Looking on the bright cider life

Features Posted 11/10/21
Nigel Akehurst visits Trenchmore Farm in Cowfold, West Sussex, to meet Rachel Knowles, one of the team behind the award-winning Silly Moo Cider and Wagyu cross Sussex Beef.

Andrew and Joanne Knowles bought Trenchmore Farm in 2012, leaving London to realise a lifelong dream of running their own farm. Initially the plan was to have a small herd of suckler cows and enjoy the good life. However, it wasn’t long before an ambitious plan was hatched to regenerate the depleted soil and develop a number of different enterprises on the farm.

This involved building a new state-of-the-art farmyard, planting an apple orchard, growing heritage grains and developing a herd of Sussex and Wagyu cattle.

Eight years on and the two main enterprises are cider and beef production, allied to some heritage grain and small-scale poultry. It’s very much a family run business; their son Oscar spent a few years on the farm after University. He initially shadowed their farm manager, who then moved on. Oscar took on the role himself and, without any formal training, found himself learning from YouTube farmers like Joel Salatin and Richard Perkins.

Ultimately Oscar decided to pursue other career opportunities in London, but in 2017 daughter Rachel joined the business, initially to help with their cider brand Silly Moo. She now makes the cider and looks after all the sales and marketing across the different enterprises, as well as doing the accounts. The day-to-day management and farm chores are carried out by Andrew and full-time stockman Neville.

Factfile

Farm facts

  • Regenerative, family run mixed farm business
  • Own 200 acres and graze an additional 150 acres locally
  • New farmyard built in 2012, including innovative round house barn
  • 300 head of cattle – 140 breeding cows, five bulls, rest for beef
  • Cattle 80% grass fed, 20% byproducts of human food production
  • Retail Sussex x Wagyu to restaurants and via their online shop. They also sell some whole carcasses to high end butchery business in Essex
  • Silly Moo Cider brand – currently selling around 60,000 litres annually with plans to expand this to 100,000 next year
  • Planted four-acre cider orchard in 2012, producing 10,000 litres of juice. Also take dessert apple swaps for cider and buy in graded fruit from other farms
  • New poultry enterprise – 102 free range egg layers housed in a Richard Perkins-inspired egg mobile. Have also been trialling small batches of meat birds processed in Ditchling
  • Grew 1.5 acre diverse populations of wheat this year. Going to resow into 10 acres until they have enough to mill.
  • Pop up farm shop every Saturday for online order collections
  • Farm events

Farm visit

Driving through the farm gates, the first thing I see is the large round house barn, sitting at the centre of a modern farmyard. Meeting Rachel and Neville I begin by quizzing them on their enviable set up.

The farmyard was designed around the round house, “chosen to maximise animal welfare,” Rachel explained. The decision was based on the research work of American scientist and animal behaviourist Mary Temple Grandin, who discovered that cows don’t like straight lines and like to be able to see each other.

Built in 2012, it is used as winter housing and has an integrated cattle handling system that can be safely operated by one person. The barn also acts as a large roundabout for vehicles since it is located in the middle of the farmyard. “The only downside is that it takes longer to top up the cattle feed troughs,” I was told.

Next we headed over to see a group of their Wagyu cross Sussex cattle in a more conventional-shaped barn. They were tucking into a finisher ration of spent brewers’ grains and linseed cake – “all byproducts of human food production,” pointed out Rachel – as well as some first cut silage.

Wagyu X Sussex beef herd

“The Sussex cows were selected for their docile temperament and ability to thrive off native grasses,” said Rachel. Crossing the Sussex with a Red Wagyu (also known as Akaushi) bull gives them hybrid vigour and, importantly, a much sought-after product to supply to the restaurant trade.

The herd are mob grazed using electric fences and moved to a fresh paddock every three days (though they’ve struggled to keep up with the grass growth this year). Finishers are brought inside at around 30 months to spend their last three to six months on a finisher ration, which gives them a consistent product for their restaurant customers.

When fat, batches of two or three animals are taken to Tottingworth abattoir, where they average around 350-400kg deadweight. Carcasses are collected by their wholesale customers or go to their butcher in Netherfield to hang for a minimum of 21 days before being cut up and labelled ready for their own restaurant and online shop customers.

Silly Moo Cider

Next to the farmyard is a four-acre cider orchard, which was planted in 2012. The trees were well laden with fruit and picking was due to start imminently, Rachel explained. There are 1,600 trees containing 19 different varieties of cider apple trees planted from east to west in order of ripening.

Rachel explained that a minimal intervention approach has been adopted; no chemical sprays or artificial fertilisers are used and the trees produce a healthy yield most years. Picking is all done by hand and it takes around six weeks, starting in the east of the orchard and working through the different varieties as they ripen.

In the past they have used Romanian pickers but in recent years have relied upon more local teams. All the apples are processed on site through a traditional manually operated rack and cloth (also known as a hydraulic bed) press.

“You pile it up and the hydraulic ram presses it down – which gives great juice extraction,” said Rachel.

“All the leftover apple pomace is fed to our cattle, which go a little bit silly as they devour it. Hence the name of the brand,” she added.

The raw juice goes into plastic IBCs and, once fermented, into steel tanks with carbon dioxide blankets to prevent oxygen getting in - to be aged for at least six months.

“No cultivated yeasts are added, so the cider develops wonderful complex flavours from the wild ferment, which is letting whatever was on the skin of the apple do its job,” she continued.

The downside of this more natural, yet unpredictable, approach is the occasional off flavours from bad ferments, which they are able to blend out.

