The owners of a farm near Newport Pagnell received a pre-Christmas boost after a £12,000 LEADER grant enabled them to mechanise their Christmas tree business, safeguarding jobs and increasing productivity in the process.
Chris and Jenny Letts have 25,000 Christmas trees across 18 acres of Stoke Lodge Farm, having planted their first back in 2001. After inviting people to visit the farm during Christmas of 2006 to choose their favourite tree, they realised that a ‘pick your own tree’ business would go down well. Sales grew year upon year, but after years of weed control, pruning and applying fertiliser by hand, the Letts’ knew they had to embrace mechanisation in order to fulfil their future growth potential.
Enter the LEADER Programme. “We received a £12,000 grant from the LEADER Programme that enabled us to purchase a new specialist Christmas tree tractor and sprayer system which we use across our plantations,” explained Chris Letts. “This tractor allows us to mechanise many operations which were carried out by hand, which, with the amount of trees we have, was very difficult to cope with.”
The new machinery will ensure that work on the 25,000 trees already planted will be more efficient, leading to better quality trees, and potentially leading to more trees being planted in the future. This means jobs are safeguarded in the first instance, with jobs growth possible in the future.
“Without this grant funding it would have been difficult for us to cope with our existing tree numbers, let alone increase them,” says Chris, who outlines the time savings they expect to make with the tractor in full flight: “It takes 10 back-breaking minutes to prune one tree by hand; the new tractor will prune one tree every minute. It takes 45 minutes to fertilise 1,000 trees by hand; the tractor will do this in 10 minutes. It takes several days to spray 5 hectares of trees by hand; with the tractor we will cover the same ground in a day, plus we now have the capability to spray from overhead.”
On hand every step of the way to support Chris and Jenny, as ever, were the LEADER team, as Chris confirms: "The LEADER team were very helpful throughout the whole application process, giving invaluable telephone support and advice the whole way through. Their workshops also look an excellent starting point for anyone looking to start an application, as they give good advice as to how to approach the paperwork. The LEADER team are very good in being in regular touch to guide you through the whole process, and letting you know all the timescales on each part of the application."
Any business owner will appreciate the productivity benefits that follow time savings such as these, and this type of outcome is a priority for the LEADER Programme too. “Chris and Jenny’s project was a pleasure to fund,” says Will Dallimore, LEADER Programme Manager. “LEADER places great emphasis on supporting farm and forestry productivity, and seeing how much quicker and easier it will now be for Stoke Lodge Farm to do their day to day work, it is great to know that this £12,000 grant will contribute to the increased productivity and growth of a rural micro business.”
Chris expects a busy Christmas period for Stoke Lodge Farm: “We open for four weekends before Christmas Day and have customers who travel from London and the Cotswolds to visit us for their tree.”