Hamish and Robert Campbell have been pressing rapeseed since 2005 at Swell Buildings Farm, near Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, selling the oil under their R-Oil brand.
A lot of hard work has gone into the business, which supplies premium quality oil to five supermarkets and many individual shops. "We also put about 30,000 litres a month into the food service sector, including five big catering companies," says Hamish Campbell. "We must have also talked to 300-400 hotel and restaurant owners, and once we got a couple of celebrity chefs on board, doors started opening."
Good marketing helped keep the business ahead and protect the farm’s £200,000 investment. But three years ago the family believed the sector was becoming swamped, endangering the very margins that attract new entrants.
"We realised we needed to do something more to really differentiate our product and stay ahead of the competition."
Over the past three years, the father and son team has been working closely with Syngenta Seeds to develop a new variety, NK Molten, whose oil has several important advantages over conventional varieties and is likely to attract a premium.
"This year we planted 170ha, which has averaged about 3.7t/ha," says Mr Campbell. Each hectare should supply about 1,100 litres of oil that is nutritionally better and lasts longer in the fryers than oil from conventional varieties. That suits both the bottled trade and caterers, he explains.
Independent tests by nutritionists show oil extracted from NK Molten, branded as Essent-oil, has a better balance of essential fatty acids than convention oilseed rape oil, containing about 10% each of linoleic acid (omega 6) and linolenic acid (omega 3).
The novel oil also contains about 75% oleic acid (omega 9), at least 10% more than normal rapeseed. This mono-unsaturated fatty acid is very stable, giving it a longer shelf and frying life, and it has very high anti-oxidant properties.
All of the farm’s NK Molten and a similar amount grown by a neighbour will pass through R-Oil’s 24 presses, which run 24 hours a day. The oil is bottled for the retail trade and put into five-litre and 20-litre cans for caterers.
Mr Campbell has high hopes for Essent-oil based on very positive feedback from customers. He plans to increases sowings by 50% this autumn to meet growing demand at home and abroad for Essent-oil, which will run alongside the existing R-Oil brand.
"The aim is for us to have exclusive rights to the variety in the UK and Europe, and develop Essent-oil with Syngenta. We have spent the past six months talking to customers, including supermarkets, and having Syngenta alongside has certainly helped open doors. I believe it will really help to get the new brand going."
Product marketing: The secret of success
Having a good product and marketing it well are the secrets to cold-pressing success, says Aberdeen-based Gregor Mackinstosh, who has just clinched a deal to supply all 51 of Asda’s stores in Scotland.
The young entrepreneur first got the idea of cold-pressing the family farm’s rapeseed while studying for an honours degree at SAC Aberdeen.
"I did some research and found there was very little competition in Scotland at the time. I then investigated demand, talking to processors, farm shops and supermarkets and found there was definite potential. All the figures seemed to stack up.
"So I bit the bullet and when I returned to the farm in 2009 we invested about £100,000 in presses, tanks and a bottling line."
At the time, there were just three cold-pressing operations, including his own at Mains of Buthlaw, Glendaveny. Now there are seven, and much of his life is spent keeping ahead of the competition.
A strong brand helps, and bottles of Extra Virgin Mackintosh of Glendaveny certainly catch the eye. At first, they were stocked in farm shops and delicatessens, hotels and restaurants, but Mr Mackintosh had his eyes on the big retailers to really push his product.
"Three months down the line I went to a Grampian Food Forum meet-the-buyer event, and landed up in front of three Asda buyers. One thing led to another, and in the spring of 2010 the retailer listed the product in 15 of its north and north-east stores."
After a year of impressive sales, Asda offered Mr Mackintosh a five-figure deal to stock the oil in all 51 of its Scottish stores. As well as extra virgin, the oil also comes in garlic, jalapeno chilli, ginger and lemon variations, which retail at £4.95 a 500ml bottle.
The move followed a £50,000 upgrade to install a 24-hour extraction system and an upgraded bottling line that can handle 2,500 litres a day alongside new storage tanks, to meet rigorous multiple retailer audit standards.
"The deal is a fantastic achievement and one I’m very proud of, particularly because it’s helped the company meet its five-year growth targets in just 24 months," says Mr Mackintosh. "Asda has been fantastic to work with and is very enthusiastic, saying the sky is the limit for the product which is very encouraging."
Nevertheless, competition remains stiff. "I aim to supply as diverse a range of markets as possible. And I was very fortunate to be a good news story at the outset – a young entrepreneur finding a gap in the market.
"The media is still keen to follow the story, which helps to keep our profile as high as possible – it makes a big difference to sales." Mr Mackintosh also spends a lot of time at shows educating the public. ‘When I started probably 75% of people knew nothing about rapeseed oil. Now it’s about 25%. That all helps."
As for the future, a deal with a further major supermarket is in the offing, which would mean all the farms 100ha of rapeseed would go through the cold press, though Mr Mackintosh was reluctant to release too many details of what he grows.
"Variety makes all the difference – we grow a well-established one, though it may not be around much longer. We are trialling two others which look promising.
"Climate also has a big influence on flavour and colour, so if we expand further we will have to source locally to ensure we maintain a reliable supply of a single variety."
Market for rapeseed oil
About two-thirds of the UK’s 2m tonne rapeseed crop goes into the food ingredients sector. The rest is bottled as culinary oil for retail outlets, restaurants and the catering industry – the familiar plastic bottles on supermarket shelves.
Most of this oil is hot-pressed and chemically extracted on an industrial scale. While highly efficient, the process tends to remove much of the oil’s taste, colour and aroma, says Nigel Padbury, Syngenta Seeds’ oilseeds sales and marketing manager.
"Cold pressing has a lower extraction rate – about 30% compared with hot-pressing’s 40% – but it is gentler and chemical free. This preserves the oil’s subtle textures and flavours.
"The big processors would be unwilling to shut down their plants to switch to crush small volumes of specialist rapeseed – it would be too costly," says Mr Padbury. "But more and more cold pressing operations are springing up around the country, aimed very much at the high-quality end of the market.
"NK Molten is ideally suited to this process. The variety was selected as it was going through National List trials for its high quality oil, which has a creamy texture with a mild taste.
"It has produced excellent feedback from customers; its beneficial fatty acid profile fits with the nearer-to-nature ethos they and the producers share."
The variety produced similar yields to ES Astrid and NK Bravour when it was going through trials, suggesting it would currently score about 99-100% were it on the Recommended List.
Whether other varieties with similar traits are developed remains to be seen. "We have always said this project must be market led, and we are sticking to that," says Mr Padbury.
"Although the market is very niche, it has plenty of potential in Europe and further afield. The numbers of producers of cold-pressed oil is increasing, but the market is also expanding into big caterers, local authorities and restaurant chains. I believe there’s still plenty of room for more producers."