From humble beginnings in a Renfrewshire village, the Miller family has built a small business empire, featuring farming, fencing supplies and biofuels. We went along to find out more. 

THE Miller family, headed up by Alan and Mary, based in Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, has gone from being farmers to diversifying into fencing supplies and contracting and, more recently, starting a biofuels business. That’s all happened in a little over 30 years. In addition, the family moved Alter Landscapes, now trading as Alter Supplies and Contracting, to a purpose-built site at Park Farm in the village.

It was clear when I visited them recently the design of the building had been well thought through. There is room for expansion on the site, which was, and still partially operates as, a farm. It seems fitting the company still carries out its business here, given it was on Weels Farm where the company first came into being in 1991 and operated from until last year.

I first met Mary and Alan at the 2021 Garnock Valley Carving competition and, chatting with them there, I gained an idea of how their business operated. It was, however, only after meeting up with Mary that I found out there was even more to it. Mary gave me a tour around the whole operation. She told me that Alan had been born at Weels Farm and lived there all his life, marrying Mary in 1982. They went on to have five sons; John, William, Fraser, Alan, and Stephen.

“Alan’s grandfather worked at a sawmill in Troon, but his dad wanted to farm and rented Weels. He had a dairy herd and some sheep, which Alan took over. As time went on and with marriage and a growing family, we started to do some fencing contracting work to help supplement the farm income. Peter Hart, who shot and fished with us and worked in the civil construction industry, reckoned there was a need for a good fencing contractor and he partnered with us to form Alter Landscapes.”

Forestry Journal: Good supply of logs in the timber yard at Weels Farm for Miller Biofuels.Good supply of logs in the timber yard at Weels Farm for Miller Biofuels.

With the name Alter coming from the ‘Al’ of Alan and the ‘ter’ of Peter, the business grew slowly and took two years to build before Peter joined full-time. Then after seven years, Mary and Alan agreed to purchase Peter’s share of the business and take it on for themselves and the family. In those early days, they also looked at developing other business opportunities, which included repurposing redundant farm buildings into long- and short-term holiday lets.

The recent move into the biofuels market came because of a decision to replace the boiler at the farm. It had previously been changed from oil to wood as the power source.

When Mary and Alan got an opportunity to go see boilers in Germany there was a chance the fuel source would change again. They actually cancelled a cruise holiday to go there, such was their interest. After this trip, they decided to invest in a new Heizomat system, powered by burning woodchip. Having decided to buy it, they started to think about where they would get the woodchip from to fuel it.

“By this time, we had already given up milking the cows, which because of the seven-day-a-week, 5 AM milking regime was not suited to us running the fencing contracting business, which started at 7 AM. While we still had sheep, we had employed a shepherd to manage them.

“So, we did a few calculations with what it would cost to set up a third business. The idea was to use the existing buildings, which previously housed our cows, and carry out some upgrading works to allow us to run this biofuels business as well. Finally, with our second son William keen to be involved, Miller Biofuels was set up.”

The installation of four Heizomat 200 boilers allowed Mary and Alan to have a community heat system that supplied all the offices, the two farms and all the holiday lets and long-term lets, as well as the drying floor at Miller Biofuels. They also installed solar panels at Weels Farm and West Kaim to help electricity production.

Forestry Journal: Miller Biofuels Volvo truck which is used for bulk chip deliveries.Miller Biofuels Volvo truck which is used for bulk chip deliveries.

During the last six years, they have also carried out two separate woodland planting schemes at Weels Farm, and they have another one currently awaiting approval. These schemes have been done with an eye to future timber supplies for Miller Biofuels, but also to register for future carbon-capture purposes. The two original schemes were 20 hectares and consisted of mixed species planting, with spruce predominant.

The new plan is for a 40-hectare planting scheme but with more emphasis on broadleaf species, with the hope that planting will commence later on in 2022. Scottish Woodlands have managed all the planning applications and plantings, while Alter Supplies and Contracting have put the fencing in place, allowing one part of the business to support another.

I wondered what the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit had been on the Miller family. Mary explained that Alter Supplies and Contracting was deemed an essential business, because of the work they carry out for utility companies, the railways and the agricultural sector, which at times can be safety critical.

