Easy pickings? Making a profit from 'wild' plants

  1. Elderflower plants and bottle of cordial on a yellow background
    Celia Woolfrey

    Celia Woolfrey UKBF Newcomer Free Member

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    With chefs willing to pay £35 for a kilo of freshly picked nettle tips, it's perhaps tempting to start a little foraging business if you know good spots where the kind of wild food that features on fashionable menus grows. Like any business though, it's not quite as straightforward as it looks.

    Professional foragers who supply restaurants with anything from wild mushrooms to sea purslane are constantly looking over their shoulder, often working at first light or dusk to minimise the chances of revealing their hunting grounds. 'I don't want to give away my tricks,' says one, who asked to remain anonymous. 'The last thing I want is everyone doing this.'

    All the foragers I contacted for this piece were reluctant to say much – with so much land under private ownership, whether that's the Forestry Commission, the Woodland Trust or the Crown Estate, which manages the seabed around England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are few places where you can pick wild plants commercially without some kind of permit or the landowner's blessing. 

    Although it might sound counter-intuitive, the businesses that have done best in this field have thought big – that way they've been able to build transparency into their business plan and be part of a joint effort to manage the landscape in a sustainable way.

    Fiona Houston and Xa Milne, who loved foraging for wild seaweed as a hobby, set up Mara Seaweed in 2011, producing seaweed seasonings as an alternative to salt. Houston describes their first few years doing it commercially as 'unbelievably hard', but last year the company was selected as just one of half a dozen UK food and drink brands in Tesco's 2019 Incubator Programme, which has given brands such as Fevertree and Brewdog a boost into the big time. 

    Mara has done everything by the book when it comes to licences and sustainable harvesting. It pays the Scottish government for a licence to gather kelp from January to May and dulse from September to November on the lowest monthly tides when the seaweed is accessible from the shore. The company doesn't do any mechanical harvesting: everything is cut by hand to strict quotas using sustainable cutting techniques to encourage regrowth, which, along with the marine ecosystem as a whole, is monitored in the off-seasons. Mara relies on an IT mapping system it has pioneered to plan and record everything it does and Scottish Natural Heritage reviews the data annually.

    Harvesting by hand is crucial, whatever you're picking. It means you disturb the ecosystem as little as possible and you can take just a small amount, leaving enough behind for the wild animals that rely on it as a source of food, nesting materials and habitat. 

    Doing everything by hand is undeniably hard work. Rushcutter and weaver Felicity Irons, for example, gets up at 5am at this time of year and drives to the river Ouse or the Nene where she hand-cuts the native English freshwater bulrush from a punt using a scythe-shaped blade fixed to a long handle. She has single-handedly resurrected a vanishing industry that goes back to Anglo Saxon times, cutting around two tonnes a day, which she drives back to the Rush Matters base and stacks against a huge hedge to wind-dry over a few days. When the rushes are ready, she weaves them into traditional floor matting which she taught herself to do from a book. It's inspiring to know that a business started in 1992 with a loan from the Prince's Youth Business Trust now exports to Japan, the US, France, Belgium and Switzerland, supplies designers such as Jasper Conran and David Mellor, and the film industry (Snow White and the Huntsman, Gladiator) as well. 

    Sometimes plants just don't grow in enough places for it to be realistic to source from the wild. Recipe box company Hello Fresh gets its supplies of samphire, a delicacy traditionally harvested from the mud flats of Norfolk, from a commercial grower in Evesham.

    Soft drinks company Bottlegreen, founded by husband and wife Kit and Shireen Morris in 1989, started making cordial from the elderflowers growing on their doorstep in the Cotswolds and water from their own spring. To make the shift from selling to local delis and the farmers market to a much bigger concern they then started growing elderflowers themselves and buying them in. 

    The couple rapidly grew the business over the next decade. A management buy-out in 2007 saw the arrival of Steven Davies, formerly of Britvic plc. Four years later, they sold to SHS for £25million on the basis that they could remain autonomous and keep on their employees. The company now produces 18 million bottles a year of 22 different drinks and sells to Australia, Japan, Canada, Sweden and the Middle East. Not bad for a product based on a hedgerow plant.