The 100-acre farm in the village of Ditchling, East Sussex, is home to the Macmillan family and their award-winning organic egg poultry business (Susie and Danny won the Farmers Weekly Poultry Farmer of the year award in 2019 and Large Diversification award at the British Farming Awards in 2021).
They also run a successful summer campsite which, in less than seven years, has grown from a small diversification venture with 20 pitches to a multi-faceted camping and events business. They have 115 pitches with up to 450 people staying on the farm at the weekend.
The business has come a long way since they took over running the farm from Susie’s parents in 2003. It’s not been an easy ride, with many ups and downs, but the past two years have been their hardest to date.
They have now realised they can no longer do it all themselves and are employing people to help them develop all their exciting ideas, said Susie.
Their campsite opens in May, and they are looking forward to an easier season, with more staff already in place to help. Encouragingly, they are already 50% sold out. In addition to camping, they host various music and foodie events and have nine weddings booked in this year.
Central to their family farming business are their 12,000 organic egg laying hens, currently locked down in two 6,000-bird flat deck sheds due to Avian Flu. All the eggs are sold through their own egg shack or via local wholesalers in Sussex.
Supplying the supermarkets
Susie’s parents, Peter and Liz Barton, bought the Ditchling farm in 1994 and converted an old pig barn into a free-range egg shed. They converted to organic in 1996 and put up another shed two years later. By then Susie was working for them, alongside brothers Andrew and Richard.
In 2003, when Susie was in “baby zone”, her dad rang to say he was thinking about retiring and wanted her advice on how it could work. Susie suggested each sibling put their own money into the farm as “that’s your motivation”, she said.
Luckily her parents owned three farms and within 24 hours he came back with the idea that they run a farm each, as long as they could agree who was comfortable running which farm, she explained.
At the time her husband Danny, a self-employed builder, was running his own company. They decided it was too good an opportunity to miss.
The location of the other two farms suited her brothers, so Susie and Danny took on the Ditchling farm. Although it didn’t have a house, there was outline planning permission for an agricultural dwelling. They did up their family home in Seaford to sell and Danny set to work building the new bungalow on the farm.
To turn things around they poured any spare cash into improving the farm infrastructure. Susie had their third child, and three months later they moved into the new bungalow, which made life easier.
Then in 2008 the birds allowed per square metre changed significantly, which meant they would have to cut their number of chickens by around a third, making the farm unviable. With limited options, they decided to put up two new 6,000 bird units, borrowing £750,000 in the process.
“That meant we could keep the number of birds we had plus 4,000 extra because the birds per square metre rules had changed so significantly,” said Susie.
All their eggs were supplied to supermarket under contract with Noble Foods, which helped them get their own Macs Farm brand into Tesco in the South East.
Despite the increase in hen numbers, below average egg production meant paying back the loans on the two new sheds was a “constant struggle,” said Susie. With small margins “every egg counts,” she added.
They were losing money and decided to try selling eggs direct from the farm gate at a better price point, as well as supplying local shops, cafés and restaurants. “We opened the farm to the public so people could come in and visit us and ask questions, buy eggs directly from the farm and get to know us. This was helpful in finding new customers,” Susie went on.
Eventually Susie asked Noble Foods if they could stop supplying them, as they would not survive if they held them to the contract.
They agreed to let them go. “It was exciting but also worrying as we still had large loan repayments outstanding on the two sheds,” said Susie.
Curious to learn more about the sector, I asked how other producers manage to make it stack up. “Some of the organic egg producers are massive and they’ve been given huge grants – especially the Welsh and Irish – making their cost of production way lower,” she replied.
Susie explained how producers are paid the same regardless of whether they have eight massive sheds or one small one.
“It’s not a fair game and the supermarkets don’t care. With the current sky-high feed prices, more and more family farms are being driven out of business.”
The larger units can’t provide the same animal welfare as smaller family farms, she said.
“Everyone who works here is taught that animal welfare is above and beyond anything else. We have to keep them fit, healthy, happy and safe. We go to great lengths to bring out any that are bullied or slightly injured. They are really well cared for.”
Future of family farms and the importance of food education
On the future of family farms, she said: “Once these family farms go, they are not ever coming back as a cute farm. They’ll be used for storage or small industrial units. They’ll more than likely be converted into housing. That’s why is so important to keep hold of as many family farms as possible.”
Susie believes most smaller farms are having to diversify in one way or another: “A bit of storage or a little cafe. They are all having to do it – they have to find what is right for them.”
A big part of the solution is educating consumers about food labels and getting consumers to think more about where their food comes from. “Everyone needs to start looking at packaging. You need to be buying more British stuff. Get your kids to look at packaging. You need to read it. It’s really interesting – it makes you stop and think about how you spend your money.