Last year the farm produced around 60,000 litres of cider in total, 10,000 litres of which came from their own orchard and the remainder from apple swaps - they invite local people to bring in their dessert apples to swap for cider - and graded fruits from other farms including Ringden Farm in Hurst Green.

They use a 50:50 ratio of dessert apples to cider apples, describing their style as “east coast meets west country”. East coast producers tend to use a lot of dessert apples, which results in a cider that is quite acidic, sweet and fizzy but without any tannins or flavour complexities. West country cider scrumpy on the other hand is more tannic and can be quite challenging.

By mixing the two they’ve created a halfway house. Rachel explained: “You get a really nice blend of tannins with some nice acidity. It’s also quite fruity and sparkling but not overly sweet. It’s more interesting and we add fresh juice to the cider before closing the bottles.”

All the bottling and kegging is outsourced to a company in Somerset. They send all the blended juice and they ship the finished product back on pallets ready to be sold.

Most of the cider is sold direct to pubs in Sussex in a mix of kegs and bottles. They also work with a wholesaler who distributes into London and parts of the West Country. Prior to lockdown sales were on track for 100,000 litres a year but they have had to scale back their expansion plans.

“During lockdowns we switched to online direct sales, but things are slowly getting back to normal,” said Rachel.

I ask if they plan to expand their current orchard or buy in more from other farms? “It’s lovely having an orchard and it’s always a lot of fun having people coming to pick but it’s a lot of work and it doesn’t pay,” she replied.

“We can’t compete with the economies of scale of larger orchards, which produce apples to the same standard as us at a cheaper price, so we’ll just buy in more in the future,” she replied.

Marketing

Highlighting one of the key challenges – getting consumers to realise that cider costs a lot more to make than beer – Rachel said: “Typically you can only charge what you get for craft beer but it’s a completely different product. Beer is mainly water and our cider is nearly all pure juice. A brewer can make a batch every three weeks. Our cider is once a year.”

Despite this she is optimistic about the sector, with more people beginning to realise they get what they pay for. “Silly Moo bottles are £3.50 and one bottle, Silly Moo Repo, is £9, which is pushing into wine territory,” she added.

The plan is to double the current volume in the next year, which should help reduce some of the production costs per unit and allow them to take on more staff as the business grows.

Rachel has always loved the drinks sector, having previously worked for a startup distillery in North London as their first employee, before getting roped into the family business.

“I never thought I’d work in the countryside or leave London, but I love it,” said Rachel.

Her marketing skills have proved invaluable in getting Silly Moo into more Sussex pubs, now their bread and butter. In the past couple of years she has also taken on more of the Wagyu Sussex beef marketing.

Currently they sell one body of beef a week but plan to double this next year and eventually get to three bodies a week. Chefs love the meat, said Rachel.

“They like the fact that we’re farmers and are willing to be flexible with our restricted supply. Most of the restaurants supplied are fairly local like Gravetye Manor in West Hoathley but we also supply several chefs in Brighton and a few in Eastbourne.”

All told they have about 12 regular customers, each taking all of a specific cut, such as all the brisket or Jacob’s ladder, based on their menu.

With restaurants closed during lockdown, they quickly moved online and started selling steak packs and braising packs direct. To begin with they struggled with carcass balance before moving to freezing less favoured joints and slow cooking cuts. They have since switched to letting people pick what they like – which seems to be working.

Since reopening, the restaurant trade has bounced back and they continue to sell online to the public, with collections from their ‘pop up’ farm shop every Saturday.

Another great outlet for them is a high-end butchery business in Essex that takes whole carcasses and pays a premium over the larger scale wholesalers.

“We pay for the slaughter but they collect from Tottingworth,” said Rachel.

“They also make bresaola with our topsides which we sometimes buy back from them to supply to our chefs,” she added.

Pastured poultry in the orchard

This year the business started a small poultry enterprise on the farm, buying in 102 Bovan Brown free range hens. They built an egg mobile, based on a Richard Perkins design, on an Ifor Williams trailer so that it can be moved easily around the apple orchard.

On average they get around 80 eggs a day, most of which are sold in trays to restaurant customers. They have also experimented with small batches of meat birds, which are moved daily through the orchard. When ready, at around 10 weeks, they are taken to a poultry abattoir in Ditchling to be processed.

Heritage grains

In the past they have grown and sold heritage grains, an enterprise spearheaded by Joanne, who is no longer involved in the business. They are still growing diverse wheat populations, developed for their soil type, but the harvest this year wasn’t great, so they are planning to resow and hopefully have enough to mill some next year. “It’s an incredible movement and my dream is to have a peasant bakery at the farm where we mill and make bread on site,” said Rachel.

On farm events

Rachel is passionate about building the local food movement. “It’s about connecting the community with the farm,” she said. “I want people on the farm – I want people to see what we are doing, I want to work with local chefs, I want to do events and learn from them and they learn from us.”

At the time of visiting she was planning a folk band event in the round house, working with the 3 Bros – a local burger business – to provide the food (with their Trenchmore burger). She provides the venue and does all the marketing and they share the profits, a format that works well.

They recently ran a beef ragu event, and while she didn’t make “loads of money”, events of this type help bring in additional beef sales and sell pints of their Silly Moo cider on tap.

A bright future

Rachel clearly loves her role and sees a bright future for the business. Their website proclaims: “We believe in good food, grown well” and it’s a motto they clearly live and breathe. Trenchmore Farm is a compelling example of what it is possible to achieve with fresh ideas and the capital required to create a sustainable farming business that not only regenerates the soil but also turns a profit. I look forward to following their journey via instagram @trenchmore_farm and attending some of their farm events.


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