An enterprise that's the reel deal

An organic trout farmer explains how he built his business up from scratch. By Midge Todhunter
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The Independent Online

Organic trout farmer Nigel Woodhouse arrived in the Lake District in 1981 with two ambitions: to be self-employed and to work near a lake. Infused with the philosophy that food should be as naturally produced as possible, he had a vision of commercially rearing trout in the virgin waters of a Cumbrian lake.

Organic trout farmer Nigel Woodhouse arrived in the Lake District in 1981 with two ambitions: to be self-employed and to work near a lake. Infused with the philosophy that food should be as naturally produced as possible, he had a vision of commercially rearing trout in the virgin waters of a Cumbrian lake.

For the first two years Woodhouse lived in a caravan in a nearby farmer's yard and worked evenings in local pubs for his daily subsistence. "My mission was to establish my own fish farm and sell fresh fish to local outlets," he says. "I went up into the woods and cut down four trees, nailed them together in a square and floated them out onto the lake. I then draped some netting in the square and stocked it with young trout, and that's how Hawkshead Trout Farm was born."

Woodhouse had learnt the trade working on a fish farm and had taken a six-month business course at a college in Essex before scouring the country for a suitable site to begin his trout farm enterprise. He also knew he wanted to work hard in the summer to free-up the winter months for other activities. It therefore seemed sensible to choose a busy tourist location - and they don't come much busier than the Lakes in summertime.

In terms of gaps in the market, there were other fish farms already in the Lakes but none was doing what Woodhouse wanted to do: his business would be as much a food enterprise as a tourist attraction. He knocked on doors and explained his idea, mostly receiving short goodbyes. But he eventually pin-pointed three potential sites, and in 1981 acquired a long leasehold on the whole of Esthwaite Water - 300 acres of freshwater lake. "To this day, I still believe it's the best site in the Lakes," Woodhouse says.

Together with all the activities on the lake, his lease included an old boathouse where he could begin a small shop "with bits and pieces lying around". Woodhouse also set up a small windmill next to the shop to supply energy for a telephone answering machine, a set of fish weighing scales and a cash till.

"I was a youthful 31 then and manufactured the fish cages from scrap iron and timber from the forest," he says. "I bought the nets which were my most expensive outlay. My first batch of fish took nine months to produce and I then began driving around local hotels selling them. The fish sales became extremely successful, almost instantly, as did the farm shop and the catch-your-own facility."

Sales to the hotels grew rapidly and expanded from the local valley to the whole region. Within a year Woodhouse had two delivery vans going out five days a week to every corner of Cumbria.

But contemporary ideals change, and chefs began buying from the new one-stop food wholesalers springing up around the county. Small one-item food businesses became pushed out, with profit margins dwindling.

"No matter what I tried, my trade and turnover was going down and down, so I decided to find a fish processor who would buy all my fish once a week. But it didn't work out long term - we began having to use chemicals to push the production system and I became disillusioned with the whole thing. One day I said to myself, 'I can't do this anymore'. It was time for a major re-think - back to basics."

Woodhouse looked at the organic concept with a view to creating a USP for his trout. Together with the Soil Association, he developed the first standard rules for organic fish farming in Britain. "In the space of one year I turned my business around from 170 tonnes of fish a year back to 50 tonnes, which is pretty much where I was when I was supplying the local hotels. Going down the organic route meant I was producing in an eco-friendly, natural way and selling at a premium. I had my life back: I was back to my roots and my original vision."

In 1997 Woodhouse built a fish-processing shed on-site and began selling organic fish to local markets and food dealers once more, although he says his most lucrative market now is not fish for the table but as a leisure activity. Each year his business releases well-grown fish into the lake so there are plenty more fish when the fishermen come to catch. The turnover of the leisure side of his business has gone up and up, and for the first time last year the leisure turnover exceeded the turnover of trout for food.

Now Hawkshead Trout Farm is the largest stocked lake in the North-west. Woodhouse annually sells £300,000 of organic rainbow trout through local shops, farmers' markets, an on-site shop, and to local hotels. For the many visiting fishermen to Esthwaite (renowned as one of the best pike fisheries in the country), there is loch-style boat and bank fishing, plus tackle sales/hire and tuition.

This year Woodhouse plans a marketing campaign to expand the leisure side, for which he has acquired a grant through the North West Farm Tourist Initiative. "I'm still seeing growth and enjoying using my creativity to boost the leisure side," he says. "I'm happy running a small business and I'm back to selling a healthy niche food product. So to any supermarket proposals: 'been there, done that, happy where I am - thank you'."

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