Cornish business prospers through the generations

There can’t be many farming families with 15 family members contributing to the business at once.

But the Lobbs, with a mixed farm and thriving farm shopnear St Austell in Cornwall, are putting their combined enthusiasm to great use.

The family has been farming at Lower Kestle Farm, St Ewe, for five generations, their blacksmith forefathers having moved all of six miles from a nearby hamlet to settle there. “We didn’t come very far,” jokes Ian.

Father Jim and his wife Vina retired about five years ago, but still come and check to make sure the three sons – Ian, Terry and Richard – are doing the job right.

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The brothers share responsibility for the farm and the farm shop, spending a rotation of two weeks each on the farm and one in the shop. “We all like being on the farm, and this gives us a feel for both businesses,” says Richard.

Lobbs family

Jim and Vina (seated) with family members and (below and right) some of the lovely produce in the shop

The family decided to diversify about five years ago, when agriculture was making very little profit. “We sat down and worked out everything we could do to bring in extra income,” recalls Ian. They tried fishing ponds, horse livery and a small-scale shoot, none of which turned profits around.

“We had a choice – either give up farming, become more efficient, or try and get a bigger margin on what we were producing.”

A deep-seated love of farming and a belief in environmentally-friendly production led the brothers towards opening a shop.

“Over the years we have tried co-operation and built a relationship with butchers, but they only paid the market price,” says Ian. He believed the way the family produced their meat ought to command a premium due to their high-welfare, eco-friendly practices.

Fortunately, Lower Kestle Farm adjoins the Lost Gardens of Heligan, a tourist attraction which opened about 15 years ago. As the gardens grew in popularity, they needed more parking, which the Lobbs provided.

They then realised, with more than 300,000 visitors a year to the gardens, the family was in an ideal position to open a shop in the car park, and make use of the customer base literally walking past their door.

With the help of Business Link, and research visiting farm shops around the country, the brothers went all out for a top-of-the-range shop selling their own produce and other fine-quality products.

“Most farm shops evolve, but we had to start up from day one on a big scale, and doing the job right,” says Ian.

Since then, the family has exceeded its initial turnover estimate, topping £700,000 this year, and has already extended the shop by 20%.

They also built a countryside barn adjoining the shop, with pictures, posters and interactive computer shows to educate visitors about agriculture, wildlife and the environment. Although part of the requirement to get EU Objective One funding towards the £398,000 project, it is also an important aspect of the family’s outlook.

“We want to make people realise there is a link between food production and how farmers look after the countryside – the way in which food purchasing decisions affect how we farm,” says Ian. “We need to tell the story about what we’re doing as farmers.”

A keen photographer, Ian takes his camera everywhere, and produced all the photos for the countryside barn, the Lobbs Farm Shop calendar, and much of its promotional material.

The family also offers tours as part of the Higher Level Stewardship agreement. “We wanted to take people to see a real working farm – to tell them how farmers manage the countryside,” says Ian. They wrote to local schools and colleges and are hosting 15-25 visits a year, with 25-30 people each time.

The brothers share the farm tours, with each telling different stories according to their particular specialism. “But we’ve all come from the same upbringing, so we’re very much the same,” says Ian.

They work the same way on the farm, sharing responsibilities but making the most of their individual strengths – mechanical jobs for Richard, accounts and bills for Terry, and public relations for Ian.

“We try to have meetings once a week, and we tend to meet up in passing over coffee,” says Ian. “The phones are quite hot, too – we have to be discussing all the time. It does make it harder to make decisions, but we have the advantage of three different minds on the job.”

However, as Richard says, decision making is really easy with three people – the majority rules. “We do disagree but, if you want the business to succeed, you have to pull together.”

The families all muck in as well, with the three wives, Kathy, Helen and Vicky, helping with the shop and paperwork, and the seven children – ranging from 13 to 18 years old – working on both the farm and in the shop during school holidays and at weekends.

The 320ha (800-acre) farm – split across Lower Kestle Farm, Higher Kestle Farm and Corran Farm – is now predominantly family owned. They also contract-farm 50ha (120 acres) owned by Vicky’s family, ensuring a future for her and Richard’s two boys should they decide to farm themselves.

The farms support 350 beef cattle, 100 suckler cows (South Devon and Limousin cross) and 650 polled Dorset Horn ewes. Cow numbers have dropped by more than 100 since the shop opened, due to a lack of profitability and a lack of time.

“When we first built the shop we wanted to sell what the farm produced – now the farm has to produce what the shop needs, when it needs it,” says Ian. The ewes have moved from autumn lambing to year-round lambing, and the family have started to produce their own vegetables for the shop.

With 207ha (513 acres) of grass and 130ha (330 acres) of cropped land, the brothers produce barley, maize and lupins for their own stock, wheat which is sold away, and a range of vegetables for the shop including potatoes, cauliflowers, cabbage, broccoli, parsley, leeks, onions and chard.

A close relationship with a local market gardener ensures a market for their surplus stock and a reliable supply of other produce which they can’t grow themselves. All of the farm’s beef and lamb is sold through the shop, with burgers and sausages made on site. Anything which is not produced on the farm is sourced primarily locally, regionally and then nationally. “I want people to buy Cornish produce because every time they do, it keeps jobs in Cornwall,” says Ian.

Both the farm and the shop have won numerous awards for conservation, retailing, tourism and communication, and Ian tries to publicise their wins in the local press to get the message to the general public.

Food miles boards and cost comparisons with supermarket prices ensure both local and visiting customers are offered the maximum information about their produce.

In fact, the shop is so successful, and takes up so much of their time and energy, that the brothers are hoping to take a step back to concentrate on the farm again.

“The farm has become less intensive because we’ve decided our time is better spent in the shop,” says Ian. “You can’t do it all, and you have to choose what is the most profitable.” But with the farm an integral part of the business, and now 22 staff in the shop, including a full-time manager, the time could be right to refocus their efforts slightly.

“The farm is struggling because it hasn’t got the input of three farmers any more. But we are an integrated business – and you need a farm to have a farm shop,” says Ian. “We are proud of our farm and we thoroughly enjoy farming.”

The family is now trying to reinvest money in the farm to make three separate units to pass down to the next generation. “If we leave it until we pop our clogs, it could cause all sorts of difficulties.”

Although each brother is happy for his children to make their own decisions about their future, they hope to give them the option of taking on part of the business should they want to, says Terry.

And the business’s logo – an old oak tree on Lower Kestle Farm – is truly representative of the family’s attitude to farming and the future. “The oak tree is there for generations and provides a habitat for so many species,” says Ian. “It links to the farm, the environment, and the generations. Hopefully we’ll be here for a few more.”

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