“You can go out and spend £3 on a coffee but then people object to spending that on half a dozen eggs. In our egg shack they are under £2. Those six eggs will make a meal whereas you’ll drink that coffee in under five minutes.
“You have to look at food differently. It shouldn’t necessarily be cheap – you need to value everything more. We are all responsible for animal welfare – it is down to how you shop. We encourage people to eat locally and seasonally,” she said.
Trialing camping in 2014
In 2014, they began their own diversification journey. Danny suggested camping and they decided to trial it on the 28-day camping rule. As a builder, he was able to build a portable toilet/shower block and they opened with 20 pitches, targeting the weekend locals who wanted a camping break with their children.
They invited a friend in with a horse box to pitch up at weekends to do coffees and cocktails for the first year.
“Everything was done with pen and paper – you had to ring up! By the end of the summer we were fully booked. It was a useful exercise and we thought we could do some more with this. From what my husband thought would be low maintenance, camping rapidly turned into ‘you come to the farm – meet the chickens, collect the eggs’,” said Susie.
For the second year they built their own coffee and cocktail bar out of an old van and quickly scaled up to 30 pitches and were sold out. By the third year they opened another field for group camping and were doing 80 pitches in total.
To grow the business, they converted one of their old chicken sheds into an event space with a bar, enabling them to put on barn dances and other events.
All the while a planning battle with the South Downs National Park which she described as “a nightmare, costing them an absolute fortune” was rumbling on in the background
She added: “None of the planning committee were farmers and they didn’t understand the application.” They also had lots of local opposition in the village, even receiving objections from Morocco.
“A lot of people have since apologised but the experience wasn’t pleasant,” she said.
Despite the opposition, their application was approved subject to lots of conditions, which would have cost upwards of £50,000. They decided to resubmit a second, pared-down application, which was then approved.
Rehoming old chickens and a cashflow crisis
In March 2020 they decided to take out their second oldest chicken shed as the machinery was worn out and needed upgrading.
To re-do it as a multi-tiered organic system would have cost £350,000 and a minimum 20-year commitment. No one was keen, said Susie, so they began the process of rehoming all their hens through the charity Fresh Start for Hens, run largely by volunteers.
Covid-19 hit, which made the process a real challenge. It took weeks but they managed to find homes for them all.
Their biggest Covid-19 concern wasn’t chickens, but the money they had taken from campsite bookings. They’d already reinvested it back into the farm as they had done during previous years.
“We knew we didn’t have enough money to pay everyone back if they wanted a refund. We went into panic – I felt physically sick and had sleepless nights,” said Susie.
“We constructed a good email to say if they wanted a refund we would honour it, but if we honoured everyone’s refund, we wouldn’t make it.” They asked customers to consider moving their bookings to the summer or the following season.
“People were incredible, and we only had to refund four bookings. I think everyone was very understanding of us being a small family farm,” she added.
There was enormous relief when it was finally announced that camping could go ahead in July. They opened for eight weeks and went ‘hell for leather’ said Susie.
“We brought in street diners; we brought in buskers. We told people they could come in for a drink at the bar and to listen to the buskers. We didn’t take what we needed but it was just enough to see us through the winter and allow us to buy our next flock of birds,” she added.
Booming eggs sales and scaling up for 2021
Lockdown meant they lost most of their cafe and restaurant customers, but the shortages in the supermarkets meant sales from their on-farm egg shack went through the roof.
Selling at a better price point, this more than made up for losses elsewhere. They also sold plants from a local garden centre that was forced to close when the owner approached them worried that the stock would go to waste.
In 2021 they took a bounce back loan of £50,000 and invested it into transforming their other chicken shed. “We put in a concrete floor and an amazing bar. Half of it is an amazing event space and the other half is storage for all our mowers,” said Susie. They also built an outdoor stage so they could host more outdoor events, along with a crepe shack, having successfully sold them the previous year.
“We’ve got all these income streams coming in. We’ve also started putting up our prices as we had spent years reinvesting to make the campsite so lovely and now include a wood box with marshmallows in the pitch price. People turn up and they don’t necessarily realise it’s included, which is nice.”
Susie explained it was their toughest year yet: “Events are such hard work. We were short staffed and doing everything.” By the end of the season they were exhausted.
It took months to recover, but they’ve found their ‘mojo’ again. “We’ve got the best job ever – we just need to make sure we’ve got enough help and we’re not trying to do it all ourselves,” she said.
Plans for the future
To help pay for additional staff this year they are adding a lot more courses to the experience of coming to the farm. “Things like woodland yoga, building a bug hotel, meet the farmer – which are popular,” she said.
This year they intend to split their accounts internally to see what is doing well, Susie explained. “The farm is profitable, but I’m not sure how profitable. We need to make sure we understand every side of this business, so we know what decisions to take going forward.”