After starting their beef and sheep enterprise on a shoestring and building it up through hard work and determination, Oliver and Charlotte Johnson have now taken on a farm business tenancy in Nottinghamshire. Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.
When Oliver and Charlotte Johnson first met in 2013, they realised they shared the same ambition to farm and decided to start a sheep flock together almost straight away.
Both brought up in Warwickshire, they met through friends from Young Farmers.
Charlotte had grown up on a small farm and worked on a sheep farm, while Oliver studied agriculture and forestry at Hereford and Ludlow College, Holme Lacey, before starting his own gardening service business while also working on farms.
Charlotte says: “We bought some old but full-mouthed ewes because we did not have a lot of money. We kept all the ewe lambs from them. Then somebody gave us a tup.”
The Texel ram lamb was in lieu of Oliver’s help with a friend’s flock. They used rented grazing and bought a second-hand trailer.
In the early days they looked into the possibilities of buying a farm together.
“But because we were self-employed, we realised we were never going to be able to borrow enough money to do that,” says Charlotte.
So instead they took on rented grazing until, while on holiday in 2016, the couple had a phone call telling them about a small county council farm in Warwickshire which was available.
Unfortunately, they had missed the open day, but expressed their interest on their return and they were invited to view and apply.
“That is when things really started for us,” says Charlotte.
“We do not feed any creep and finish lambs entirely on grass”
The 20-hectare (50-acre) holding at Glebe Farm plus a similar amount of extra rented land meant they had about 40ha (100 acres) of grazing and were able to expand their flock as well as start a small beef enterprise and develop a thriving farm shop.
Oliver maintained his gardening business as well.
He says: “That has been key to our success so far. It has helped us to build the business up.”
Within about a year the couple realised they would soon outgrow Glebe Farm. Their focus was pasture-fed animals which meant they needed plenty of grazing.
“It is something we really believe in and wanted to take forward,” says Charlotte.
So, when she saw an advert in the Farmers Guardian offering a farm tenancy for organic conversion in Nottinghamshire, her interest was piqued.
Cedars Farm was a 116ha (287-acre) conventional arable farm in the village of Normanton on Soar and part of the Paget Estate.
The estate’s owner, Joanna Herbert-Stepney, is a long-standing supporter of organic farming and was keen for the farm to undergo conversion like most of the other farms on the estate.
As well as nine farm buildings ranging from traditional red brick structures to barns and a grain store, the farm also had a large Georgian three-storey farmhouse.
Ms Herbert-Stepney has been very supportive of their plans, including providing a new cattle building.
Despite requiring a move to a new county away from their families, plus the work required to convert the holding to an organic mixed farm, they knew it was right for them and their ambitions.
They were delighted to be accepted as the new tenants.
The move was a huge task which took a few months and ‘20-something’ trips to transport their livestock, belongings, farm equipment and a barn full of hay as well.
“By Christmas, we were exhausted,” says Oliver.
A deal was made with a neighbouring tenant to swap 18ha (44 acres) of land giving the Johnsons some grazing which was ready immediately.
Just prior to the tenancy starting on October 1, Oliver drilled 50ha (120 acres) of clover-rich grass. He plans to plant another 20ha (50 acres).
Later he tackled drilling 40ha (100 acres) of arable crops, including 28ha (70 acres) of organic milling wheat and 12ha (30 acres) of oats and some beans as well.
“I had helped out on arable farms before and have always done all the work on our grassland, but it has been a steep learning curve. It was a bit of a rush to get the crops drilled in the bad weather. The crops are looking well considering the weather we have had.”
The house and nearby estate offices are heated by biomass boilers using woodchip from the estate.
Part of the agreement with the estate is that Oliver will act as caretaker of the boiler and keep it stocked with woodchip.
Work is currently underway to divide the large farmhouse into a home for Oliver, Charlotte and their children Max, four, and Florence, two, and two annexes for holiday accommodation.
