A passion for sheep and local food has been the driving factor behind a new direct-selling operation, recently launched by a young farming couple from Kent.
Chris Woodhead and Zoe Colville have built up their enterprise the hard way, with minimal finance, but a shedload of goodwill from others in the local food and farming community.
Having grown up on a sheep farm in Kent, the loss of his father when he was just 12 years old brought an end to Chris’ initial involvement in agriculture – though he knew that farming was in his blood.
An early career in plumbing failed to excite him and, after a period of illness following a trip to South-East Asia, he decided the time had come to pursue his dream, acquiring 32 in-lamb ewes in early 2014.
These were kept on a field belonging to an old friend of his late father, where the lambs were born and raised, then sold, giving him his first foothold in the sheep sector.
With the proceeds, supplemented by a bit of plumbing work, Chris acquired a further 100 Suffolk Mule ewes and rented another 32ha.
“Throughout this time, everyone was telling me there was no money to be made in farming and that I should go back to plumbing,” says Chris. “But I was determined to stick with it, even though the biggest challenge all along has been finding land.”
It got to a point where Chris was on the verge of selling his flock as in-lamb ewes because of a lack of grass, but then another block came available on the North Downs and the sheep were moved there for lambing.
“It was tough,” he recalls. “We had no shelter, no water, no electricity. We were lambing in the open, sheltering the weaker ones inside our jackets to keep them alive.”
Zoe’s journey into sheep farming was somewhat different. Having been brought up in the Kent countryside, she moved to London at 18 to train as a hairdresser, earning good money in the fashion industry.
But having met Chris seven years ago, she returned to Kent to help him build up the business. “I knew absolutely nothing about sheep – not even that they have two teats – but I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
Over the years they have slowly expanded, renting a bit more land here, borrowing an odd field there. “At one point we had eight or nine different plots, which we had to visit every day,” says Zoe.
Their big break came last year, when a landowner near Maidstone, keen to help a young couple get started, offered them 40ha, plus a barn at Pympes Court Farm.
The flock has now expanded to almost 700 ewes, though about 150 had to be sold this summer as the drought limited the amount of grass available.
The lambs are now being finished, with the aim to sell most of them direct through the couple’s new venture – The Little Farm Fridge.
The Little Farm Fridge
From the early days, Chris and Zoe were interested in selling direct, always keeping a few lambs back for family and friends. But, ironically, the coronavirus lockdown provided the boost necessary to get the direct sales business off the ground.
“This place was absolutely buzzing in lockdown, with a huge increase in the number of people coming to the farm shop and dog walkers going past our shed,” says Zoe.
“We love talking to them, and got lots of enquiries about lamb, which made us realise the potential. There is more interest now in supporting local businesses, and huge interest in where food comes from.”
Finance was obtained under the coronavirus Bounce Back Loan Scheme and a second-hand Portakabin bought for £1,500. The couple then set about laying foundations and bringing the premises up to the required public health standards. The Little Farm Fridge started trading a few weeks ago.
Selected lambs are sent for slaughter on a Monday and returned the next day. They are then hung in a cold store for a week, then butchered, packaged and frozen, ready to be delivered the following weekend. Cuts, burgers, sausages and lamb boxes may also be collected on Sundays.
Orders mostly come through the website, with more than 85% of those originating from social media links. “I keep a very active Instagram account, with almost 15,000 personal followers,” says Zoe, who is also an ambassador for the Original Muck Boot Company.
The economics of direct selling stack up well, adds Chris, with each lamb worth about £150 at retail. “Our costs are low, as we do everything ourselves. Slaughtering comes to about £12-£15 a head, but butchery we taught ourselves by watching YouTube.”
The couple also have about 30 Highland Dexter-cross cattle, kept on conservation grazing in Essex, and have recently started rearing goats for meat – “the fastest-growing sector we sell into”.
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