There may be 14 of them involved with the business, but that doesn’t mean the Kimbers are all in the same place at the same time very often. So trying to pin them down for a photoshoot was a challenge.
Fortunate, then, that it’s youngest daughter Frances’ birthday, so they’ve all got together for a home-made mutton curry this evening.
Kimbers have been farming in Charlton Musgrove, near Wincanton, for over 300 years. Paul and wife Ruth met shortly after Ruth’s family had moved to the village.
One of her father’s cows had a difficult calving, so the next-door farmer’s son – Paul, then aged 20 – came over to lend a hand. They quickly got it together and in 1973 were married. The following year Paul’s father retired and they took over Higher Stavordale Farm.
“We were lucky. We didn’t have the troubles a lot of other farming families go through. Paul’s dad was happy to hand over the reins and made it easy for us,” says Ruth.
At the time, the farm was just 105 acres and had a herd of 120 dairy cows. Then as the family grew, so did the business.
“We started rearing a few pigs and chickens and selling the meat to friends. We quickly realised this was a way to bolster the dairy side of the business, so we gradually started doing a few more, still selling everything over the kitchen table.”
The family got a name for producing Christmas turkeys with all the trimmings. With this, in addition to all the pork, bacon and chicken that people were coming from far and wide to buy, it became apparent that sales from the farm gate were becoming a serious enterprise and warranted serious attention. “People were getting a real taste for our meat and we would have been silly not to have taken it further,” says Ruth.
So in the late 1990s the old cow stalls next to the house were converted into a proper butchery with a counter displaying the farm’s produce. At this point Ruth also started selling at local farmers’ markets.
When foot-and-mouth struck in 2001, movement restrictions meant there was no market for the farm’s excess dairy bull calves.
“We weren’t prepared to start shooting them when exports stopped, so we tried to come up with an outlet,” says son Tom.
“Although some of the bulls were finished in our beef unit, space did not allow for the remainder, so we struck upon the idea of rose veal.”
At the time there was little demand with most shoppers viewing veal as a dirty word. But slowly interest built and today the farm sends up to 20 seven- to eight-month-old calves to the abattoir every year for direct sales through the farm shop and markets.
Far from the darkened sheds and cramped crates more usually associated with European production, the Kimbers’ veal animals gambol freely around open, well-lit straw yards. Visitors to the shop are encouraged to take a tour of the yards and see for themselves the conditions that the animals are kept in.
This “open-farm” approach helped to build a regular customer base, but the family soon realised they needed to offer more.
In 2006 the butchery was extended and a proper farm shop was added selling local produce of all sorts from brandy and broccoli to carrots and cream.
Most of the farm’s milk is sold to local cheese producer Wyke Farms and until recently a small amount of unpasteurised milk was offered in the farm shop. An inconclusive TB test last spring put paid to that, so some is now sent away to be treated off-farm.
On-farm butcher, Sam Reynolds, prepares the meat for sale in addition to making sausages and home-cured bacon. Chorizo, speciality stuffings, forcemeats and all other manner of scrumptious produce are prepared by various members of the team.
In addition to the shop, the Kimbers have built their presence at farmers’ markets across the region, but all these developments require labour and plenty of it.
Paul and Ruth’s six children all play a part in running the business.
In her day job, oldest daughter Naomi works for SAI Global as a farm inspector for various assurance schemes including FABBL, ABP and Organic Farmers and Growers.
Her advice is invaluable. In addition her small herd of pedigree Ruby Devons co-habit with the farm’s other beef animals and provide some extra-rich, succulent cuts for the farm shop.
Next in line is Bex, who works as rural chartered surveyor for Fowler Fortescue in nearby Fonthill Bishop. She and husband Danj – who works with the stock on the farm – live at next-door Barrow Lane Farm, where they have four holiday cottages. “The cottages work well with the shop holiday-makers pre-order their food, which is ready and waiting for them when they arrive,” says Bex.
“They can see the farm from their bedroom window and Danj is always happy to take them on a tour. What better way of teaching people about where their food comes from?”
Daughter number three, Jess, is a food-processing and marketing aficionado having worked for St Ivel and Geest. Married to landscape gardener Graham Kimber Holloway and with an 18-month-old daughter Edith, Jess spends two days a week in the farm shop and the rest of her time with local cheese, chutney and vodka producer Godminster Vintage, whose produce is sold at Higher Stavordale.
Only-son Tom just about holds his own among his sisters. He manages the dairy and does most of the milking. His wife Jenny spends three days a week in the shop, works as a teaching assistant for the other two and helps out with fortnightly milk recording. But that’s all set to change in September, when she’s off back to university to qualify as a teacher. But she won’t manage to get away completely – she and Tom will continue their regular Saturday duty at Bath farmers’ market.
With daughters Grace (3) and Florence (1), you would imagine Paul and Ruth’s second youngest daughter, Hannah, has her hands full, but she also looks after niece Edith while Jess is at work, does a shift in the shop and assists Ruth at Shaftesbury farmers’ market.
Now an independent chartered surveyor, Hannah’s husband Nigel Kay used to work as an auctioneer at Salisbury livestock market. So it’s down to him to grade the lambs destined for the shop.
He has a bit of a vested interest there, too his dad Colin Kay farms in nearby Melbury Abbas and supplies sheep to the Kimbers. He gets ribbed by the entire family on the rare occasion that he picks out under-weight or over-fat lambs.
Birthday-girl Fran is a trainee solicitor working for Trethowans in Southampton. Together with boyfriend Andrew Gillett (also a solicitor specialising in agricultural tax law with Michelmores in Exeter) they, too, do their stint at Bath farmers’ market.
Ruth’s niece Lizzie Brown and her daughter, three-year-old Rosie, are also involved in the business. When she’s not in the shop or running Frome farmers’ market, Lizzie is an outreach worker at a local centre for under-privileged children. At the markets Rosie’s persuasive sales skills do the trick she specialises in butter sales.
But it’s Paul and Ruth who pull the whole bunch together. They share a true passion for stock and making sure their animals are looked after in the best possible way.
Paul’s efforts are heavily invested in caring for the farm’s cattle, pigs and poultry, but not exclusively – he is handy with a spanner, too. It also falls to him to deliver animals to the abattoir and retrieve the carcasses when ready.
Ruth has always been passionate about farming and wildlife. Heavily involved with the practical side of the farm, with calf rearing, milking, accounts and paperwork, she refers to herself as the general dog’s-body and gofer. In recent years she was chairman of Somerset NFU. She still sits on the milk committee and continues various other roles.
With so many family members involved at Higher Stavordale, you would imagine the logistics to be a nightmare. Planning is the key, says Ruth. “We’ve learned to become very organised.
“We were incredibly lucky to inherit the farm, but we’re even more fortunate that we have the whole family involved to make it work.”
In particular, everyone mucks in just before Christmas to help out with turkey sales. Customers come to the farm to collect their orders and enjoy the festive spirit with a glass of mulled Somerset cider.
Ruth’s passion for producing good wholesome, local food is impossible to hide.
“I’ve always wanted to farm. It’s my first love no, I shouldn’t say that it’s my second love after Paul and the kids. We’ve had to diversify, but we’re still just a traditional, old-fashioned mixed family farm at the heart of it.”