Essex dealer business built on service and back-up - Fruit & Vine

Essex dealer business built on service and back-up

An Essex-based engineer took on his first machinery franchise after working on a 30-year-old mower and being impressed by its longevity and build quality. Now a carefully selected range of specialist machinery brands is offered by the independent dealer – all backed by industry knowledge and personal service. David Williams reports.

tractor trimming vines
This VBC two-row vine trimmer was supplied by BR Strathern Ltd and is used by New Hall Wine Estate in Essex to maintain 50ha of vines.

Having grown up on his family’s farm and enjoyed work experience at New Holland nearby, Ben Strathern set up his agricultural machinery service and repair business in 2016. Working from a base at Purleigh and trading as BR Strathern Ltd, Ben focused on tractor repairs at first, but the business quickly grew to include implements and attachments, and now customers include local farmers as well as fruit growers and vineyards.

First franchise

“I wasn’t looking for a franchise, although that changed when I serviced a 30-year-old Perfect flail mower,” explained Ben. “It was very well made, but when I tried to source parts I was surprised to find that no dealers were representing the brand in Essex. I contacted the manufacturer and became the official dealer.”

Growth in demand for specialist fruit and vineyard machinery meant that additional franchises were added to satisfy customer requests. Ben sells and services machinery brands including Perfect, ALM which manufactures the popular Roller Weeder mechanical weeder range, VBC trimmers and leaf strippers and Hans Wanner sprayers. He also stocks Sparex and Bepco parts and sundries, and Granit components. Along with its broad range of supplies for agricultural machinery, Granit recently added parts for the viticulture industry, including sprayer spares.

tractor in a vineyard
The VBC vine trimmer requires very little oil flow, making it suitable for smaller and older tractors.

Confidence in back-up

Long-established wine producer, New Hall Wine Estate is owned by the Greenwood Partnership and located in Purleigh, in the Crouch Valley. Wine making started there in 1969, and there are currently 31 plantations and 50ha of land under vines, with further expansion planned. There are 18 grape varieties, including Bacchus grown on some of the first Bacchus vines established in the UK more than 40 years ago.

The fruit is pressed, crushed, fermented and bottled on site, and the range of wines includes winners of significant awards. Andy Hares is the vineyard manager. “We enjoy dealing with Ben Strathern and he has built a reputation for instant, reliable service which is so important to us when we rely on machinery to work during limited weather windows.

“He is very good at finding solutions to get us going.”

Andy said that Ben offers a good range of machinery. “He has a small selection of quality brands and supplied us with several items of specialist vineyard equipment. We can rely on him to back them up with great after sales service.”

Under-vine weeders

Ben commented that during the past few years, demand for under-vine weeders has dramatically increased. “While many UK growers relied on chemical weed control, growers in France were using mechanical alternatives. Now UK growers are prioritising sustainable, environmentally friendly solutions including mechanical weed control and we offer the ALM Roller Weeder. It’s extremely simple, the design works well and now it is widely copied, but we believe the genuine ALM product is more effective and has a longer working life than cheaper alternatives.”

Andy said that he favours mechanical under-vine weeding over spraying. “Mechanical weeders can be used at almost any time of year, and they avoid the risk of drift that is always present when using herbicide sprays.

“It’s also got to be better for the vineyard and the environment having a layer of lightly tilled ground with organic matter present, than the barren desert created using spraying.”

Tractor roller weeder
The ALM Roller Weeder is available with two- or three-disc 8mm thick weeding elements. The two-disc version has a working width 12–15cm, and the three-disc version achieves a 15–20cm working width. The weeder is easily mounted on almost any tractor, and the low power requirement means it is possible to combine its use with carrying out almost any other field operations. The weeder is designed to break up the top layer of soil and leave weeds on the surface to dry out and die.

Trimmers and leaf strippers

Ben has supplied VBC products to the vineyard. A vine trimmer was the first purchase, followed by a leaf stripper.

“Like other vineyards, we are mechanising more processes. Leaf stripping is a perfect example. By removing excess foliage, we can improve coverage of the crop when we are spraying to achieve better results with less chemical,” Andy suggested. “It also improves air circulation around the crop which reduces disease risk and allows better light interception for even ripening.

“I’m sure we will rely more on mechanical solutions in future, and it definitely wouldn’t be viable to try to pluck leaves by hand across our 50ha of vines.”

Andy recently ordered a VBC bud rubber too. “We considered mechanised bud rubbers previously, but for our very old vines many products are unsuitable. However, we know Ben has several customers already using the VBC version successfully in situations like ours, so felt confident to invest. If we do have issues then we know we will be well looked after.”

Trimmer advantages

Ben said that VBC vine trimmers are popular. “Rather than using exposed blades, the cutting units work within guards. This means sap isn’t sprayed all over the tractor windows so a clear view is maintained, and if a blade becomes damaged and breaks it remains within the confines of the guard so it’s safer. They are ideal for dry pruning, too.

“Another popular feature is that only very low oil flow is needed, and this allows operation with older and smaller tractors, while also saving fuel.”

Ben Strathern and Andy Hares
Ben Strathern (left) with New Hall Vineyard manager, Andy Hares.

Products and services competitively priced

As demand grows for his range of products and services, Ben believes that this will continue. “We offer carefully selected products and brands for this specialist industry,” he explained. “I enjoy providing the personal service and because we operate from a small yard with low overheads this means we can keep our prices competitive. Our customers range from growers just starting out and establishing new vineyards to well-known businesses like New Hall, and my aim is to provide all of them with the same high level of back-up.

“People keep coming back, so we must be doing something right,” he concluded.

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