The 350-acre farm is located at Broad Oak, Heathfield, in the heart of the beautiful High Weald of Sussex, with 250 acres of pasture and around 100 acres of ancient woodland. The farm was bought by Sarah’s grandparents Dennis and Ruby Browning in 1957.
Her granddad started the abattoir in the early 1960s. More than 60 years on, the farm is still in the family.
“We are proud to keep it a traditional working farm in the community in the modern day,” said Sarah.
More recently Tottingworth Farms has diversified the business to cater for the growing demand for local produce, opening a small farm shop in 2011. Due to the success of the venture a decision was taken to expand, and in 2016 a much larger farm shop and adjoining café was opened. They now employ 22 people, including the part-time, now furloughed, cafe staff.
Despite facing increasing regulatory cost and competition from larger processors, Tottingworth continues to operate a small cattle and sheep abattoir line three to four days a week, providing a much-needed facility for farmers and butchers locally.
Growing up at Tottingworth, Sarah worked on the farm and attended Plumpton College on day release. Then, after her grandfather suffered a stroke, she quickly took on more responsibility. By the time she turned 24 she was running the whole business. In 2004 her younger brother Michael Unsworth White joined the family business and now does much of the tractor work, as well as running his own woodland management and logs business.
Tottingworth is home to more than 300 head of cattle and 280 breeding ewes. Sarah is passionate about her pedigree livestock. She has a herd of 25 Galloway cows and followers, which she shows with husband Jason, and is using more Galloway breeding in their main suckler cows herd.
“We find the Galloway eats so well, which is why we are using more and more of the Galloway breeding for the human food chain,” she said.
“The smaller carcasses of 300 to 350kg deadweight work so well for us. We find we can use the whole body through the farm shop. The steaks cut the right size,” she added.
She can see why farmers are getting penalised for the bigger carcasses by the larger processors.
“They used to pay good prices for the Lims but it’s gone full circle now,” she said.
Sarah and her husband Jason, who runs his own haulage business, have a small herd of six British Blue cows. They also have a pedigree flock of Blue Texels.
“We’re going down the route of Maedi Visna accreditation for them so that we will be able to take them to the Carlisle Show and Sale,” she explained.
Sarah and Jason take the pedigree Galloways to Scotland to sell them. As relative newcomers, she said they had struggled to attract the top prices so far.
“We will get our name, but it just takes a bit of time to get there,” she said.
“In 2017 we won the junior inter breed champion with our heifer ‘Silverbell’ at the Highland show,” she added.
They have since flushed her and have a really nice heifer coming along, as well as having sold one bull calf from her.
I asked what sort of money her prize-winning pedigree cattle can fetch.
“For the Galloways, we’re still fairly new at selling them but we made £10,000 on a British Blue once in Carlisle,” she replied.
“The only trouble with the natives is there isn’t the money in them. We paid £8,000 for a Galloway and hopefully in years to come we will be able sell the progeny at good prices. It just takes a little while to build a name and get the right following,” she explained.
At the time of writing, they have a group of six Galloways ready to sell and are hoping to take them to Castle Douglas or Carlisle, depending on the rules.
“It’s the first time we’ve sent a big lot,” she said.
Sarah said the trade was very up and down: “The Germans were buying quite a lot but won’t be able to come over due to the restrictions, creating a big gap in the market,” she explained.
“It’s a lot of work getting them ready – they’ve been halter broken, washed and are ready to go.”
Despite the work she admitted they enjoy it: “It’s a bit of a hobby and part of our business too.”
Sarah was pleased to report that the farm shop had benefited from an influx of new customers choosing to avoid the supermarkets and buy locally.
“Since Covid-19 hit last year we’ve easily doubled our turnover through the shop, though we lost the cafe trade,” said Sarah.
She said around one and a half bodies of beef a week are sold through the shop, all from their own herd. They also sell around seven lambs and four to five pigs a week, all sourced from the farm or locally.
“We upgraded our meat counter, which allowed us to increase our range by a third,” she added.
The café staff had to be furloughed but now their chef is nearly full-time cooking sausage rolls, pasties, quiches, soups and pies as the ready-to-eat range has been expanded. The other member, who was previously front of house, is now helping out on the till and is part-time furloughed.
Sarah has also taken on another full-time member of staff to keep up with the increasing demand and carry out deliveries.
They currently deliver to around 30 vulnerable households within a three-mile radius of the farm as well as offering car park collections so people don’t have to come into the shop. Sarah is also hopeful the new customers will continue to shop with them when lockdown ends, as many have realised it doesn’t cost them more than the supermarket and the quality is better.
I asked if they had seen a similar increase in the abattoir. “On the slaughtering side we’ve increased by half again from what we were doing,” she replied.
Since last March the business has gone from killing three days a week to three-and-a-half or four days. Interestingly, a lot of the extra demand has been for lamb, though they also had the highest number of cattle in the lead-up to Christmas that they’d seen for several years.
“Every butcher you speak to has massively increased his or her retail throughput – even though they have lost their catering jobs,” she explained. “Even now you forget you’re in January as it’s so busy.”
Animals rights protests
In the past the farm has experienced trouble from animal rights activists, Sarah said.
“They were here once a month for two years. Some months they would come twice. Last year they came on our lambing open day and were shouting at the children coming down the drive.
