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Hill farmers find markets in Japan

Sixth-generation farmer John Atkinson and partner Maria Benjamin are not afraid to do things their own way. Emily Ashworth meets the couple to find out how they are adding layers to their business.

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How one hill farm have found their way into Japan

A can-do attitude is how John Atkinson and Maria Benjamin approach most things.

 

Paired with a passion for rare breeds and conservation, they have created multiple income streams, developing a Jersey milk soap business and seeking out alternative markets in Jersey and Japan.

 

They have grown over the years, from the 18 hectares (45 acres) John’s parents purchased at Nibthwaite Grange, near Ulverston, to the 182ha (450 acres) the couple now run.

 

Their ideas know no bounds, with both open to exploring new opportunities, whether they fail or succeed.

 

If it does not work out, on to the next venture it is.

 

Originally tenanted, John’s mum, Nina, and dad, Bill, managed to buy the farm after their landlord passed away in 1980, by selling off the livestock and starting again from scratch.

 

To make it financially viable, John, 59, took over on the farm while his dad took on another full-time job working as a forester for the National Trust.

 

Maria, 47, says: “It was John’s mum that pushed to buy it. She had a good business sense.”

 

John also worked off the farm to bring in some extra money, but about eight years ago, he became ill and had to give this up.

 

He says: “That income was then missing. I thought, do I get another job or look at doing more on the farm?

 

“Then I met Maria, who has about six ideas every second.”

 

With a background in art, Maria decided to sell her flat in London, invest in the farm and look at how they could future-proof the business.

 

Maria says: “It meant we could work together. John could farm full-time and I could look at ways to generate alternative income.

 

“With an art background, you would think there’s no connection to farming, but it gives you a sense of if you want to do something, you research it and do it.”


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With this train of thought, the couple now run The Soap Dairy, making soaps and various natural beauty products from Jersey milk, and Dodgson Wood, a holiday letting business run on National Trust land.

 

They have also established a sturdy international customer base to sell their rare breed wool to.

 

John’s family still owns the original 18ha (45 acres), and the rest is rented from various places including the National Trust, private landowners and Friends of the Lake District.

 

They run 500 ewes, 400 of which Lairg type Cheviots and the rest are Bluefaced Leicesters, Teeswaters, Castlemilk Moorits, Hebrideans a few Gotlands, and about 30 Luing cattle, some Whitebred Shorthorns and a couple of Highlands.

 

Calves are kept to about 12 to 18 months old and they sell some heifers for breeding too.

 

It is an extensive system, and John has five main outlets for his livestock.

 

“I sell breeding sheep and cattle to other farmers. One in particular buys a lot of my Cheviot mules for embryo transfer,” he says.

 

“I try to keep a closed flock and he says because of the really high health status, they do really well for him.

 

“I sell some through NWA auction at Junction 36 and also through the Broughton collection centre run by H&H, which go to Kepak abattoir for the Tesco finest range.

 

“We sell meat boxes to private customers and some to a Crakeside Meats . The butcher takes three or four sheep every fortnight.”

 

Most of the farm is part of Higher Level Stewardship Scheme and the rest is Entry Level Stewardship.

 

“We’ve got quite a lot of rare plants and we’re surrounded by SSSIs,” says John.

Japan

The idea of local and sustainably produced is an aspect the couple invests in, and this ethos fits each strand of the business.

It is also an attractive quality to consumers looking for provenance.

“If you went back 100 years, every farmer talked to their customer,” says John.

“It’s only in that time that about six people have come in-between.

“So, what we try to do is get back in control and talk to the consumer.

“Mixed farming is much better for the environment as well. You have not got all these monocultures of all grass, or all corn, or all ploughed. It’s a win-win.”

About £1,000 worth of meat is shipped to Jersey every month too.

“They love having produce from the Lake District, and we use a local abattoir, Dennys at Levens Bridge, who hang it really well, so it is a premium product that they are happy to pay for,” John adds.

John has always kept rare breeds, but they are now an integral part of the whole system, especially the wool.

“We realised we could make more money out of them, because it’s niche and interesting and there are a lot of wool connoisseurs looking for single farm breed specific wool,” says Maria.

“Around the world, British wool is seen as the best. People come to this country to buy rare breed wool.”

The couple attend well-known wool festivals such as Woolfest and the Edinburgh Yarn Festival, and through such gatherings met Masumi Honda from Spinnuts in 2016, a buyer and designer from Japan.

They now ship 200 kilograms of raw wool to Japan, each year and it is a growing market.

“She only buys from people she knows and wants a story behind the wool,” says John.

“In Japan, there are very few sheep and all the same breed. They have always made their clothes from plant fibres and they have only recently discovered wool. They see it as an exciting product.”

Soap

 

But it does not stop there.

 

Maria purchased a Jersey cow, which became the catalyst for the soap business.

 

John and Maria say soap made from cow’s milk is quite a unique product given the market is more tuned to goat or sheep milk products.

 

“A friend of mine made some goat’s milk soap so I thought I can do that with Jersey milk,” Maria says.

 

“I took some over to my friend’s in Jersey and they said I should do it as a business, as nobody in Jersey makes it.”

 

She enrolled on a soap-making course which also focused on branding and marketing.

 

The Soap Dairy, named after setting up shop in the farm’s old dairy unit, was launched in 2017, and although at first the sales did not do as well as expected, Maria moved the business online selling more than £40,000 worth of products in 2019, ‘pretty much by word of mouth’.

 

She also sells in relevant outlets such as Tebay Services and local National Trust outlets which ‘fit her branding’.

 

Their next venture, though, is to upscale the holiday lets, run under the name Dodgson Wood.

 

An exciting prospect is in motion after teaming up with Canopy and Stars, a luxury glamping business which will take the couple’s accommodation to the next level and make the most of the location – set beside Coniston Waters, surrounded by triple SSI woodland.

 

They were not attracting the custom they wanted, and by having the connection with Canopy and Stars, they feel it will fit in much better with the rest of the business.

 

“The camping barn, campsite and cottage are all off grid,” Maria says.

 

“It’s a business decision to match the soap and accommodation side of things. It will be easier to market.”

 

Both are passionate about farming and what they have managed to build from it, but John’s son, Tom, 29, is keen to come back and take it on – but not until he has experienced life elsewhere.

 

“I say to any young person, go and work with someone else and see something different, otherwise you get to 40 and wish you had done something else,” says John, who also worked for the National Trust for

25 years.

 

“We always say to young farmers, don’t just copy us, find your niche and interests.”

 

At present, it is also nice for John to be able to be full-time on the farm now the couple’s various businesses are turning healthy profits, considering he has always worked elsewhere alongside. Knowing their market and a
willingness to adhere to what their customers want has, however, played a crucial part in their success.

 

“It is not like it has always worked. You just change what you are doing and adapt to the market,” says Maria.

 

“Everybody notices what everyone else is doing, but some are afraid to put their head above the parapet.

 

“I have never been afraid of that though, because if something doesn’t work you just change tack.”

Farm facts

  • 45 acres owned, 450 acres rented
  • 400 ewes, mostly Lairg type Cheviots
  • About 30 Luing cattle
  • Meat is sold to various outlets including in meat boxes, Crakeside butchers, Jersey and Kepak/St Merryn
  • The Soap Dairy sells handmade soap from Jersey milk
  • Run campsite, cottage and camping barn
  • Sell rare breed wool internationally and locally
  • John is a trustee of the Rare Breed Survival Trust and is on the committee of the Federation of Cumbrian Commoners, the Whitebred Shorthorn Society and Grizedale Arts
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