Steve and Fiona Peck of Stockwell Farm, Eggington, have turned what was a struggling dairy farm 20 years ago into a thriving retail business, while retaining an agricultural presence in the landscape.
And maybe there is something to be said for opting out while you still have the energy and the willpower to make a go of it.
Steve’s parents, Rob and Doreen, started the farm just after the Second World War as part of a government-funded initiative to create new council farms to help reduce the country’s reliance on imports.
Subsequently the family were able to purchase the farm. A Holstein Friesian herd was established and when Steve came back from college in the late 1970s, he set up a doorstep milk business to run alongside it, milking, bottling and delivering to customers in the nearby town of Leighton Buzzard and the 20 or so neighbouring villages.
However, by the 1990s, with cost of milk production of 22ppl exceeding the 17ppl sale price, the farm was struggling, and it was time for a change.
“Steve and I married 25 years ago. I had no experience of farming at that time,” says Fiona.
“I did not even own a pair of wellies. I was a city girl. I ran a pension fund in London, but I had come to Leighton Buzzard to help with a satellite company when I met Steve at a tennis club. I looked over the farm’s accounts and saw it just was not working. The banks were not helpful at that time and Steve and his parents were working extremely hard. We decided to outsource the bottling of our milk and as Steve’s two herdsmen were coming up for retirement, the time seemed right for a change.”
This meant Fiona leaving her city job to devote all her time to the establishment of a farm shop, but Steve was determined that they would retain a farming side to the enterprise, says Fiona.
“We have two sons, Henry and William, who love farming, and Steve felt it was important we kept the cows and the knowledge of them so we could pass it on to our sons and their children. Because once that knowledge is gone it is lost forever, and however good colleges are at teaching it, first-hand knowledge built up over time is unbeatable,” she says.
However, a decision was taken to create a 30-cow follower herd, breeding calves and taking them up to the age of weaning at 10 to 11 months before selling them off to a local dealer for fattening up for the meat trade.
“We have not been able to invest in an expensive pedigree breed, so we have done it gradually. We currently have a Blonde Aquitaine bull and we are trying to produce a beefier sort of animal,” says Fiona.
The cattle are housed during the winter months, and spring and summer grazed on the farm’s pastures. 100 tonnes of haylage is cut in early summer as winter feed for the cows.
The link with the farm’s dairy past has not been entirely severed. In fact, the 40-year-old milk round has enjoyed a resurgence. Fiona says: “It is thanks to David Attenborough’s plastic campaign, because we deliver milk in glass bottles. You cannot get them in the supermarkets. I have no doubt they will catch up, however, they haven’t yet. We supply all types – full fat, skimmed, semi-skimmed and organic – so lots of people don’t mind paying an extra 2p for a glass bottle that is fully recyclable. When they give it back, it is cleaned and re-used time and again, as opposed to helping fill up the oceans with plastic. The size of the milk round had been going down, but now it’s increasing again.”
Steve heads a team of four milkmen and one milkwoman. Fiona says: “They go out from midnight onwards and we aim to have the milk on the doorstep for when people go to work by eight in the morning." The farm recently phased out its electric milk floats due to the expense of battery upkeep and have introduced new vans. The milk is supplied by local farmers going into Mueller’s, formerly known as Dairy Crest.
The old milking parlour has now been converted into an office for the farm’s retail side, while the 100ft (30-metre) by 40ft (12m) cow shed is home to the vast range of delicatessen, sweet and drink products.
“This bright, attractive space, with its seasonally changing displays is a measure of how successful the enterprise has been, but it didn’t start that way,” says Fiona.
“We literally had no money to begin with. So, for two years Steve planted a maize maze and I sat in a cattle trailer with a big sign advertising it.”
Helped by the farm’s high visibility roadside location, they raised £700 which enabled them to put up 10 telegraph poles and a makeshift roof to make what is now the smaller farm shop that sells fresh fruit and vegetables.
She says: “We went to a local grower who advised us what products to sell, things like locally grown potatoes, cabbages and carrots. We got some pallets with false grass and I advertised in a local paper and sat out the front, often in the freezing cold with a duvet wrapped round me. It was hard but you have to have that innate belief that you are going to succeed.”
To get an idea of the farm shop market, Fiona attended a lot of trade shows and, back on the farm, ran tasting days, where local growers, cake and bread makers, and artisan producers were invited along to test their wares on the public. Conscious of the need to never rest on your laurels, last year Fiona brought in a local artist, Joanne Stone who, across six months, spent several days on the farm, sketching its man-made and natural features, and animals.
“I wanted her to capture the essence of this farm which has been part of our lives for so long. She came up with illustrations of the huge oak which stands at the front of the farm, the daffodils of early spring, Hissing Sid the Goose and Sabrina the Cow. I now have prints of all of these, which I put on all our jams, pickles and biscuits.”
Recent additions to the shop’s wide range of offerings are pick-your-own-hampers, as well as local gins, ciders and artisan beers, goose pates, cherry and nut nougats and gluten-free products.
Clearly Steve and Fiona’s different skills have combined to make a successful business partnership.
“I have a completely different perspective,” she says.
“When I gave up my city job to work here, I computerised all the records, for instance. Steve has such tremendous knowledge and a terrific affinity with the environment, the land and farming. My role is to look at how we portray that to the rest of the country, and how we connect with different echelons of people.
“Many farmers do it not to make huge amounts of money, but for them farming is a way of life because they love the land and their animals, and that applies to Steve, as it did his parents.
“About 20 years ago, he planted 100,000 trees to create 32 hectares (80 acres) of woodland, the biggest project of its type in the south of England at that time.The Forestry Commission and a woodland consultant John Niles helped us design three areas of woodland, one of which was planted up with trees indigenous to Bedfordshire and grown within the county.”
With Bedfordshire the least wooded county in England which, in itself, is the least wooded country in Europe, this act has not gone unrecognised, with the farm winning the Council for the Protection of Rural England’s Living Countryside Award in 2011.
With two sons currently gaining work experience on other farms but ready to take up the reins when their parents finally retire, Fiona is optimistic about Stockwell’s future.
“The boys will bring their own slant, their own skills."
Reflecting on the squeeze to build houses in the county which has seen many neighbouring farms disappear under bricks and mortar she says: "They don’t make pieces of old England anymore and it needs to be used wisely,”
“We’re so lucky to still have this.”