Managing holiday lets will be a new experience for Oliver and Charlotte but they are grateful for the opportunity to diversify.
“Farming is so up and down so it is good to have a guaranteed income through that,” says Oliver.
Infrastructure-wise and fencing has been a huge investment in both time and money.
“Firstly, we bought an electric fencing trailer, which was a big investment, but we needed it because there was no fencing at all,” says Oliver.
Meanwhile, they started the mammoth task of installing 15,000m (49,000ft) of permanent fencing.
“We have done nearly half of that already, but with just us two and the two children it has been a massive undertaking,” he says. “We also bought a second-hand Bryce post knocker from a friend and we can generally do 100 metres or more a day.”
Due to the move, lambing happened slightly later than usual and moving ewes during lockdown was tricky.
Charlotte says: “We had a lot of people walking locally and looking at the ewes and lambs in the fields. We understood there was interest but it made things quite stressful for us to get around.”
During lambing, Oliver was busy drilling spring crops, so Charlotte had to oversee it herself with Max and Florence.
It was challenging but they look back at their first year lambing at the new farm with pride.
“I had helped out on arable farms before and have always done all the work on our grassland, but it has been a steep learning curve."
The Johnsons currently have 230 ewes and 400 lambs, with the ewes a mixture of North Country Mules, Cheviots, Scotch Half Breds, Texels and Texel crosses.
“We do like a cross-breed as they finish better on a grass-based system,” says Charlotte.
Organic conversion means breeding all their own replacements.
“This year Charlotte bought a Cheviot tup which we put to our Scotch Half Breds and he has thrown some lovely ewe lambs which we will keep,” says Oliver.
The larger lambs went to slaughter in early July.
“They usually take 14 to 16 weeks to reach finished weight, but they will not all do that,” says Charlotte.
“We do not feed any creep and finish lambs entirely on grass,” says Charlotte.
“People might think because we are only feeding grass, they would be slow but if you get the balance right, they finish quickly. We are not raising them too hard and rotating our grazing to control the worm burden.”
Lambs are usually sold at about 42kg and go through Melton Mowbray market which is just 12 miles away.
Charlotte says: “Selling live is new to us. Most of our lambs went to Farmers Fresh at Kenilworth before and they would process the ones we sold ourselves too. We have had good prices so far at Melton.”
They also moved to Cedars Farm with two breeding cows and calves and 10 store cattle but have since bought more.
“We bought some Longhorn cows in-calf and some Angus and Hereford stores at Melton and now have 39 head of cattle,” says Oliver.
“Charlotte likes Herefords because they finish well on grass and I really like Aberdeen-Angus. We will purchase our own bull soon which will be either Hereford or Angus. We would love to buy a small pedigree herd of Herefords one day when finances allow.”
The couple is also planning to sell meat direct to the public again one day.
“We have our own mobile cutting room from before and Charlotte is already talking to Trading Standards to get the ball rolling. It is an important part of making the farm viable to make sure we get a premium price.”
Charlotte adds: “It will probably be e-commerce or a box scheme rather than a shop. The shop in Warwickshire was too time-consuming. I was there all day, every day. It did very well but I gave up my whole life to do it. I want to get more of a balance this time.”
In the future the Johnsons are aware of upcoming challenges with soil health with the move to organic production and also financial pressures.
“We will be farming organically and seed is almost double the price of conventional but we cannot sell it for the premium for two years.
“Finance has been a big thing all along. We have not had a business loan we have done this all with our own savings,” says Charlotte.
“We had been working hard and managed to accumulate a bit of savings and that is what we are working off now. We bought second-hand equipment and traded in our tractor for a second-hand bigger one.”
Leaving Warwickshire and their established farm and shop was a risk, they say, but one well worth taking.
“When it is a lovely evening and we are out checking stock we think, this is what it is all about,” says Oliver.
“We are blown away that we are here and feel really lucky. Quite often we say to ourselves how have we managed to achieve all this?”