In just two years James Matthews and Chenice Plumstead have established a successful livestock farm in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire which last year welcomed 10,000 paying visitors. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
For his 18th birthday James Matthews was given a one hectare field by his parents. He knew that one day he wanted to live and run his own enterprise from there but, it took a few years to work out how.
Eleven years later he has achieved it with partner Chenice Plumstead and their daughter, Pippa, and son, James. While it has been hard work and he works long hours to achieve it, James is living his dream.
James says: “I have friends who work in the city and fight their way home on the train to see their kids at the end of the day. Mine are here with us all day! It is amazing.”
James was brought up on a 8ha (20 acres) smallholding in nearby Little Missenden. His father Jim had sheep, pigs and poultry and as a youngster James bred Buff Orpington and Silver-laced Wyandotte chickens to sell. Later he went on to study for a diploma in animal management at Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA) but, he was undecided as to what to do next. He then jetted off to Australia where he worked on a sheep station. On his return in 2015 he worked for his father which included organising an Open Farm Sunday event on the holding.
He says: “I was passionate about educating people about farming and it struck me that I could really make something on my own land. But it had to be a proper working farm.”
In the meantime, he had met Chenice but, recognised that they were from different worlds. Chenice worked as a hairdresser in Kent and admits that at that point she was fairly clueless about agriculture.
“I had no idea what a farmer even did,” she says. “If you’d asked me where chickens came from I’d have said Tesco or Asda.”
She had always loved animals and felt that one day she might work with animals in some way but, she admits she never imagined that it would be in farming.
Now, however, Chenice is hands-on on the farm too, assisting James with everything and taking particular responsibility for their calf-rearing enterprise and last year, just five days after giving birth to their second child, she was left in charge of lambing while James headed off for a Tesco Future Farmer event.
It was a few months into their relationship when Chenice fell pregnant with their first child, making James all the more determined to pursue his farming dream.
“James knew that when he had kids he wanted them to grow up on a farm like he did,” says Chenice.
James secured rental agreements with four different landowners giving him access to 121ha (300 acres) of grass including around 24ha (60 acres) for making hay and silage.
He says: “I didn’t have £3 million in the bank to buy a farm so the only way to do it was to rent grazing.”
Early on he decided to establish his sheep flock with both Mules and Texel crosses. He purchased Scottish Blackface ewes and a Bluefaced Leicester ram to create his own Mule breeding stock as well as Texel cross Beltex ewes which are put to a Texel tup
“I bought in a few ewes but the Mules were expensive so I decided to breed my own,” he says.
“I chose the Texels because they always sell well.”
Both flocks lamb during April with the Scottish Blackface lambing outside at James’s father’s holding. He feeds the ewes some concentrate before and during tupping to flush them with nutrients and will feed through winter as needed. Otherwise they do well with hay and silage.
Early on in the project James applied for planning permission for a mobile home on his 1ha field and in 2016 this was granted. Meanwhile, he also made contact with the owner of the 4ha (10 acre) field adjacent to his smaller field in Great Missenden.
“I explained what I wanted to do, and he was really excited about the idea and agreed to sell me the land,” says James.
This additional land included grassland and two wooded areas. James has invested in building a barn with lambing pens plus 1200 metres of livestock fencing to create a parking area, livestock paddocks and vegetable growing areas to form the open farm area.
As well as sheep he also has five British Lop sows and rears all progeny to finished weight. He also buys in small batches of cross-bred calves to rear and sell on. These are typically bought in at three to six weeks of age and sold at about six months old.
They are fed formula milk and introduced to concentrates at about 10 weeks.
Last year James also bought 10 Beef Shorthorn cross Longhorn heifers which are currently 12 months old. Eventually they will be put to a Beef Shorthorn bull to form the start of a suckler herd. A flock of 150 laying hens is divided between James’s farm and his father’s holding.
A box scheme was launched to market the meat with the majority of all lamb and pork being sold this way with only a few animals sold via the abattoir when needed and, the box scheme has been a great success.
“Once a month we deliver the boxes – which are a selection of pork and lamb – to peoples’ houses straight from the butcher so it’s the freshest it can be,” says James.
Some meat is taken back to the farm and frozen and sold on request. They also sell eggs from an honesty box at the end of the driveway and plan to also offer potatoes, onions and carrots this year.
Last year James grew pumpkins for the first time and opened the gates to his ‘Pumpkin Patch’ during weekends in October. They were amazed to see about 3,000 visitors and have increased the pumpkin growing area this year as well as plans to add further Halloween themed activities.
Their maize maze was also a big hit in the late summer, says James.
This year the farm has been open for VIP lambing events where up to 30 people can book to come and spend time in the lambing sheds and learn about all aspects of sheep production. James also takes the opportunity to promote British farming and to answer any questions.
“I want people to feel that they can ask anything at all,” he says.
The couple are also planning a Country Fair event in June as well as other open days throughout the year. Last year they welcomed about 10,000 people to the farm over 28 open days and expect that figure to rise to about 15,000 people.
As well as lambs, calves and piglets to see, there is a woodland walk and den building area, a trail for children to complete and some ride-on tractors.
He says: “We decided not to go for the sort of activities they would get at play centres as we are a working farm and didn’t want to move away from that. They get something different from here that they can’t get anywhere else.”
They publicise the farm events through their own social media channels. James also has a farming slot on local radio station, Wycombe Sounds, during which he talks to other farmers about what they are doing and also talks through his farming diary and open day plans. The couple also took to the shopping areas of High Wycombe in April to give out fliers and chocolate eggs to promote their Easter lambing events.
James is brimming with ideas for the future and has recently secured plans for a pop-up restaurant on the farm in September with two Michelin-starred chefs creating dishes from his home-produced pork and lamb. “I’m keen to get people onto the farm, eating proper food,” he says.
He would also like to expand into some arable production in the future.
He says: “I would like to be able to produce my own feed for the livestock – at the moment this is the only part we do not have much control of at the moment.
“We will keep investing in to the farm to make it better for our livestock and visitors.”
Despite the enormous changes at Kingshill Farm James admits he does not often take stock of all that he has achieved in such a short space of time.
“When we first brought Chenice’s mum and dad down here it was just a grass field. I told them we would live here one day, and they looked at me like I was an alien. We have been constantly on the go and don’t often sit back and think about all that we have achieved.
“But I have not cut any corner – I am doing it all properly because it is so important to me.”