Zoe Colville was a hairdresser in Soho, but after quitting in favour of building up a farming business with her partner, Chris Woodhead, the pair have turned their vision into reality. Hannah Park finds out more.
Anyone who doubts whether they can achieve their dreams in life is likely to dispel such notions after a conversation with Zoe Colville.
After leaving a career in hairdressing and fashion in London in 2015, she and her partner, Chris Woodhead, have spent the last six years building up their farming business from nothing.
Culminating with the launch of their own direct sales venture, The Little Farm Fridge, last month, the couple may be starting to enjoy the spoils of their success, but this certainly did not come overnight.
Both brought up in the Kent countryside, Chris grew up involved in farming but opted to pursue an early career as a plumber, while Zoe made the move to the capital aged 18 to train as a hairdresser, adapting from a cosmopolitan lifestyle drinking cocktails and socialising in the week, to then enjoying the peace of the countryside at weekends.
She says: “At the weekends I was a farmer and during the week I was a hairdresser in Soho. I did that for a few years and it was like having two completely different lives.
“I took two weeks off for lambing in 2017 and realised after spending more time at home that I hadn’t been happy in the salon for a while but I deliberately stayed there because in my head, for a relationship to progress, I was convinced we needed to buy a house and go down the conventional route.”
“We can keep costs low as we do everything ourselves, from butchering, to packing meat, to delivery.”
Opting to plough what was once their house deposit into livestock, the couple began building the foundations of their own flock after purchasing 32 in-lamb ewes six years ago.
“We basically begged people to let us graze their land in the early days and had tiny paddocks here, there
and everywhere to get by,” Zoe says.
“You just take what you are given at the start and do what you need to go get by.
“We took what is now our main base at Pympes Court Farm in Kent last year. It is a 40-hectare block with some building space, but we’re still renting blocks of land in six or seven locations within a 20-mile radius at any one time under various seasonal and longterm agreements.”
The flock has now expanded to 700-head plus lambs, although the pair were forced to sell about 150 this summer due to lack of grazing as a result of the drought, and is made up of various breeds.
They also run about 50 goats reared for meat and about 30 Highland Dexter cross cattle.
“It suits us, especially now with the shop, to be diverse and be able to cater for everyone but also to make the best use of the different grazing we have,” says Zoe.
“We have a lot of conservation grazing, for example, which suits the Hebridean, Shetland and Soay ewes.
These are put to a Southdown to encourage a meatier carcass.
“Other ewes we run include Mules, EasyCares and Lleyns – we’re not fussy as long as they’re doing the right job for us. We’ll put most of these to a Texel or Southdown ram this year.
“In the past we’ve used various different breeds of rams, basically just what we’ve liked and could afford, kept the lambs we liked and sold the rest when the price has been right and have continued to build numbers.
“We’ve just had to learn what works for us.”
Since they began keeping livestock, the couple talked about setting up a direct sales business and ever since they started lambing their own ewes, they have kept a few lambs back each year to give to family and friends for the freezer.
It had always been a ‘pipedream’, Zoe says, to open a butcher’s shop and meat delivery service.
“It was always the end goal, but we never had the money to invest,” she says.
They got the boost they needed to get the ball rolling when lockdown hit earlier this year.
“We moved into a caravan onfarm when lockdown hit in March for lambing and after spending a lot of time just the two of us discussing it, we decided to just invest what we had, plus what we could borrow – it was now or never really.
“If there has ever been a time when people have become interested in where their food comes from or supporting local businesses, it’s now.”
The couple then set about building the premises and getting the required paperwork together to begin operating a food retail business.
“By the end of lockdown, we had pretty much built the whole business,” says Zoe.
“We bought a second-hand portable cabin and equipment we needed over a few months. With the butchery, we just learnt off YouTube during lockdown. We spent just about every night for months making sausages and practicing the larger cuts.
“We can keep costs low as we do everything ourselves, from butchering, to packing meat, to delivery.
“The aim is to get to the point of being able to sell as much of what we produce through the shop as we can – we’ve got our first beef carcase hanging at the moment and goat meat is proving very popular.
The Little Farm Fridge started trading last month, with orders coming in mostly via the website, most of which originate from social media links.
“We would have made a go of the business regardless, but Instagram has definitely helped with marketing,” says Zoe.
For the past two years, Zoe has documented the highs and lows of farming life on her Instagram account, @thechiefshepherdess, where her honest and sometimes tongue in cheek approach has attracted an audience of more than 16,000 followers.
“Our landlady has an education centre on the farm we rent which she asks me to help with sometimes. I soon realised there is a massive knowledge gap between the children and where their food comes from/
“Not only the children but adults as well, I didn’t have a clue about the process or anything to do with farming or where my food came from before I started doing it.
“I thought I could come at it from an angle that those following the account could learn with me and more people have just started following which does blow my mind sometimes.
“It’s really just an honest account of our day-to-day lives – but it’s real. I do show things that might offend some people, but I always try and explain everything, why things happen and why we do what we do.
“I’ve never been about documenting our farming journey through rose tinted glasses.
“I still find it strange now that people will message me on Instagram asking for advice on certain things. I have gone full circle in a way.”
From shepherding to self-taught butchery, Zoe is now clearly fully immersed in the farm business.
The switch in industry has brought about some challenges though, albeit those that most in the farming industry can probably relate to from time-to-time, from a lack of routine to working closely with a partner full-time.
“I was hairdressing for 10 years where each day was structured with so many clients and scheduled appointments, but that obviously doesn’t happen in farming and plans can easily go out of the window – I found it quite difficult at first to adjust,” she says
“That and working with Chris full-time. I felt for a long time I had a chip on my shoulder that he was the boss and I was the employee.
“At first, I did feel I was completely out of my depth. Everything was new to me, but I just got on with it and learnt as I went along.
“Our goal now is to make a success of the direct sales venture and create a sustainable business that can support both of us long-term.”
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