Kate Green finds the farmers making money by thinking laterally.
At the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) in January, it was predicted that the conventional image of the British farmer could be redefined within a decade as a new generation of agriculture students reinterprets the industry. Already, changes in weather patterns and new technology are allowing different crops to be grown, demand for meat that is perceived to be healthier encourages the keeping of ‘exotic’ animals and supermarkets are falling over themselves to be seen to be championing British food.
No one can afford to be a Luddite now: having a website has become normal and farmers are climbing on the social-media bandwagon as fast as anyone witness the industry’s magnificent response via Twitter to the flooding on the Somerset Levels this spring.
Putting land to agricultural use can, in some situations, bring tax relief and so the rise of the hobby farmer and of the ‘gentleman’ farmer or City gent returning to his small estate at weekends—who can pay for hands-on expertise has opened up employment opportunities that will help young people to stay in the countryside.
Rising costs of machinery and the need for co-ordinated marketing means share-farming, popular in New Zealand, is catching on here. ‘It’s becoming socially acceptable to have someone else running your farm,’ Tom Rawson told the OFC. His Yorkshire consultancy, aptly named Evolution Farming, runs a group of dairy farms (www.evolutionfarming.co.uk). And, seven years ago, The Prince of Wales backed the formation of the Dartmoor Farmers Association (www.dartmoorfarmers.co.uk), which provides a collective approach to selling local beef and lamb, promotes the use of native breeds and traditional husbandry methods and reduces food miles.
In Somerset, the first winners of the Exmoor Society’s Pinnacle Award for young entrepreneurs were brothers Adam and Oliver Hill, who, after leaving school, set up an agricultural-contracting service topping weeds, spreading manure and repairing fences; they’re in huge demand. This year’s winner, 20-year-old Jack Croft, has a similar business and is putting his £3,000 prize towards a set of chain harrows, a fence banger and a fertiliser spreader.
The NFU’s first lady officer, deputy president Minette Batters, epitomises versatility: she’s a tenant beef farmer who runs a catering business and a livery yard and is also a founder of Ladies in Beef, which promotes British meat. Kate Beavan, whose glorious Monmouthshire farm was the star of the first series of ITV’s Lambing Live, has converted a granary into Kate’s Country School, where she teaches cidermaking, pickling, sheep husbandry and blog-writing (www.katescountryschool.co.uk).
Jody Scheckter, the former Formula 1 racing driver, was one of the first to embrace the unusual; he startled locals by grazing boar, bison and buffalo at Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire, where he now sells buffalo mozzarella, biltong and chilli bites (www.laverstokepark.co.uk). The daffodil, David Lloyd George’s favourite flower—which replaced the leek as the national symbol for Wales is now being grown in the Black Mountains for the compound galantamine, which can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.
Warmer temperatures have resulted in apricots in Kent and sweetcorn in the north of England. And who would have once envisaged blue carpets of lavender in North Yorkshire (Country Life, July 30, www.yorkshirelavender.com) or tea-planting in Cornwall on the Tregothnan estate?
Last year, a fruit farm in Kent made crafty use of polytunnels emptied of strawberries by producing 5,000 cantaloupe melons. ‘We’ve looked at utilising our assets better, so that we use our storage and packing facilities and labour skills all year round,’ explains Tony Frankham, managing director of Newmafruit. ‘Labour is expensive and input costs are rising, so we have to sweat the assets as much as we can.’
Some 55% of farmers have already branched out or are looking to do so, according to the organisers of the annual Farm Business Innovation show. They calculate that some form of diversification will bring in, on average, an additional £10,400 per farm. ‘Diversification is a natural transition for farmers, not an alien concept, as it enables them to keep their farms and their lifestyles, whether it be a dairy farmer making yoghurt, a beef farmer selling his own produce or an arable farmer giving over fallow acres to glamping,’ explains event director Gary Hall. ‘It’s definitely more prevalent; we now think of farmers more as rural entrepreneurs.’
Farm Business Innovation 2014 is at Olympia, London W14, on November 27–28. Entrance is free; register online to receive advance information (0117–930 4927; www.thefarmingshow.co.uk)
Bison in North Wales
Gareth Jones admits that it was a ‘fall off your chair’ moment when his employer, Lord Newborough, owner of the Rhûg estate in Denbighshire, North Wales, announced that he wanted to introduce bison. ‘When I first came here, he had a low-input, low-output farming system, which was mainly sheep, but in 1998, we decided to go organic,’ he explains. ‘We opened the first farm shop in 2003 and it’s been all go ever since. Chefs come to see us because they like to see the whole story, not just a piece of meat on a plate.’
The estate sells produce to London restaurants and delis, exports to Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai and has a restaurant, The Bison Grill, serving bison burgers (01490 413000; www.rhug.co.uk). The herd of North American bison which requires a Dangerous Animals Licence from the local authorit arrived from Ireland about five years ago and is now some 60 strong with a bull called Rambo, grazing specially allocated fields beside the A5 so the public can see them.
‘Most of the time, we don’t bother them, but when we have to get them in for worming, TB testing and so on it gets interesting, as they don’t like being handled or enclosed,’ says Gareth. ‘Bison has novelty value people come from all over to buy the meat. It’s similar in taste to beef, but is a healthier alternative as it’s lower in fat and cholesterol and high in minerals. Nowadays, in farming, you need to be ahead of the game, have a USP and think of the future.’ Abi Butcher
Ice cream in Somerset
David and Sue Baker, Crown tenants of Styles Farm at Rodhuish in west Somerset, changed tack in 1988. ‘We were bouncing along on the break-even line with cereals, beef and sheep. We looked at all sorts of things, including caravans and oil-seed rape, but decided on ice cream because you can make it one day and sell it the next.’
