Diversification allowed Ian Steele the opportunity to return to the family farm in North Shropshire, where a range of diversification projects have boosted the smaller scale farming operation. Amy Stinton reports.
Returning to Treflach Farm, Oswestry, North Shropshire, was initially a temporary measure for Ian Steele, but his passion for the family farm soon grew.
He had originally planned to be back for 12 months while his father was undertaking medical treatment, but soon decided he wanted to return permanently.
Ian has been working to build his own successes at the 40-hectare (100-acre) farm since 2006, which has been in the family since 1904.
Feeling that a dairy herd, which his father had run for 30 years until 1999, was not a viable option, Ian decided to take the leap into the food service and community engagement sector which has seen several diversification streams established but allowed the farm to remain at the heart of the business.
Ian says: “Farming is still a key aspect of the business, but diversification has generated essential income a dairy enterprise simply couldn’t provide. It’s also allowed us to work with the local community and raise the profile of agriculture and food production, which is something that’s very close to my heart.
“We’re currently running a low input system to enhance our diversification projects. This includes a herd of 20 Hereford cows, with calves finished off grass, alongside a group of Tamworth pigs. We also grow a small amount of wholecrop barley and peas to feed the pigs, and over-winter sheep on the grazing land for additional income.
“Due to the significant changes we’ve made to the business, a huge amount of time is required for this to be successful and often the diversification takes our time away from the farm. But our focus over the next couple of years is to improve livestock efficiencies, as this is one way we can continue to move the business forward.”
Environmental sustainability is important, says Ian, and to help fund some of the initial improvements on-farm, he took advantage of Severn Trent’s boost for biodiversity grant scheme.
Ian says: “To secure the funding, we submitted a project proposal explaining the work we wanted to undertake to improve biodiversity. After being lucky enough to get it, we then took the opportunity to pitch to a Dragon’s Den style panel to secure some additional support from the organisations partners.
“We received a total of £29,425, approximately 80 per cent of the project cost, to help us tackle a number of issues relating to the local watercourse which included separating clean and dirty water, nutrient leaching and addressing a lack of water for grazing livestock.
“To do this, we installed a new drainage system to the cattle shed to prevent leaching and new more efficient septic tanks. An old pond has also been restored to increase biodiversity and help manage flooding.
“Further to the grant in 2018, this year we also raised £12,708 through crowdfunding to develop a 0.6ha (1.5 acre) wetland to hold water in the landscape and prevent flooding, as well as clean water and further increase biodiversity. This work will be undertaken towards the end of this summer.”
Diversification is now a big part of the operation at Treflach Farm, which includes glamping and camping, a farm shop as well as wholesale of produce to local shops and delis and community work.
“We’ve taken diversification to the full extreme here,” says Ian. "We have a butchery and bakery on-site where fresh food is baked. Meat produced on-farm goes into products produced in the bakery and is also packed for sale in the farm shop, but we do also source some additional high quality meat from other local farmers.
“The Treflach Farm brand and food service business is certainly growing. We have a small on-site farm shop, but as we’re out in the sticks, the wholesale market is where the lion’s share of our income is generated. We supply a couple of dozen shops and delis with a wide range of both homemade vegetarian and meat pies, pasties and quiche. We’ve even seen demand as far afield as London and are regularly supplying shops out of the county.”
Challenges as a result of the Covid-19 situation are, like for many businesses, still ongoing for Ian.
“No one can ignore the current challenges we’re all facing, and for our business, this means the tourism aspect isn’t likely to generate as much income this summer so we’re having to adapt the wholesale and farm shop aspect of the business.
“Since the middle of March, we’ve been working hard to develop an online store to allow people to place click and collect food orders and we’re also doing doorstep distribution. Covid-19 has increased demand for this area of the business and we’re proud to be able to supply the local community with fresh produce.
“In the current situation, we’re also not able to undertake any of the community work we usually would.”
This aspect of the business, which is close to Ian’s heart, is the work he does to help support and engage with the local community.
“Treflach Tuesdays is a programme we set up where adults can come and get involved with the farm and horticultural activities. We also have volunteer farm stays, where guests can help on-farm,” says Ian. “We’re really surprised at the positive response we’ve received for this and we’re proud to be able to showcase agriculture to others.”
Training days and alternative provision for young adults with behavioural issues are also offered, whereby individuals are given the opportunity to learn more about food production and agriculture and several schools and community groups have also visited over the years.
“This is a part of the business we’re passionate about, teaching young people where their food comes from and helping to drive self-sufficiency within the UK,” Ian says.
Looking ahead, Ian has a clear vision of where he would like to see his business in 10 years’ time. He wants to be at the centre of the community, have high animal welfare and produce top quality food sustainably, all while taking care of the environment.
“We’re working hard to increase our self-sufficiency, and to achieve this we want grow the farm and food business over the next five years,” he says. "Our vision is to increase livestock numbers and boost efficiency to help improve performance and environmental sustainability.
“It’s also important to us that the business remains socially and economically viable, while providing an aspirational quality of life for us and our staff. The success of Treflach Farm to date has been achieved by capitalising on the opportunities available to allow us to produce a business where economics and the environment go hand-in-hand. We’ve utilised grants and ventured into new areas, which has allowed us to become a key part of our local community.”