Arnica business plan takes root
Their field of dreams is under several inches of snow today, but in a few months Simon Hay and Alex Graham hope to see their first crop of bright yellow flowers.
They have been friends since school days at Fortrose Academy on the Black Isle, a few miles from this field where they are launching their new business venture. Now, Simon and Alex will cultivate an organic crop of arnica, which is used by the pharmaceutical industry as an anti- inflammatory and to treat bruises.
Few people grow arnica organically in this country and supplies are declining in Europe. Simon and Alex have a buyer in place and their timely idea scooped two awards in the annual Business Ideas competition run by Inverness College UHI.
They are now 24, but in their younger days they did their bit to boost sales of arnica. It was a treatment their mums used for the range of multicoloured injuries they brought back from the countryside around their Ross-shire homes.
A wintry sunshine lights the landscape as they give a guided tour of the field where their crop will soon grow. Much of the country has enjoyed a welcome thaw, but up here at the highest point on the Black Isle, near Inverness, everything is white and still.
The men's business partnership developed from a boyhood friendship, forged from a passion for music which they shared in a garage, surrounded by guitars and drum kits. They left home to study and have returned to the Highlands to live and work in the countryside they love.
It has been an eventful few years since they left Fortrose Academy. Simon studied journalism and played in a rock band in Hollywood; Alex, after studying music, became a tree surgeon and a dad.
Although they headed in different directions to study, they developed a common interest in horticulture - Alex gained experience working on an organic farm, while Simon cultivated his own smallholding in the centre of Edinburgh.
"At university, in my last year, I was lucky to have a masssive roof terrace in Marchmont, Edinburgh," he says. "We filled it with vegetables, fruit and all sorts for the whole year. We grew garlic to start with and some chilli plants, cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, onions and carrots."
Last year, the two began researching plans to cultivate three acres beside Simon's family home. They found there is now a big demand for arnica, an alpine perennial which was extensively harvested from the wild in Eastern Europe but is now designated an endangered species and subject to trade restrictions.
"We discovered there were trials being done in New Zealand, which had been very successful," says Alex. "The places that were growing it had a very similar climate to here. So, after doing the research, we decided it was a goer and that we should definitely try it."
Simon, who works as a stage technician in Inverness, points out: "It's so well suited to Scotland and, being an alpine plant, it needs cold weather in winter time."
What's more, they are discovering that the root of arnica also works as a mild pesticide. "It's hard to find organic pesticides at the moment, so to have that as a by-product is very exciting," says Alex.
The two men were thrilled when their plans won the Best Researched Idea award and the Best Under-26 award in the Inverness College UHI competition. "It's great to know that you've been heading in the right direction," says Simon.
Arnica plants will be grown in a polytunnel before being planted out and dried on site before despatch.
"In the summer," Alex smiles, "when the sun is beating down on our backs and we are working away, and the polytunnels are going and we've got all these beautiful yellow flowers - it's going to be glorious."
FIELD OF DREAMS
This is the fourth year Inverness College has organised the Business Awards on behalf of the UHI network of colleges, in a partnership which includes Highlands and Islands Enterprise and The Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust.
Competition organiser Carol Langston is the manager of CREATE, a recently- established centre for enterprise and innovation at Inverness College UHI. She says everyone was delighted at the number and standard of entries, which included people from 16 to 60.
"The best thing about it is that it is open to anyone in the region, student or not, so everyone has a chance to make their dream business happen.
"The competition aims to stimulate commercial and social enterprise imagination and this year we have been able to provide every entrant with a source of business advice and support in their local area."
Other prizes included another winning land-based idea from Simon Fildes, 47, who is studying part-time for a masters degree in managing sustainable mountain development with UHI.
Simon, from Nairn, won the Best Social Enterprise award for his plans to encourage and support local communities developing products from wild food harvesting.
Danielle Acken from St Ola in Orkney won the Best Over-26 category with her idea to open the Orkney Coffee Company, to import beans and roast them on site for distribution across the Highlands and Islands.