“To be fair, while we could continue to trade, it was nightmare trying to understand and interpret the changing rules and regulations. Like most people, we found ourselves watching the daily news bulletins trying to make sense of it all. Cash flow became a critical issue as many of the bigger companies we dealt with stopped paying us almost overnight. We took advantage of Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) through our bank and the furlough scheme.”

It was not just the government that had issues with the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of the pandemic. Mary confirmed they too had problems both with acquiring enough for their own use and being able to supply others through their Alter Supplies and Contracting side of the business. They also had, for some periods, to furlough their own staff as the workloads lessened. Indeed, at the height of the pandemic, work dropped by two thirds of the previous levels.

Forestry Journal: Logs on the drying floor at Weels Farm.Logs on the drying floor at Weels Farm.

“The furlough scheme was very welcome, but initially it was a bit of work getting it set up from an administrative point of view and once again understanding what was needed to make the claims. Payments, at the start, took time to come through and it added to the stress of the whole pandemic. That said, once you were in the ‘system’ things worked really well after that. We obviously took steps to follow COVID-19 guidelines for our teams and rotated our staff around to the needs of the business at any particular time.”

The Brexit impact on Alter Supplies and Contracting appears to be similar to what other businesses have reported. They have a new truck, which they cannot recruit an HGV driver for because there is the national shortage of drivers. Fortunately, they are in the position that they have others who can step in to drive it, but that is not sustainable. 

Like many others, Mary also noted the time to get spare parts for machinery has increased and, while COVID-19 may also be playing a part in this, it seems that it has gotten worse since Brexit. 

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After our initial chat, Mary took me on a tour of the Park Farm set up. She showed me the warehouse sales space. Here, both trade and the public can browse and select products and get expert advice from the team on what is best suited to their requirements. There is a healthy stock level of timber and other associated construction and fencing products in the yard outside. The office space is open plan and well laid out to allow the administrative teams to be able to work effectively.

I had a chance to catch up with son Alan there, who has ‘come off’ the tools, as he put it, to look after the sales development and to oversee the new Park Farm set up. His brother Fraser remains on the fencing side of the business and is focused on driving it forward. Alan Jnr has been setting up an online presence for the business.

“Because we have our own fencing contracting business we have over the years developed contacts with a big range of suppliers,” Alan said. “This has been both for using their products for ourselves, but also to offer to our customers. A good example is Buckbootz and their range of Buckz Viz visual impact safety and wellington boots, which we use and now stock at Park Farm. 

“Within the team we have a wealth of experience around using most of the products that we stock and are therefore able to offer practical advice on their use.”

After looking around Park Farm, we set off to Weels Farm to meet up with Alan Snr to find out more about the fencing side of the business and from son William about Miller Biofuels. Once we got there, Mary and Alan told me the fencing side of the business had grown strongly from the initial days. They now, as well as carrying out work in the civil sector, work in agricultural and forestry.

Alan cited some examples of jobs that were particularly memorable to them, including one at the Glenapp Estate at Ballantrae in South Ayrshire. 

“This was a large planting scheme that was managed by Scottish Woodlands. Our role was to ensure that the necessary fencing was put in place before the tree planting started. We put up deer, stock, and rabbit fencing to protect the young trees. It was a project that took a year to a year and half to complete and we installed just under 39,000 metres of fencing.”

After having spoken to Alan for a short while, he was soon off on the tractor to do more work. Alan manages and carries out the outside work, while Mary looks after the administration and office job roles. As she said: “Just like any farmer’s wife.”

Another member of the Miller family on a mission to get out on a job, this time a delivery of a trailer load of wood pellets for a customer, was William. There was time for him to give me an overview of Miller Biofuels. He explained that it is very much a family-run business, supplying customers in the Strathclyde area with quality woodchip and pellets, as well as kiln-dried hardwood logs. He is particularly proud of the fact they are on the government’s Biomass Suppliers List (BSL).

Forestry Journal: Some of the 39,000 metres of fencing that was erected on the Glenapp Estate with Ailsa Craig in the background.Some of the 39,000 metres of fencing that was erected on the Glenapp Estate with Ailsa Craig in the background.

The woodchip supplied comes from softwoods, which they source from FSC sustainably managed woodlands through a variety of companies, including Scottish Woodlands and Elderslie Estates. Timber also sometimes comes from nearby estates and woodlands close to where they are based, often because of a call to say felling is going to take place.

