A passion for farming

Features Posted 29/07/19
Despite being discouraged from a career in farming, Anna Blumfield was determined to develop a thriving Sussex suckler herd with her husband Phil on their Essex-based estate, which now benefits from an on-site butchery allowing for direct to consumer meat sales.

Anna and Phil Blumfield run Deersbrook Farm, a family farm with a newly opened butchery, shop, and retail website, in Shalford Green near Braintree in Essex. They have two separate herds on the farm – 80 Native breed Sussex suckler cows and followers – all 100% grass-fed and PFLA accredited which are sold direct to the public, and a separate herd of 274 continentals – predominantly Salers with some Simmental and Charolais which are all finished on grain and sold to a processor.

Anna’s parents moved to the 105 acre farm about 30 years ago, initially renting the land for three years before buying it. Previously it was a deer and arable farm but it didn’t take her parents long before they had their first suckler cows. The numbers grew over the years, renting extra land as they expanded to around 1,000 head of mainly continental cattle.

A passion for farming

Growing up on the family farm Anna and her siblings were discouraged from going into farming by their parents. “When I was deciding what to do with my life around 16-18 – foot and mouth and BSE was going on, said: Anna. “Dad couldn’t guarantee the future of farming and persuaded us to find something else to do. I did a sports therapy diploma and degree at Hertfordshire University and then setup my own sports injury clinic and part of that is sports nutrition – which I’ve always been interested in – what we’re eating, and how it affects the body.

“My husband Phil came to work on the farm when he was 18. A family friend put him up for the job – he came for a harvest and ended up staying six years. However around that time – with farming being such an unstable career – he went back to building which is what he trained in.”

Both of them never lost their love of farming with Anna carrying on her pig enterprise while living away from the farm and also helping her dad by looking after his cattle grazing rented land in Suffolk. Then seven and a half years ago they were given the opportunity to come back to the farm to take over from her parents. “We jumped at it and started to make the changes,” says Anna.

Why Sussex cattle?

When Anna came back to the farm, one of the first changes she made was introducing a herd of Sussex cattle with the ambition to sell them direct to the public.

“Dad has never been able to resist something at market. Even though we always had a continental herd we also had a few Shorthorn, Red Poll, Sussex, Lincoln Red – a variety of native breeds. The Sussex just stood out – thrived on the pasture and birth really well. They are great mums, with plenty of milk, really docile, and good characters. And they look sleek – I like the look of them.”

Anna admits it’s taken time to persuade her parents and husband of the merits of the Sussex and says: “It’s hard managing the two herds. It makes more work for Phil as you have to manage them completely separately – when he’s already busy, but it’s paying off.”

Highlighting this very fact is the current market price for Beef. “The processors can just drop the price - which is falling rapidly now. They came out last Monday and said they were really sad that it’s dropped again. They are the same cattle – they take the same amount of time to grow. We can’t suddenly say we won’t have them anymore or we’ll get more – it’s how it is – they’ve got you,” said Anna.

“Whereas by direct selling – we’re in control of it and we know there’s demand and we’ve grown naturally with the demand. I think it will only grow – the way people are more interested – people are thinking a lot more about food – how it’s manufactured or farmed.”

Vegans a boon for business

With a lot of livestock farmers feeling under threat from the growing vegan movement – Anna sees it as an opportunity, explaining how it has really helped their business. “A lot of vegetarian or vegans come to us to buy ethical sustainable food for their families, if they don’t have it themselves. Or they are told medically they ought to have some different nutrition, and if they are going to have some they want a little but really good quality. Also the people are thinking about eating more ‘nose to tail’ - which makes a more sustainable business for us.”

Anna and Phil were the first farm in Essex to sign up for Pasture for Life, a certification mark for 100% grass-fed/pasture-fed grain free ruminant meat and dairy in the UK. Pasture for Life ticks all the boxes in terms of environmental sustainability, with a 100% forage based diet keeping cattle methane emissions to a minimum.

Anna also sent off their Sussex beef to be nutritionally tested. She said the results showed the essential fatty acids found in the beef are comparable to wild salmon in terms of omega 3’s and 6’s. This is a fact she delights in sharing with her customers, helping to reinforce how beef can be a valuable part of a healthy diet.

The farm

Phil heads up the farm team with one full time member of staff and extra full-time seasonal workers during the busy summer period. The Sussex cattle are mob grazed and kept outdoors during the winter, unless it’s very wet when they do bring them in. While during the summer months they tend to be set stocked in large paddocks when the farm team are busy with silage, hay making and harvest.

They grow their own wheat, barley and fodder-beet which is then milled and fed to the continental herd – which helps keep their feed costs down and allows them to keep their land in a rotation. Anna adds that they pay some sizeable rents for local and further away blocks of farm land but also have some heritage grazing agreements in place like Marks Halls and Wethersfield airbase, farming around 1000 acres in total.

Continentals Vs Sussex

Two very different herds and systems. Which system is better or more profitable? The Continental cattle are finished at 18-months or under, and sold deadweight under contract to ABP to supermarket departments. The males are kept together and left un-castrated to aid growth rates and are finished on their homegrown grain ration.

On average deadweight carcasses for the bulls are around 400 kilos and 360 kilos for the heifers with a grading of U+3.

The Sussex cattle on average take nearly an extra year to finish on pasture being slaughtered locally at between 24-26 months. Steers average around 360 kilos and heifers around 300 kilos deadweight with a R+3 grading.

