When Fiona and Richard Lamb left the Metropolitan Police in London to return to their farming roots, they had to think differently and have not stopped since. Farmers Guardian reports.
Varied incomes in Fiona and Richard Lamb’s business have created a strong core that has been able to flex with the times and respond to the demands and challenges of the wider environment.
Moving to Scotland in 1997, via a smallholding in Lincolnshire, the former police officers took over 80-hectare (200-acre) Fordhead Farm, Kippen, Stirlingshire, from Fiona’s parents after her father suffered a stroke.
The business was mainly based on selling hay alongside running an Aberdeen-Angus suckler herd.
“When we took over the farm in the late 90s, farming was at rock bottom,” says Richard. “I learned how to plaster to make ends meet, taking Fiona along as my assistant. We would feed the cattle first thing in the morning then go out on jobs by day and bed and feed the cattle when we got home.”
After a long hard look at the books, and on the advice of their accountant, the couple sold the cattle and focused on building up a holiday let business while continuing to sell hay. Doing most of the work themselves, they converted outbuildings in the steading into four self-catering cottages, which latterly changed to long-term lets as other enterprises grew.
A new opportunity then arose on another corner of the farm in 2006, when looking at an environmental scheme to create a Scottish native woodland on land where the cattle had been grazing.
“Richard had the foresight when planting the 9,000 trees to keep back an area to build a coffee shop,” Fiona says. Eventually after several years of battling with planners, we gained permission. He always likes to do things really well, so the coffee shop was a bigger project than we had anticipated but he was absolutely right.
“It was an outstanding success and a real family effort with our daughter, Catriona, managing it. We quickly had to double the size of the kitchen and we extended to include a farm shop.”
Last year, the family sold the woodhouse cafe and farm shop business but have kept the buildings for rental income. Fiona and Richard’s son, Matthew, joined the business three years ago which has been a catalyst for more recent diversifications. Demand for hay was declining as livestock farmers started to reduce herd numbers, triggering a need to look at other forms of income.
There was limited land available and the soil is the heavy clay prevalent on the Carse of Stirling, so thinking outside the box kickstarted three different interrelated diversifications.
The first came about when Richard and Matthew were curious about a grass that was growing naturally on field margins. They were put in touch with David Lawson at SAC Consulting, part of SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College), who identified it as reed canary grass, most often grown as a cover crop for pheasants, and on which SRUC had run trial plots to assess its value as a biofuel.
David was able to confirm that low alkaloid strains of reed canary grass were suitable for silage and helped the Lambs to source seed from North America. Unable to secure grant funding, the family took the risk and
invested in growing reed canary grass commercially for animal feed, which has proved productive.
“It grows well in wet ground, has high yields on half the fertiliser and, as a perennial for up to about 10 years, is reasonably low maintenance,” says Richard. “We can grow it for animal feed and biofuels. Trials are still underway, but there is potential to extract the protein from reed canary grass for human consumption and also to use the by-product as a fibrous product for textiles in the fashion and packaging industries.”
The second recent diversification came about following a chance conversation with a supplier looking to stock tea in the farm shop. There was excess heat available from the biomass boiler the Lambs had previously installed to heat the properties on the farm and for drying chip for local farmers.
Matthew, a horticulturist at heart, started looking into growing tea and was one of the first in Scotland to grow tea in polytunnels. Matthew says: “Tea plants are most at home in warm, shady and humid environments, which is exactly what we have been able to create in the polytunnels using biomass energy.
“However, we control the heat to take the plants out of their comfort zone, which stimulates our tea plants to produce a flavour unlike any other teas grown elsewhere in the world.”
Matthew’s skills and resilience were tested in the first year when the biomass boiler broke down and all 10,000 tea plants were lost. His spirit undeterred though, Matthew flew to Sri Lanka to source 1,000 of his own plants which he propagated himself. He is now selling plants online as gifts.
The tea growing led on to the third new enterprise – selling gin using their own tea as a botanical.
Gintì was launched at the end of 2019, tì derived from the Gaelic for tea and also as a nod to Scotsman, James Taylor, who introduced tea to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1800s.
Available to buy online, the flavour profile is described as ‘classic gin – juniper, citrus, dry – but with well-balanced hints of herbaceous green tea’. Matthew has plans to launch tea tours from the late summer.
“We are actually going full circle back to tourism which is where Mum and Dad started with when they converted the self-catering cottages,” he says.
A further, very different and currently confidential, project is also in the pipeline, subject to funding. “As a family we have often done things quickly, but not in a nutty way,” says Richard. “Whenever we have faced external challenges, whether it is foot-and-mouth, declining demand for hay, losing the tea plants and now Covid-19, we have been forced into thinking differently.
“We need to always be looking ahead to see how we can make the best of our assets to run the business at a profit, and we have enjoyed the variety of everything we do.”