White Heron Brands Limited are a drinks producer, based in Herefordshire, growing berries on a large scale which are supplied to drinks manufacturers as well as being used to create their wonderfully fruity and flavoursome ‘British Cassis’ and ‘British Framboise’. Home grown, locally produced and wholly British since 1876, their award-winning drinks are luxurious, delicious and incredibly popular.
White Heron is owned and managed by Jo Hilditch, Jo is an entrepreneurial, innovative and impressive business woman who has taken the family business and brand from strength to strength … so you may wonder why she made an enquiry to the AGRI project for additional support?
Through a referral from a local business consultant, Jo contacted the AGRI project (which is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund) as she had heard that support was on offer to food and drink companies in the region allowing them to gain knowledge from specialists at Harper Adams and Aston Universities. Always on the lookout for ways to embed innovation into their production systems and processes, Jo and her Farm Manager James knew there must be additional processes that could be implemented during the harvest of their berries that could potentially increase their efficiency levels but needed the knowledge of experts to provide guidance on what options were out there.
After an initial discussion with one of the projects Business Development Managers, it was decided that the most value to the company would be gained from the Agri-Engineering specialists based at Harper Adams University, and so the next meeting would be with Kit Franklin, one of the brains behind ‘Hands Free Hectare’ (the first fully autonomous harvest that had taken place at the university that same year).
Over the course of the next 12 months a close relationship was formed between White Heron and the AGRI project, and after completing an initial investigative study (C1) which allowed knowledge transfer to take place, it was agreed that the company would move onto a longer-term support. This allowed the specialists at Harper Adams University to work more intensively with White Heron to further investigate the outcomes of the study and look at the potential for prototype technology to be used within the harvest. The window for harvesting for blackcurrants during the summer months is very small and can be massively impacted by things such as weather and available labour during these periods. With this in mind, the longer-term support focused on development and implementation of technology that could ease the risk factors involved in whether a harvest is successful. Ultimately the goal was to provide a solution that would
allow the company to be more innovative, productive and potentially more profitable.
A team of both specialists and students worked on the project and in late 2019 the work that had been carried out was completed successfully providing the company with a useable solution which if they wished could be commercialised into a long-term answer to their previous issues. White Heron and Harper Adams University have built a good working relationship over the period of the project support and are now looking at further avenues for working together in the innovative agri-tech arena.
James Wright reflected on White Heron’s journey: “Seeking innovative ways to improve the efficiency of our fruit harvesting operations, we engaged with the AGRI project and made an application for support in March 2018. After an initial site visit by project staff to observe our current processes we promptly received a professional case study report which outlined some innovative avenues of research and potential technological solutions. Having selected a particular project from the case study we then collaborated with a team of students from the university who spent some time on farm investigating and prototyping. The final project report indicates a high level of success with certain aspects which we will definitely pursue further. Engaging with the AGRI team has been hugely rewarding and gave us access to academics and professionals who have really helped turn some of our ideas and concepts into a reality.”