Anna says: “Our Sussex animals thrive on almost nothing.” Although she adds that last summer’s drought did knock them. “We’re finding that the carcasses are taking an extra month or two to reach the same weights this year. “Last year the income split was 70:30 Continentals vs Sussex. This year it’s 65:35 with the butchery only six months old and we forecast 60:40 by the end of the year.”

Local abattoir

With a lot of local Abattoirs closing down, Anna stresses that they are lucky to have a local family run abattoir Humphreys & Sons, near Chelmsford. They operate a single file one way system that minimises the stress for animals. As it’s nearby it reduces the transport time which again minimises stress.

They deliver the carcasses back to the farm the following day, where Anna and her team hang it, controlling the humidity using Himalayan rock salt. “Through the whole procedure we’ve been in full control,” adds Anna. “It’s important to treat it just as well when it’s hanging as when it’s on four legs – to get the absolute best, and then wasting nothing is a big thing for us.”

Direct sales and events

Anna has been passionate about selling direct to the public since her school days – rearing Gloucester old spot and Oxford Sandy and Black pigs and selling the pork from the farm gate. Since moving back she has gradually built up the direct meat sales - initially working with a local butcher and operating out of a small room full of fridges and freezers in an existing farm building. She used to do a local farmers market and key food festivals – which they still do “because you reach so many people – you can do tasters and talk to people” explains Anna. She adds: “Even if you aren’t selling you can use it as a platform. You can tell people about the new shop, Open Farm Sunday and different events.” They really enjoy participating in Open Farm Sunday and are getting involved in British Food Fortnight in September this year.

“A couple of times during the year we have a chef come to the farm – during Great British Beef Week which coincided with St Georges Day in April.

“This September we are doing a street food market on the farm for the first time to coincide with British Food Fortnight #BritishFoodisGreat.” Anna mentions that people get something out of coming to the farm – “They like the whole farm to fork experience. As they drive down the lane they have 100% peace of mind where the food comes from. And you’ve got the taste to back it up.”

New butchery and farm shop

They got planning permission to build their butchery and farm shop in the summer of 2017 and managed to get LEADER funding through Wool Towns, to cover 40% of the costs. Anna admits it was a lot of paperwork but thankfully Emma Powlett, a rural management consultant helped her with the process. The funding covered the building and some of the fittings and equipment like the charcuterie cabinet (they make their own bresaola and salami) and mincer, but not the smaller items such a knives, boards etc.

The butchery and shop opened in December last year with Tara their full-time butcher joining the team in addition to Cherry who runs the shop and does the bookkeeping. They are selling roughly one carcass a week through the new butchery and also sell some of their PFLA Sussex carcasses direct to Simon, the head butcher at Macknade Fine Foods in Faversham. Being able to do all of their own butchery has helped them waste less, and have the flexibility and speed to jump on popular food trends, such as American BBQ cuts like Denver steaks.

As well as selling their meat the farm shop also sells a variety of locally sourced produce, such as fruit and veg, preserves, beer and wine.

Meat boxes

While most people are buying through the farm shop, their online meat boxes are still popular and are dispatched every week across the UK mainland.

The meat boxes come in a variety of options. Anna says: “I do a mini – which is four burgers, a small joint, a pack of mince and a couple of steaks. Then a small, medium and large. Most people go for the small and medium. The biggest barrier is a lot of people don’t have freezer space. I was brought up loving my freezer and cooking in batches. Most people might have a drawer and that’s it!”

For Anna the challenge of running the meat boxes is fitting in with modern day lifestyles. By having smaller box options for those with less freezer space, and trying to make the delivery service as convenient as possible for working people they are managing to win custom.

“We use a 24hr guaranteed courier tracked service which is expensive but the customer covers the cost and we always say leave it if no one is in, said Anna. “The only thing we won’t guarantee is Weekend delivery. We generally send it out on Thursday so it’s there on Friday for the weekend.”

“We use wool liners in our boxes and put in a couple of ice packs. With dry ageing the meat it doesn’t harm with freezing at all – as it’s the moisture that crystallises and expands the cells. With dry ageing the moisture has evaporated so you don’t get that. The texture doesn’t change.”

Awards

Anna says “We’ve just had an email to say that our Denver steaks have been shortlisted in the Great British Food Awards 2019, chef Nathan Outlaw is judging the fresh meat category. (results in October). We chose to send the Denver steak to demonstrate the huge variety of cuts available to make the absolute best of each and every animal.

Views on Brexit and government support for farmers

Anna and Phil feel like they have Brexit proofed their business by keeping everything in-house. “Our mince is the same price as standard mince (£8 per kilogram) and ours doesn’t shrink. We have everyone from dustman lorries to Maserati’s parked up – buying meat from us.”

About Brexit Anna says: “We just need to get it done, this period of uncertainty isn’t good for anyone.”

On the question of what will happen if farm subsidies are scrapped, Anna thinks there will always be something. “As if people had to pay the actual price it costs to grow something we’d all be too poor. So the government has to compensate – whether they call it a subsidy or a stewardship. So therefore I’m not worried because they’ve made the system so they have no choice but to carry on. It’s a shame people don’t realise the true cost of food – then they’d value it more and they wouldn’t waste it.”

Future plans

Anna wants to keep growing their Sussex herd to keep pace with the demand for the direct sales side of the business. The continentals still play an important role at the moment but longer term she has her eye on two sizeable grain stores situated right next to the butchery and farm shop. At the moment they are used for storing grain and milling/mixing their own feed ration for the continentals. Anna would like to turn this into a bigger farm shop eventually but for the time being is happy to continue to build up their business gradually as demand grows.


Tweets from @southeastfarmer