A pot of up to £120,000 cash is waiting to be dipped into by north Norfolk entrepreneurs who seem largely unaware of its existence.

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Case study - fruit and vegetable grower and merchant, Stephen Brett

Stephen Brett had a wife, three children and a mortgage when he decided to launch his own Aylsham market gardening business in 1995.

Mr Brett borrowed £5,000 from the bank, about £2,500 from the Neech Loan Fund and planted 12 acres with crops including cabbages and broad beans.

Because of the delay between planting and harvesting, he found the Neech loan invaluable.

“I had no savings and the Neech money was half as much again as the bank loan, and that was all the money I had, so it was very important. I used it to buy machinery - cultivators and spreaders,” he recalled. “Without it I would have had to borrow from people I knew, so it meant I could be independent.”

Mr Brett, 49, repaid the loan over five years: “It was just manageable, but it wasn’t easy,” he said.

As his business flourished, Mr Brett first opened a shop in Garden Street, Cromer, replaced about 10 years ago by his current shop in Norwich Road, Aylsham, which won the 2006 greengrocer of the year award in the EDP’s Norfolk Food and Drink Awards.

And three years ago he further expanded, launching a wholesale business, Fresh Approach, on Aylsham’s industrial estate, in partnership with his daughter Louise, 26. Their customers include Budgens in Holt, and Roys of Wroxham.

And this year Mr Brett has planted up to 44 acres of land with crops.

The business now employs the whole family, including wife Marion and twin sons Matthew and Thomas, 20.

Over recent years applications for up to £5,000 from the Neech Loan Fund have only been trickling in from eligible candidates living in North Walsham and a 10-mile radius.

Trustees who administer the fund are mindful of the troubled economic times and want to help give new and developing small businesses a boost.

So they are keen to spread the word about the fund and want to hear from more applicants.

The fund, launched by a Dr Neech in 1935, was originally set up to provide loans of up to £500 for new businesses in and around North Walsham connected with agriculture, horticulture or dairying.

But in modern times the maximum allowable loan has been increased tenfold and other rules have been relaxed so that applicants from North Walsham, Skeyton, Swanton Abbott, Felmingham, Tuttington and Burgh-next-Aylsham can apply for loans to support a wide range of enterprises.

Felmingham-based farmer Jim Papworth, chairman of the charity, said in the past they had given loans, at a five percent interest rate, to businesses including market gardening, hairdressing, pedicure, knitting, a whitesmith, restaurant, window cleaning, and a number of car salesmen.

“We just don’t get many applications,” said Mr Papworth. “I know five percent interest is not low, but it’s not high either. We don’t want to be seen as an alternative to the bank but we want to help pump-prime people to get their businesses on the road.”

Trustees, representing all the parishes involved, took great satisfaction in seeing businesses succeed after being supported by a Neech loan. But there had also been some failures and in the past the trust had been forced to go to court to try and recover a loan.

Mr Papworth said trustees included people with extensive business experience whose knowledge was invaluable.

He added: “We go to great lengths to make sure people don’t fail. We ask people to come and see us and explain what’s happening to see if we can make any suggestions.”

● For more information contact Neech Loan Fund clerk Margaret Foster on 01692 404114 (weekday mornings).

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