They took out a £12,000 loan and Sue did a two-day Milk Marketing Board course in ice-cream making. The sheep were milked in a parlour built from scrap wood, the ice cream was made in the house and the freezer was kept in the car port. In the first year, they made £15,000 worth of ice cream; now, they sell £1.3 million worth and employ nearly 60 staff in summer. They still milk sheep, although they mainly use produce from a neighbour’s Jersey herd.
David and the van remain a familiar sight on Exmoor on Saturdays, conveniently parked so as to be able to watch hounds, but they now sell at 300 shows plus at Harrods, the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museums, The Shard and the Olympic Parks (01984 640255; www.stylesicecream.co.uk). ‘It’s safer to have more customers if it’s just one supermarket, your business can be gone in a phonecall,’ explains David. ‘You have to be ruthless about being top end. And what look like disadvantages can be advantages some outlets want us because we aren’t in supermarkets.’
He estimates that they see an annual return of about 6%, depending on the weather, having put £800,000 into the local economy, and he expects the business to keep growing quietly. ‘There’s a huge capital outlay in ice cream we hold £40,000 worth of flavouring at any one time, the same in packaging. Diversifying isn’t all it’s cracked up to be there aren’t massive returns and it’s a very competitive marketplace where most people are trying to sell on price.’
Quail eggs in Dorset
Little Windsor quail farm was started in a Dorset hamlet in 2011 by two couples seeking something of a Good Life-style diversion. Chris and Clare Snelling, a healthcare worker and part-time nurse, run the farm and their partners operate the business in London, selling eggs to outlets such as Selfridges, River Cottage, Ginger Pig butchers and pubs (01308 868285; www.littlewindsor.com).
‘When we researched the idea, we found that imported quail eggs are from caged birds, mainly from France,’ explains Clare. ‘UK farms have “free to fly” birds, which means they’re kept in large barns, but we wanted ours to go outside and have a better life we found no one else was doing that. Quail are classified as game birds, so they’re not subject to the strict rules on keeping poultry, but we’ve compiled our own code of welfare.’
The business started by hatching 120 chicks; now, there are some 700 birds in five insulated sheds with access to grass, producing about 500 eggs a day. They lay all year round, up to the age of about 18 months.
Clare picks up the eggs each evening and cleans, dries and boxes them up before couriering them to London. She also pickles some as bar snacks. ‘We want to grow enough to sustain my job full-time at the moment, I’m doing 14-hour days and everything we make goes back into the business, including buying an egg peeling machine. We eventually want to sell to a supermarket. Quail eggs are very nutritious high in vitamin B1, iron, potassium and “good” cholesterol and children like them because they’re cute.’
She advises anyone wanting to start a rural business to ‘find something really different, do lots of market research and stick with your passion. It’s hard work, but really rewarding being outside is my dream job’.
Camomile in Hampshire
Look into your bathroom cabinet or along the chemist’s shelves and a high proportion of the big-name shampoos and scents, such as Neal’s Yard, will contain camomile or, more precisely, the rarer Anthemis nobilis cultivar, which produces spectacular pompom-like double flowerheads in summer. One of the world’s largest supplies comes from the Casson family’s Frith Farm in north Hampshire, where they grow and produce for the flavour and fragrance industries herbs including coriander, parsley, sage, lovage, tarragon, lavender and peppermint (01635 298355; www.frithfarm.co.uk).
Charlotte Harding (née Casson), has been fascinated by the rarefied, even secretive, world of camomile growing since the age of 12, when she started helping out in the distillery by making the tea her great-grandfather grew herbs in the West Indies, passing the lore down through her grandfather to her father, Jim. She even timed her marriage this summer to farm manager Pete Harding for when the crop was at its peak, cutting short her honeymoon for the harvest. ‘I love it it’s such an amazing crop,’ she says. ‘I’ve never imagined doing anything else for a career.’
Camomile is, she explains, a complicated plant to grow and needs constant attention. ‘It’s mostly about apprenticeship and, one day, perhaps in 30 years’ time, you might have the real knowledge.’
Bird seed in Oxfordshire
A year ago, Marcus Waley-Cohen launched Birds and Bees from the family farm near Banbury, Oxfordshire. Upton Farm, a mix of sheep and grassland, plus wheat, peas, barley, linseed, woodland, a Thoroughbred stud and eventing cross-country course, had been part of a Government-funded conservation scheme supplying wildlife-friendly crops to feed companies for 10 years, when it was decided to give over 150 acres to growing bird seed (0844 577 2828; www.birdsandbees.co.uk).
‘We felt there was a natural link between wildlife-friendly farming and feeding garden birds,’ explains Marcus, whose family is best known in the world of National Hunt racing. ‘We also think it’s important to find a way to farm for wildlife, even without Government subsidies you always need to find different revenue streams.’
The company sells wild-bird seed mixes, straight seeds, fat balls, meal worms and seeds for bees. The farm receives many visitors, including school parties, and, at Defra’s last Farmland Bird Index, boasted several endangered species. ‘It’s brought lots of energy and direct contact with people,’ says Marcus.