Husband and wife team Chris and Julie Jeffries purchased Northover Farm, a 153-acre holding, in Cross-in-Hand in 2011. The previous owners ran an equestrian business from the farm. With no previous experience, Chris and Julie started a sheep enterprise, gradually building the numbers up to around 150 breeding ewes.
In 2016 their son Will gave up his job in London to join them as a partner in the farm business. Together they began researching different diversification ideas and came across hydrotherapy for horses.
High Weald horse hydro
“We were looking for an idea that would have a local market and wasn’t easy to copy,” said Will.
During the research phase they discounted a lot of business plans because they weren’t different enough.
“Horse hydrotherapy was something that seemed to satisfy our requirements. It’s locally relevant, with a lot of horse owners in the area. It used an investment we already had – the building. But I don’t mind telling you it was still a £150,000 investment,” said Chris.
I asked Chris if they had considered applying for any diversification grants.
“No, we’re both similar in that if we have an idea we want to get on with it. We didn’t want to delay starting, waiting for possible approval for 40% funding,” he replied. Though he admits they were fortunate they could afford it themselves.
They sourced the treadmill, tanks and all the necessary kit from a manufacturer, and employed expert equestrian trainer Evonne Armstrong to run the centre.
They opened for business in 2017 and have since worked with hundreds of horses, from top-class eventers to pet ponies, in thousands of sessions on their water treadmill and spa. In the process they have become experts in the field of aqua training and the leading hydrotherapy centre in the area.
Sessions on their water treadmill and in the saltwater spa complement equine rehabilitation programmes and exercise regimes to deliver benefits to a horse’s physique, performance and attitude, explained Will. Costs range from £50 for an individual session to under £40 when bought as part of a package.
They also have a well-appointed American barn stable block, used for their own horses and guest horses staying for rehabilitation programmes and holiday livery. Horses are looked after by their full-time livery manager, Michelle, and their groom, Alex, who are both experienced horsewomen and horse owners themselves.
In a further diversification, they have recently launched a new brand, Northover Farm Retirement Livery (www.northoverfarmretirementlivery.co.uk), using their excess stable and paddock capacity to offer a full retirement livery for a small number of new clients.
Will and Chris also use their immaculate pastures to make small hay bales each summer for themselves and a few key customers, providing a useful income of around £5,000 annually.
When the lockdown forced them to close the hydrotherapy centre, Will and Chris took up the Government’s furlough scheme for their full-time staff members for two months. Since reopening in June, they have put in place Covid-19 secure measures including a socially distanced horse handover area, hand sanitisers in the hydrotherapy centre and the stable block and an increased cleaning and disinfecting regime in customer and staff areas.
Business is now picking up, said Will, explaining that they had enjoyed one of their best ever months in terms of new customer acquisition in June. He believes a lot of the public are still coming out of a collective hibernation but is confident that business will return to pre-Covid-19 levels soon.
Before the horse hydrotherapy centre went in, Chris had run a breeding flock of around 150 ewes, with upwards of 400 sheep on the farm with the lambs.
With around 115 acres of available pasture, they struggled to keep enough grass in front of the lambs, which meant buying in two tonnes of feed a month during the winter months to fatten them.
“There was little to no profit in the job and we couldn’t carry on grazing that number of sheep. We were suffering sheep sickness, which was indicative of the problem,” said Chris.
“Having the hydro in place allowed us to make the commercial decision to reduce the sheep, with Brexit being another influencing factor,” Will added.
Both Chris and Will still see a future for sheep on their farm. Apart from anything else they are the most cost-effective way of ‘keeping the grass under control’, particularly in the winter months, Chris added.
Since reducing their numbers to around 30 ewes, the only inputs are fly strike prevention and the occasional wormer, when faecal egg counts (done themselves on the farm) show it is needed. They also move the sheep on to a fresh paddock every ten days or so, which helps stay in front of the worms.
All lambs are sold fat at Hailsham Livestock Market. To their great surprise, they’ve seen really good prices this year, topping the market at £114 a head for their best pen.
With Brexit around the corner, they presume the buoyant market must be down to many breeders taking similar action to them.
“Maybe like us a lot of people have cut their flocks down and there is a shortage of supply, so if you can get them fat on grass like us or have the wherewithal to put a lot of feed into them, there are good prices to be had,” said Chris.
Another diversification project that got the green light was planting blueberries. After a bit of study and experimentation, they planted 400 blueberry plants in late 2017, turning over an acre of their family farm to a blueberry garden. They also installed an irrigation system and a lot of electric fencing to keep deer and badgers out.
Despite a few naysayers who said it couldn’t be done, they got their first crop of Duke blueberries in the summer of 2018. The plants have since thrived, delivering increasing yields year on year in 2019 and 2020.
“We don’t spray – all they get is a bit of nitrogen in the soil. We take what we get. Thankfully we haven’t had any major pest issues so far,” said Will. The berries are naturally grown, hand-picked and blast-chilled within two hours of picking to increase their shelf life. We sell them to local farm shops and through a wholesaler in Brighton, so they have very few miles on them by the time they are eaten.”
