Kent-based specialist machinery supplier has played a vital part in helping the growth of the viticulture industry.
While the rise and rise of wine making in the UK has seen many companies rush to take advantage of the new opportunities in this exciting industry, others have supported its growth from the beginning.
One such is Kirkland UK, the Kent-based specialist machinery supplier that has played a vital part in helping the growth of the viticulture industry in this country and continues to lead the way in ensuring growers have the best tools for the job.
From the simplest trailer to the £275,000 state-of-the-art Gregoire grape harvester now sitting in the yard outside Maidstone, Kirkland UK researches, supplies and provides a quality after care service for everything a vineyard owner could need.
The research is vital, ensuring Kirkland UK can advise growers not just on the best machine for each job but on the manufacturer best suited to the application in hand. It involves visiting numerous trade shows all over Europe each year – and inevitably coming back with another new product.
“We are committed to keeping ahead of the game and knowing what’s up and coming in the word of viticulture,” explained company director Scott Worsley. We go to all the shows, we talk to people, we do plenty of research and we pride ourselves on knowing what’s out there.
“It means that when one of our customers says to us: ‘I need a bit of kit that can do this particular task’, we can give them reliable advice on what they need and the manufacturer we think they should be looking at.”
Scott and sales manager Ben Devine understand their customers so well, and have such confidence in the industry, that they let Vineyard into a secret. “We don’t have a customer lined up for the grape harvester outside, but it’s such an amazing machine that we are confident it won’t take long to sell,” said Scott.
“It’s a remarkable bit of kit, it’s the future of harvesting and we know that it won’t take long for growers to realise how much it will improve their efficiency and reduce their reliance on manpower, which is an increasingly difficult area at the moment. As the UK importer we are also confident that we can get hold of more machines in time for next year’s harvest if growers want to take advantage of this outstanding technology.”
The ongoing search for the best equipment in Europe means that Kirkland UK now supplies – and is in many cases the sole UK importer for – machinery including tractors from Antonio Carraro, Friuli sprayers, Hol Spraying Systems, Krolik, Olmi, Giant, Ilmer and Corvus.
It’s an impressive line-up and reflects the company’s long involvement with the industry. “When you have worked alongside vineyard owners for this many years you inevitably get to know the kind of machinery that meets their exacting requirements and the features that will make their lives easier,” said Scott.
Kirkland UK’s relationship with the viticulture industry goes back to the mid-1990s, when the company, which then also supplied agricultural machinery, provided equipment – initially sundries – to vineyards including Barnsole at Staple, near Canterbury, and East Sutton Vine Garden, not far from the company’s current base.
“It means we have 25 or so years’ experience in dealing with vineyards and it has given us a really useful knowledge base when supporting both existing customers and new entrants to this growing industry,” Ben added.
Kirkland UK’s commitment to the customer is reflected in the fact that Scott and Ben are the only two ‘salesmen’ in the company, and even that isn’t really the right word for what they do.
“We don’t really sell; we just advise customers on what we think would work best for them in terms of the job they are trying to do,” said Ben. “We don’t put pressure on anyone and we never wash our hands of a customer once the deal is done. If something isn’t quite right, or we need to change or modify something, then we will do it.
“We don’t believe in selling somebody something that will not turn out to be absolutely the right machine for the job. We aim for a long-term relationship with all our customers and we will do whatever we need to do to make sure they are happy with their decision.”
That focus on getting it right is reinforced by the fact that while Kirkland UK has only two salesmen, it has five in its after sales team. Service Team head Dave Allen is backed up by four engineers who make sure that machinery is kept in top working order.
“Any machine is only as good as its backup, and at Kirkland UK we make sure that is second to none,” Scott pointed out. “And we don’t let anyone else sell because we rely on relationships rather than on a more traditional sales approach.”
Also playing a vital part in keeping things running at Kirkland UK’s home at Griffins Farm, Pleasure House Lane, Maidstone are full-time parts specialists Ben Short and Michael Lark. What growers also find reassuring is that the team provides a comprehensive 24/7 harvest back up service, ensuring that customers aren’t left waiting for support during their busiest time of year.
In recent years Kirkland has shifted its focus from agriculture in its broadest sense to vineyards and top fruit, two areas in which it has developed particular expertise. “We still supply machinery to farms, but six years ago we took the decision to play to our strengths, and it has paid dividends,” Scott explained.
“We regularly prove by the attention we give to individual customers that expert knowledge is hard-won and very valuable and so we focus on what we know best.”
That high level support is reflected in Kirkland UK’s customer database, which includes household names such as Nyetimber, Chapel Down, Simpsons Wine Estate, Gusborne, Albury and Camel Valley.
The company’s approach is based on providing “machinery solutions” rather than simply machinery, a subtle difference that reflects not just Scott and Ben’s determination to find the right machine for any given solution, but on their willingness and ability to modify it if necessary.
“On many occasions we adapt existing machinery in the workshop so that what was nearly the right tool for the job becomes a spot on, made-to-measure solution to the task in hand,” said Scott.
As well as adapting machinery – tweaking sprayers so they suit a particular leaf canopy, for instance – Kirkland UK has fabrication experience and expertise that can be used to make more fundamental modifications or even make items from scratch.
An eye for innovation and adaptation is at the heart of what Scott refers to as Kirkland UK’s “solutions mentality” and reflects the proud history of the business.
The story began in the mid 1800s when Scott’s great, great, great grandfather Nathaniel set up Worsley Carriage Builders in Yalding, Kent, specialising in carriages for all types of transportation. The successful company later began building carriages for farming, fruit growing and vineyards as well as for general use.
While that provided the engineering background that is still reflected in the company’s current ethos, it was Scott’s grandfather David who provided the horticultural links when he set up a fruit farm in Ashley, Kent in 1953.
In 1966 Scott’s father Philip joined Barrett’s as an apprentice, working mainly on commercial vehicles before starting his own car repair business in 1975, later moving into machinery hire and used machinery and founding Agricare in 1995.
The Kirkland brand began in 2005 as a range of specialist machinery and became a company in its own right in 2012, since then it has grown to be one of the country’s leading suppliers of specialist equipment for vineyards and orchards. Agricare is now run by Scott’s brothers Garth and Ross, while another brother, Ewan, runs Plantex, a specialist irrigation company that also used to be part of the family business.
When it comes to modifying machines, Scott and Ben also rely on their first-hand knowledge of what the originals are capable of. “We do lots of testing of machinery and we do our best to try the kit out in a range of environments,” said Ben. “We make sure we know not only what we are selling, but how it works and what it’s capable of.”
While the Maidstone base is ideal for the fruit and vine-growing areas across the south east of the country, Ben and Scott are regularly out on the road, and not just to visit European trade fairs. With customers as far afield as Scotland and Cornwall, they ensure that the Kirkland UK reach is truly nationwide.