We’re with the Beesleys in Buckinghamshire for the latest article in our monthly series profiling farming families who pull together as a team to achieve business success. Lucy Knowles reports.
Shadrach Beesley arrived at Manor Farm in 1907 and, over the last 100 years, the family has successfully adapted its business to survive.
Shadrach, however, could never have predicted that this would include famous rock stars recording albums in some of the converted buildings.
The fifth generation of farmers, Robert and Tabby Beesley, marked the 100-year anniversary with a party for 200 guests in the grounds of the farm on 5 July.
“We invited all of mum and dad’s friends and business associates,” says Robert. “We had a hog roast for the younger generation, turning the corn store into a nightclub and then a sit-down buffet in a marquee for the older people, playing golden oldies.”
In fact, part of the success of this mixed farm is its ability to move with the times, expanding from 89ha (220 acres) to over 203ha (500 acres). The land is divided into arable and grassland, most of which is now owned by the family.
Following Shadrach’s death, his son Walter continued to run the operation, eventually buying it from Lord Hesketh in the late 1950s. Then in the 1960s, Robert’s father Montague and his brother bought the farm. Montague then took over the business after his brother died in 2000, and although Robert is now the farm manager, his parents are still heavily involved in the decision making. “I come up with the ideas and run them past my senior partners,” explains Robert.
His wife Tabby is company secretary and is in charge of all the admin. “She is careful to keep a track of finances, and keeps an eye on money going in and out.
“My mother Doreen looks after all the VAT for us, and my cousin Nick manages the arable side of the business on a share farm basis,” says Robert.
Tabby doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty either and is helpful outside, too, considering she originally came from a design background, adds Robert.
It is a fine line with farming as there are times when you need many people when there are tasks such as moving cattle, but then there are other times when you don’t need that many people it can be up and down, says Tabby.
Two of Robert’s older children also help out at various times. “My son Charles is 27 and doesn’t live at home, but my daughter Charlotte who’s 23 works on the farm part-time, as well as James, who’s 18, and recently left school.”
James has passed both his NVQ Level 1 and 2 in farming. “I hope it will push me forward to be a qualified farmer and take over the family business,” he says.
And Charlotte also enjoys life at the farm: “I love being outside with the animals, out of all the jobs I have done, farming stands out the most. It’s a physical job – it can be hard on the women.”
For Robert, agriculture was all he ever wanted to do. “I did leave for a couple of years through ill health, but I was glad to return.
“I have worked on this farm since I left school at 15 and even before that. I did a day-release from college for a few years, but I never went away to study.”
Back when Montague worked for his Uncle Walter, the business included a dairy enterprise until he eventually retired. “We returned the buildings to their original state and did some calving, but since then we have diversified and most of the buildings are let for other purposes,” says Montague.
Today, not only are there livestock including sheep and cattle at the farm but it also has 10 offices and workshop lets. “The two music and recording studios that are available for hire are very popular,” says Montague.
“Some of the bands don’t really need to give up their day jobs, though,” laughs Robert.
Robert also does some contracting work and a model helicopter club provides additional income, along with clay pigeon shooting.
Being a mixed farm and operating the office lets has made the business a profitable one. “It is important to choose the right options as they come along,” says Robert.
But the biggest change for the farm so far was joining the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), scheme. “It has changed our attitude, having been encouraged to produce as much as you can. All the birds had disappeared, so we are pleased to do a bit more to encourage them back and although this is only our second year in the scheme, it is paying dividends.
“The birds of prey have now returned and we are beginning to see owls, finches and woodpeckers,” says Robert.
The scheme extends to education, with Tabby regularly speaking to schools about farming issues.
Tabby explains that the schools will cover important topics such as racism, demonstrating points using black and white lambs. “The lambs are taken into the school and we look at the similarities and differences,” she says. “We also look at where food comes from.”
Part of the scheme involves school trips around the farm including for those with special needs, so they can learn more about agriculture and the countryside.
Tabby undertook a CEVAS qualification to give her more experience with the school kids. “I did a course a couple of years ago. It showed you the ups and downs of the farm visits and things to look out for.”
Part of the course involved a presentation to the rest of the group. “You had to field awkward questions that kids ask and it covered health and safety,” she says.
“We are also very innovative and I do a lot of reading of farming publications picking things out that would work for us.
“Things constantly change and it’s my job to look for new methods, we are always looking for the next best thing,” says Tabby.
One of their decisions was to buy and install a straw bale burner at a cost of about £11,000. It provides heating and hot water for the two adjoining farmhouses where the family all live. It is filled with waste wood that would otherwise go to landfill that Robert collects from the council and has already paid for itself within two years.
“We are not using oil anymore, it is good for the environment and we never run out of hot water or heating,” explains Tabby. “We are looking at changing fertiliser to green waste next.”
But the family have had to cope with some low points at times, such as the more recent threat of foot-and-mouth. “Although we didn’t have it here, the worry of it all and not knowing made it difficult,” adds Tabby.
However, a high point for Robert was marrying Tabby in 2000 and the couple have three children: Chloe (10), George (7), and Harry (4).
“We now have five children at home ranging from 23 to four,” says Robert. “With my younger daughter and sons, it’s like having a second generation within the same family.”
And living and working so closely together has actually strengthened their relationships, as they fit long hours around family life. As Montague comments: “We all get on, we sit down and talk things through.”
Tabby says that if she didn’t do so much work at the farm with Robert, it would be difficult. “There are times when we have arranged to go out for the day and then something happens at the farm and your plans have to change. If you are not fully aware of the situation, it can be frustrating. Farming is a way of life rather than a job.”
She explains: “If Robert has a long day hay-making, the children will come up to see him and we all have a picnic. We try to make it fun, and the children think it’s wonderful.”
But you have to make sure you are not working to live and instead are living to work as it can take over, says Robert.
The family have high hopes that the farm will continue into the next generation. James has a good business head on him, George is keen on tractor driving and arable and Chloe collects eggs from the hens, so it looks like it has fallen quite well, says Tabby.
“We hope that James will take the lead with our other smaller children following, but you never know when they are in their teens,” says Robert. “I’ll have to prepare to invite everybody to the next 100-year party. Swapping memories at this year’s event made it all worthwhile,” he adds.