William Chase was 20 when he bought his father’s 75-acre farm, Tyrells Court, near Leominster in Herefordshire, in 1984 with a £200,000 loan from the bank, having just left the Royal Agricultural College. From the outset, he knew it would be an uphill battle to make a living from the land, even if he did farm potatoes, a more profitable crop than most. “You’re producing very basic commodities, and once it gets to the supermarkets, if there’s any money left over in the food chain, very little of it goes to the farmer,” he says.
The size of the loan meant that the farm was heavily indebted from the start. By 1992, the economic climate was pushing him further into debt, until he was declared bankrupt. “I was borrowing at 28% and 50% of my repayments were going on interest,” he says. But though it was one of the hardest things he has ever gone through, he maintains it served as an important character-building experience. “I learned about how a business works and it taught me how to operate. You can’t buy experience.”
Chase was quickly on his feet again when he saw an opportunity that had gone largely untapped by producers. Supermarkets had begun selling vegetables in even larger quantities, and by supplying them he had “a great business” for several years in the 1990s. But the cracks began to appear as the supermarkets soon started squeezing suppliers, demanding lower prices and sourcing cheaper potatoes from eastern Europe.
Convinced that diversification of the farms business was needed, Chase began looking for a different means of making money from potatoes. And he found it after borrowing an old fryer from a fish and chip shop, and tested making his own potato chips in it. To his surprise, they were delicious, and he immediately went about learning how to make and sell them on a larger scale. In January 2002, he travelled to Spain and America, looking for the equipment he would need and asking advice from others already in the business. The experience convinced him his idea could work, so in 2003 he invested £1.5m in the new venture, of which £800,000 was borrowed against the farm. It was a risk and, as he admits, it wasn’t until the factory for the new business was built that he finally thought, “Uh-oh, I’m going to have to make this work.”
He need not have worried. As soon as he began making them, the orders rolled in. Three years later, Tyrrells boasts a turnover of £10m a year, and the farm has expanded to 1,000 acres – on top of which, he rents other allotments. As he explains, the success all comes down to turning the basic spud into a recognised brand, adding innumerably to its value. “It all comes down to brand integrity,” he says. No pesticides are used on the potatoes, they’re fully traceable and customers appreciate that quality and honesty. “At the beginning, we thought we would do it as a sideline to the main potato business, and thought that the farm would subsidise the potato chips.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.