This year saw a three-fold increase in their sales on the previous year, with around 600kg of fruit picked, packed, and delivered. All the picking is carried out by on-farm and family labour, with Will’s wife Hannah also mucking in during the busiest times.
“At our micro scale, employing a team of pickers would wipe out any profit in the job. So we have to be well organised and work extremely hard!” said Will.
The plants should have a life span of around 25 years and are expected to reach maximum cropping by year five. One significant cost is the pine bark chippings required to keep the PH of the soil at the right acidity level for the plants. Having tested some of their own on-farm fir trees, they are hoping to use the annual chippings as mulch, thus reducing the ongoing cost of maintenance.
To help develop a recognisable brand, Will came up with the name Fruits of the Farm, registered the domain name and built a website (www.fruitsofthefarm.co.uk) to market the berries locally to farm shops.
The story of their family farm really resonates with local retailers and this year they generated around £3,500 worth of berry sales during the month of July, perhaps partly helped by more people shopping locally during lockdown. Will is also proud of the fact that their berries are sold, and most likely eaten, within a 50-mile radius of the farm.
One area that both Chris and Will worry about is water. They still have vivid memories of early March 2018 when water pipes burst during the thaw, causing major disruption to supplies in and around the Heathfield area.
It became apparent how reliant most farmers are on mains water, with no water storing capacity. With a bore hole and large rainwater tanks on site at Northover Farm, Chris and Will worked with the local NFU to set up a water round for local farmers and used their bowser to make deliveries to those most in need.
“There were farmers with hundreds of lambs and nowhere to store water except buckets,” remarked Will.
Commenting on the extreme weather of the last few years: “We have lots of water but at the wrong time. How do we store it, how do we pump it, how to do we get it on the ground? We are going to have to solve those problems,” said Chris.
In an effort to address the water issue, they had a hydrological survey carried out to identify possible sites for a borehole. Having located a suitable site, the borehole was installed at a cost of a £100 a meter to dig.
“It’s 60 metres down. To try to be economical we put in a single-phase pump, which was a mistake – it isn’t powerful enough. We’d need to put in three-phase and a new pump to make it work properly,” said Chris
“You have to test the water and the thing that amazed us was, even that far down, it contained e-coli. There were also some heavy metals, which is quite common. We will have to install a UV filter and treat the water before it can be used,” he continued.
BPS, ELMs and grants
Chris seems unimpressed with what he’s seen so far on the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS) proposals.
“The refusal of not just government but policy makers to link food to farming is horrifying. ‘The Environmental Land Management Scheme?’ How do you improve soil when you’ve only got a small amount of soil on top of clay in the weald?
“Unless tier one offers a sensible return for whatever it is we need to do, we won’t be joining,” he continued, though they admit they’ll have to generate an extra £10,000 revenue elsewhere to cover the loss.
“Other than the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payment, we’ve never taken any money from anyone for tree planting, hedges or fences. We’ve done it all ourselves.
“I refuse to have someone come here and tell me what to do. We are extremely environmentally aware – it’s the future of the land and the future of the farm. I don’t want someone coming here saying ‘that doesn’t connect with that, so you can’t do that’,” said Chris.
On Brexit and locally produced food
Both Chris and Will voted to leave. Chris for fundamental reasons on sovereignty.
“I knew there would be a price to pay and I’m willing to pay it,” he said.
Will was more torn but felt the short-term pain would be worth it in the long run. His decision was also influenced by his recent experience in farming and producing food.
“If I’d still been working in finance then I might have voted differently, but having been involved in producing food and understanding both the need to support farmers and the importance of food security for the future, I felt Brexit, if handled properly, would be an opportunity to reconnect people with local produce and potentially reinvigorate farming across the country.” He worries, though, about the current state of negotiations and where we will end up.
In terms of agriculture they both want to see a genuine return to science-based decision making.
“We can now set the rules, though I don’t see the courage to do that. We could end up in such a fudge situation we can’t do anything,” said Chris.
I ask Will what he has planned for the future?
“It’s really trying to make the most of what we’ve got here. We’ve got stable capacity. We’ve got some nice fields, paddocks with some beautiful views. You’ve got a buzzard above you – you’ve got wild deer.
“I really believe in this area – in what it offers; its beauty and amenity. We’ve got to find a way of bringing people here to enjoy the setting. So we’re now looking into some on-farm accommodation,” he replied.
“We will be interested to see, given the current circumstances, what the attitude of the local authority is,” added Chris.
“People will still want to have a holiday or have a break but I think will be wary of getting on a plane. Fundamentally what you are selling is that serenity; that feeling that you are off the grid. If you choose to, you needn’t see another human being for days on end. The setting and the experience is the key,” continued Will.
Northover Farm is great example of a family farm that has embraced diversification, by thinking outside the box to build a more resilient and locally relevant business for the future. I look forward to following their progress as they develop the next chapter.