifically designed in America.

“It was basically a huge prune drier that arrived in three shipping containers,” he says.

“It took about six months to make and get into position here.”

With their success came a move-in from competitors and Charlie says one of his biggest regrets is not patenting the fruit crisp product after experiencing
multiple issues around plagiarism, specifically internationally.

Keen that history did not repeat itself, this became a priority for the most recently launched fruit paste products, which are essentially made using a process of chopping, dehydrating and drying apples at a low temperature. Significant investment is now underway as part of the new venture, including purchase of specialist processing equipment together with establishment of a new, 10ha cider orchard.

The aim is to reduce the businesses reliance on labour for fruit picking as well as move to harvesting and processing apples just once during the year, opposed to supporting fruit all year-round.

“It is much more cost efficient and less carbon-heavy to get the apples off at one time,” says Charlie.

“When there is success, you are ahead of everyone else on the trend”

“We were concerned about fulfilling labour requirements and costs involved before Covid-19, but now it has really hit home that we need to look at running a mechanised apple harvester to make the business profitable, rather than handpicking everything.”

When it comes to varieties for processing, Jonagold and Katy are firm favourites, mainly for their flavour.

“We are not adding sugar or flavourings to any of the products we are producing,” says Charlie. “So quality, tasty raw ingredients are crucial, and Katy especially will work well for mechanical harvesting.

“On the farm we grow more than 150 heritage varieties in total, and over the years we have been able to trial most of them to see which is best suited to the end product we are producing, and which are viable to be grown on a commercial scale.”

Considerable work too has been put into marketing the new fruit paste products.

The business became the first fresh food producer in the country to use compostable packaging, and, with the initial target market being the children’s healthy snack sector came the development and launch of a new product line, Freddie’s Farm.

“It hit home our business ethos and the surroundings in which the product is produced could be a huge selling point,” says Charlie.

“So, we have worked on turning that concept into a stylised cartoon based on my son, Freddie, which shows off who we are, what we do, how natural the product is and how we make it.”


Wholesale, retail, food service and export are among other outlets for the dried fruit products, with one of the biggest current challenges being the Covid-19 impact on some of these avenues.

Like many business owners, Charlie has been forced to adapt.

He says: “A bulk of our sales were in supplying products into schools pre-lockdown. I was terrified we were going to lose all of our hard work when closures were announced.

“Online orders have taken off though and we have succeeded in changing our platform quickly to shift the main of sales online, while continuing to supply some food retailers which have remained open.”

Conscious of the developing situation however, he says he is wary of moving to heavily into a particular market in response to the pandemic.

Charlie says: “The unique situation we are in now is going to come to an end and life is going to go back to normal at some point. We have to be ready for that to happen.”