In our new online series, I quit my job to farm, we look at people and families from across the country who decided they would leave their current lives and give it all up to farm.
Karen Halton decided to leave her city based job and move back to Cheshire after marrying her husband, Tom, a second-generation dairy farmer.
Her corporate knowledge and no-nonsense approach has only given her the business minded drive the dairy farm needed to take it to the next level.
Speaking about her new life in the industry, the passion she has for the farm is distinct, but did she ever regret her decision?
Where and what do you farm?
We farm 540 milking cows with 300 followers at Halton Farms LTD, in Cheshire. It was originally my husband’s family business - a partnership between Tom’s Father and the landlord but with Tom inheriting his share, we have bought the landlord out meaning we can move forwards, introducing new strategies and techniques.
What did you do before you farmed?
I was a Director of a legal recruitment consultancy firm for 14 years, with offices based in Leeds, London and Birmingham. I was very independent actually, very successful – I didn’t necessarily intend to go in to this career but it was something I found I was good at. It was never my plan to live in the city however.
Did you have any farming experience before hand? If not, how did you build that up?
Well not farming as such but I have always been a horse lover. My Grandad bred race horses and I am not afraid to get my hands dirty - I have a passion for animals, I always have done.
In terms of the dairy farm, I had to do my research. I spoke to vets and people in the industry.
When I was growing up, I would spend my weekends mucking out and riding the horses while my friends were going out.
When did you decide to quit and why?
It was because I married Tom. I always thought I’d never get married, the idea had never really interested me – I was so independent and had my career.
I also said if I was to marry, I wouldn’t do it if I was over forty years old so, after dating Tom for a year back when I was eighteen, I met up with him again when I was thirty-five and married him when I was thirty-nine.
The paperwork at the farm wasn’t in order and there was so much Tom wanted to do with the farm – he had so many ideas.
My head was all over the place and I thought, Tom’s life is so wrapped up in the farm, he can’t change his world but I can change mine.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I think it would be proving myself to others and to family members I could do it. The way things were done was very traditional, so when I began to carry out tasks differently they were questioning it.
They would say: “Why is she cleaning out the calves again?”
Well, that’s because calves are born with no immune system. Cleanliness is so important. Animal welfare is at the top of my list and people should know that as a farm, you can have standards – the animals repay you in the end.
Slowly, people took notice.
You also have to think that these days, farms need to be a business as well and I came in with that approach.
We’ve made big changes to how the farm runs.
There was an article that once described me as, ‘Who is the girl at the market with the Gucci glasses?’
It is the best feeling when your calves go in to the ring and top the market. I guess people didn’t really understand me at first however once this started to happen, dealers then started to speak to me. I was there with my sunglasses on and nice tweed jackets but I was always going to stay who I was.
What sort of changes have you made?
I have definitely brought a more corporate edge and look at milk prices from a business point of view. We also sell Raw Milk at the farm gate.
There are staff meetings now where we can talk about ideas.
Staff are important – if I interview anybody for a position here they must understand that we’re here to work to be the absolute best we can be.
Did you have support in this transition?
Yes, loads! Tom’s son Jack, who was thirteen at the time, was great. My own family and friends were brilliant and weren’t surprised at the route back to farming. In fact, I think they were more shocked at how I’d found myself in my previous job. They thought I would end up working with horses.
I also had a lot of encouragement from industry figures – the farm advisor and professionals in the farming sector.
Was farming different to what you expected?
The thing that surprised me most was how much technology is in the industry. It’s definitely not just muck and magic. Some of the things we do is so technical, it really is.
For example, key performance indicator targets (KPI) for the breeding of cows, nutrition and feeding, genetics and the way we grow grass - if you don’t grow up in the industry, this is information that seems really technical for milking cows but now I understand and it all makes sense. I am obsessed with looking at all the information to improve and be better at what we do.
What is it about farming that you like?
I love everything.
Having a calf and rearing it is just the best feeling – whether it ends up in my herd or I rear it as a beef calf to sell.
The fact I get to work with my husband as well is incredible. We complement each other.
Did you ever regret your decision?
With anything I do, I give it my whole self. I’ll go out there and find the information. I’ll talk to the right people.
I recall the morning when I got rid of my beautiful work car – it was an Audi A5 sport.
Jumping in to a Warrior pick-up, I went to go and collect my Mum, wearing these cotton trousers and wedges. I was filthy! Mum said to me after that she hoped I didn’t mind but whenever she got in that truck, she would wear an old coat because it really smelt of cow muck.
I remember thinking how life had changed yet it still never occurred to me that this wasn’t right.
I even sold my Range Rover to put up a dry cow shed: That’s how serious I was about making this work!
What does the future hold for Halton Farms Ltd?
Being in dairy is always going to be challenging, but we’ve come so far and we’re at such a high level now that our focus is to achieve consistency.
We don’t wish to grow any bigger in size.
Our vision is to stay efficient and profitable in volatile markets and to be in the top one percent of profitable dairy farms in the country.