Three years ago, Karl Franklin began using Instagram to champion British produce and dispel myths surrounding farming. After recently establishing his own flock, he now shares his farming journey with an audience of more than 5,000 daily. Hannah Noble reports.
Former chef turned farmer Karl Franklin has quite literally turned the renowned phrase ‘from field to fork’ motto on its head.
After leaving an early career as a chef, 25-year-old Karl has since established his own successful gardening and catering business, K.F. produce, as well as farming his own 28 hectares (70 acres).
He now shares his day to day farming life in Witney, Oxfordshire, on Instagram as The Pretend Farmer, with an audience of more than 5,000 followers, but his reasons for establishing his page remain rooted in championing British produce.
He says: “I am not there to be an influencer. My aim was to get one more person to buy British and to break that barrier between consumer and farmer and show what actually happens behind the farm gates. I also try to entertain my followers and brighten their day.
“I do not know how my following on Instagram grew to where it has.
“I started up farming on my own and I put some videos on Instagram about hay-making and a few people asked questions, so I started talking about it. People found it interesting and it has snowballed from there.”
After leaving school at 16 and becoming an apprentice chef, Karl worked his way up to head chef status, but the anti-social hours meant his work was not enjoyable anymore.
Karl says: “I didn’t really have any social life and when I was a head chef at the end of my career, I worked five to six days a week and on the seventh day I was either on the phone to suppliers or I would pop in to the kitchen for half-an-hour and still be there two hours later, so I never really switched off.
“I was putting in 60- to 70-hour weeks and being paid for 45, so I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.
“My grandparents and parents are both self-employed and I knew that was where I wanted to be in life, so I decided if I didn’t make the jump then and change career and set up a business, I never would.”
Despite leaving his career as a chef with no replacement job to go to, Karl says his parents, Graham and Dawn, and younger sister, Zoe, have been supportive and encouraging of his farming venture.
“I have a few pieces of land no-one else would touch. I even graze some people’s gardens”
Karl says: “My parents have a gardening business, and the idea was I would take on some of their work. I now pretty much do gardening Monday to Friday and farm Saturdays and Sundays.”
He explains how he started out taking a crop of hay each year from his grandparent’s 3ha (seven-acre) smallholding as they had done in the past, before in 2015 deciding to buy 12 lambs from a local farmer on a whim.
He says: “I bought the lambs at the back end of the year as stores. I wanted to make more money out of the field as all I was doing was making one hay crop and I thought it could be more lucrative than that, so I bought lambs to graze over winter.”
In autumn 2016, he bought 20 more lambs.
Consistency is key for Karl, who buys his New Zealand Highlander lambs privately from local sheep farmer Chris Strainge. He says Chris knows what he requires and is always at hand to assist if needed.
All the lambs are finished by spring and are sold in lamb boxes and to local butcher’s shops through word of mouth.
In 2017, Karl bought-in 30 lambs and knew he needed to start sourcing alternative grazing sites. He now buys 40 lambs per year, all from Chris.
Karl says: “I put an advert in the local village paper asking if anyone had any grazing land available. Someone offered me 3ha and they knew someone else who offered me 7ha, so it went from there.
“I don’t do a lot of renting, I do a lot of begging and borrowing and swapping grazing for lamb boxes. I will literally take on anything. I have a few pieces of land no-one else would touch. I even graze some people’s gardens.”
Fields are set stocked in most cases, except for some larger parcels which are split using electric fencing. Investment in more fencing equipment is something Karl aims to do going forwards.
In 2020, he was offered a further 8ha (20 acres) of grazing at nearby Cornbury Park, but the estate required the land to be grazed all-year-round, it was not for hay-making.
Karl says: “As I never say no to grazing land, when I was offered the land at Cornbury Park I said yes and then had to remedy the fact I had no actual sheep.
“Someone I know was selling a flock of 33 Charollais cross Beltex and Texel cross Beltex shearlings, so I went to look at them with a trailer and unsurprisingly came home with them all.
“I had nine other sheep I grazed for someone else and bought them off her too, so I ended up with 42. It was very much unplanned; I never intended on starting a breeding flock, because on my small-scale I could not understand how I would make money for it, having quite a few overheads.”
Having gained some lambing experience in 2020 with local sheep farmer Emma Blomfield, this will be Karl’s first year lambing sheep of his own. The sheep are due to start lambing on April 1, and he has managed to secure the use of a shed.
Once the fat lambs leave in spring, the grazing land is harrowed and rolled and shut up ready for making hay later in the season.
He says: “There are a few fields I want to muck spread this spring, but I find grazing them hard over winter helps put something back into them anyway and I have seen an increase in yield from doing that.”
Karl produces 1,000-1,500 small hay bales each year, either selling through merchants or privately to horse yards. He also buys-in about 300 small bales of straw when it is at its cheapest in summer.
He says: “I bought a tractor in spring 2020 and I have a mower and a tedder. But I do use a contractor for some of the bigger areas of land.
“I want to try and make as much hay as I can myself, as it would work out cheaper than having a contractor. At the same time, because I am a gardener, I need the hay-making to be happening at the same time that I am working in someone else’s garden. So during hay-making time, I will work during the day before carting hay in
In addition to tending to his livestock, Karl is also a keen beekeeper and has three hives which are situated in the corner of one of his hay meadows.
He says: “Bees need our help, so I thought if I could do something to help them and the environment I would.
they are amazing creatures and their little ecosystem fascinates me.”
The bees are a hobby first and foremost, he says, and although he does produce and sell honey, the busiest time to be a beekeeper is summer when hay-making takes precedence.
As well as using his voice to promote farming on social media, in his spare time Karl is also part of the NFU’s student and young farmer ambassador programme.
He says: “I saw the call for new ambassadors on Instagram and I thought maybe it is not for me as I am not from a farming background, I don’t have a farm and I don’t really farm.
“But I asked a few existing ambassadors about the role and they suggested I apply.
“We are a younger version of the NFU committee, we are figureheads, willing to speak to the media about farming issues and encouraging the next generation of farmers to be vocal about our industry and highlighting agriculture as an interesting industry for young people when choosing a career path.”
Asked what his key piece of advice for young people with no agricultural background is, Karl says do not be afraid to ask questions.
“Don’t be shy. Talk to people and gain as much knowledge as possible,” he says.