“They’re not physically aggressive but they say some pretty horrid stuff – they’d rather see us dead than the animals in the trailers,” she added.
She said the police had been really supportive but towards the end they didn’t have the resources to help them very much.
“We’d get the 999 response team come out, but if a more urgent call came in they had to go to that,” she said.
On Sunday 9 October 2019, hundreds of farm supporters turned out to line the farm drive as animal rights activists staged a protest.
The turnout resulted from a social media post on Tottingworth’s Facebook page describing how they anticipated a demonstration by Sussex Animal Save.
Sarah and the team were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that turned up to show how passionate the community is about supporting the British farming industry.
“As we have said before, we understand that everybody has a right to make their own dietary choices, but we will not succumb to harassment by this group of activists,” said Sarah.
Report highlights dwindling numbers of small abattoirs in the UK
A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare published last summer highlighted that a third of small abattoirs had closed in the past 10 years alone. There are now only 62 left in the UK. The report considered evidence from farmers about the importance of small abattoirs to the rural community and why action was needed to stop the numbers falling further.
The small abattoir at Tottingworth plays a pivotal role in the community, with many farmers and butchers in the South East relying on it for their businesses.
Sarah said she was committed to keeping the beef and lamb lines going.
“There is less stress on the animals and the eating quality is better compared to bigger processing plants,” she said.
She is currently looking for some grant funding to make improvements to the ageing buildings, which were last extended in the seventies. She would also like to put in some modern machinery to help automate it.
One of her main concerns is labour: “Small abattoirs need skilled staff – which is just not out there. I think it is the hardship of it,” she said.
She currently employs two eastern European staff in the abattoir. They are good workers, she said. Four of the team have been with them for over 20 years.
In the EU membership referendum Sarah voted to remain: “I was anti Brexit due to staffing. What English person wants to work in the gut room?” she asked. “We’d have them come, but they’d never last.”
Rising costs and falling income
In recent years Sarah has seen rising costs due to regulation.
“Closed circuit TV cost us £8,000 to put in three years ago. Do we really need it? We have a vet on site all the time we are slaughtering,” she said.
Tottingworth has also seen a significant drop in income from hides and skins, which have next to no value now. Ten to 15 years ago they received an annual income of around £50,000 from them.
Going back 30 years, Sarah said her grandfather used to get a sizeable income for the guts. Now they pay a significant fee to dispose of them, showing just how much things have changed.
In March 2019, Tottingworth took the decision to close down the pig side of the abattoir, which was operating half a day a week.
Sarah explained that they needed to put in a new pig de-hairing machine and the boiler needed upgrading.
“It was a lot of extra cost and hassle for the 140 pigs we were killing a week,” she said.
It was a difficult decision, she said, but one she believes will make the business more profitable in the long term.
New shop and a lucky escape
Sarah is delighted with the success of the new farm shop and café that opened in 2016. The large building sits on the footprint of an old pole barn used for storing straw and machinery. Sarah said planning was relatively straightforward to obtain.
The business received 40% LEADER funding towards appliances in the kitchen and tables and chairs for the cafe.
Sarah found the grant funding process a lot of work. She also ended up in hospital a day before the application deadline after a cow attacked her while she was spraying a calf’s navel in a pen. Luckily Sarah managed to clamber out to safety but was badly hurt.
She suffered a fractured back and broken ribs and ruptured her spleen. “It was a nightmare,” she said.
Thankfully a member of staff called up Wealden and Rother Rural Partnership programme manager Don Cranfield, who gave them a week’s extension, and with the help of a friend they managed to complete the application.
After a successful back operation and a week in hospital, Sarah fortunately made a complete recovery.
For the past few years Tottingworth has staged lambing days to attract local families to the farm and help educate the public about where their food comes from.
“We do it over four days and I get a lot out of it,” Sarah said. Sarah enjoys seeing the children learning and notes that a lot of adults haven’t seen lambing either.
They have a ‘stroke the pet lamb’ area, bouncy castle and easter egg hunt for children. In 2019 they got through more than 800 easter eggs, she said.
Unlike some open farms, Tottingworth doesn’t charge for entry, but it’s a great marketing tool for the farm and the cafe does well out of their all-day breakfasts. They also have a burger stand outside all day.
“It’s a really good family day,” Sarah added.
Plans for the future
The Tottingworth team is currently working on getting permission to build a new slurry lagoon on the farm and wants to put in a wetland. The process is proving frustrating.
“We’ve had a wildlife survey, soil survey – it all costs thousands and we haven’t even started digging,” she said.
I asked what area of the business Sarah enjoyed most. She told me she enjoyed the farming but doesn’t get enough time: “We do that nights and weekends,” she said.
The majority of her time is taken up running the shop these days. She likes the buzz of the kitchen and enjoys the butchery.
“We’ve been doing really well with the butchery since Covid-19 and I have learned a lot,” she said.
In the past they had a cutting room but couldn’t make it stack up.
I asked her if she worries about the fall in farm subsidies. “Touch wood we don’t rely on the money,” she said. “We use it to invest in farm equipment, but I’d like to think we could get by without it. You’ve got to be one step ahead. That’s why we’ve got the wetland going in – as that will help us. It’s about learning to diversify.”
It’s this innovative approach that has helped Sarah and the team at Tottingworth Farms build a resilient farming business fit for the modern day.