Once this has been air dried in the yard for six months to a year, it is then used to produced G30 and G50 chip, which is dried on drying floors at Weels Farm to reduce the moisture content down to an average 20–25 per cent. This can be supplied to customers on a collection basis, delivered on bulk, or in blown loads. Wood pellets, supplied in 10 kg bags or a 3-tonne blown in delivery, are ENPlus A1, while the kiln-dried logs, to under 20 per cent moisture content, are supplied in loose loads of m³ bags.

“At the moment, as we require it, we have Caledonian Wood Fuels come into our yard with their processing machines, to process our wood for chip, and Fairlie Woodfuels and Angus Biofuels to process it for firewood. Currently our volumes do not justify the investment in such machines. It is an arrangement that suits all parties. We also, from time to time, can have some loads of their logs drying on our drying floor.

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“Our Miller Biofuels operation is utilising the farm’s old cattle sheds, which we have converted and added the drying floor, all powered by our Heizomat boilers. In addition, because of their original design, I can load our truck straight off the shed bay, the same way the milk tanker used to collect the milk. From a standing start we have built a six-figure-turnover business and hopefully, in the future, it will become a seven-figure one, so I am really pleased with the progress.”

Once William set off with his delivery, Mary took me around the setup at Weels. There was a good supply of timber stacked in the yard in the process of being air-dried. Mary was also able to show me, in the distance, where the proposed new 40-hectare woodland was going to be planted. Mary explained how it would link up with the existing woodlands on their and their neighbours’ land. From there we checked out the boilers, drying floor and sheds, where the operation is housed, before she showed me their former offices.

Here, we came across the youngest son, Steven. When he worked in the business, Steven was responsible for financial matters. He managed the accounts and payroll and the costs of the building projects. He left the business to continue his finance career with Marvel Film Studios, something that, as a fan of the franchises, he is enjoying very much. Steven, though, along with the rest of the family members, is part of a new business partnership called Miller Family Enterprises, which was set up on the purchasing of Park Farm.

The eldest and fifth son John, while part of the Miller Family Enterprises business, also has his own building firm, John Miller Construction, and specialises in some bespoke house-building projects. These in the past have included a house built over a waterfall, and a house which needed an extra garage to house the client’s helicopter. Keeping things in the family, when he can, John does use Alter Supplies and Contracting for some of his building supply needs.

Forestry Journal:  At South of Falls of Falloch above Loch Lomond, and to allow access to be gained, a tracked post chipper on a road railer being taken down the track of one and a half miles to landslip which had taken out 300 metres of fencing. At South of Falls of Falloch above Loch Lomond, and to allow access to be gained, a tracked post chipper on a road railer being taken down the track of one and a half miles to landslip which had taken out 300 metres of fencing.

As we headed back to Park Farm, I got the chance to catch up with Fraser, who is heavily involved in the fencing side of the business, to get his insight. 

“On the rail side, we were responsible for the fencing along both the Bathgate to Airdrie and Borders Railway lines. On the Borders job, I stayed down there for a couple of years, to ensure that I could be on the site on a daily basis to keep the project on track. On the road side, we are currently working on a number of projects, including the Maybole bypass, Greenhills at East Kilbride, and a new road at Glasgow Airport.”

I had an enjoyable time exploring and finding out more about a family business that has certainly diversified. It has retained farming as part of its core, moved into fencing, fuels, and now on a bigger scale to the supplies side. Quite a range of businesses, I suggested to Mary, but she just laughed and said that she had often told folk she and Alan stopped at five kids so they could instead set up businesses and watch them grow, just like they had their children. That led me to wonder what was next for the business.

“The plan is simple; we would like to keep growing each of the businesses, but with Alan and I starting to slowly take a back seat and hand over to our sons. There are ideas for further diversification that they have and this may follow in the future. Having said that, both Alan and I, as farmers, have been used to working, so it will probably be hard to ease up and step back. Our feeling is that life is for living and there will still be lots we can do.”

Lobbying might just be something that Mary will do more vigorously than she has in the past. Albeit she has done it on a few of occasions to date. “Fencing cards or tickets are fully funded in England by the government. However, there is no funding for fencing cards in Scotland to date, that I am aware of. Putting our staff through this is certainly necessary because we want highly-skilled and trained staff. Both for their own safety, but also so we can deliver the highest quality of work.”

I left thinking: watch out Holyrood.