Working with their natural surroundings and combining a mixed skills set has created a sustainable farm enterprise, taking food to the masses. Lynsey Martin finds out more.
The past six years have certainly been eventful for Fraser and Nikki Brown. The husband and wife team have moved up north to take over the running of the family farm in Argyll, began selling their lamb direct to customers, installed a 48kW hydro system and had a child – with another on the way later this year.
It’s been a learning experience for the couple, but they’ve combined their own skills and passions to drive the farm forward. With Fraser’s background in engineering and construction and Nikki’s in PR and business development, they aim to create a profitable business which can survive without subsidies if necessary.
Fraser is the fourth generation of his family to farm at Shellfield, a 1,011-hectare (2,500-acre) hill unit at Glendaruel, having taken over the tenancy from his uncle in 2012.
He says: “My mum was brought up here, so I was used to coming here on holidays and helping my uncle at clipping time. I probably had an idealised view of what it was like, but the reality of moving here and trying to make a living was quite different. We quickly realised we would have to diversify to make a profit, without being solely reliant on subsidies.”
Running 450 mainly Blackface ewes will never produce huge returns, so the couple decided to focus and capitalise on the plus points of the farm and the natural resources around them.
The fact the sheep are all naturally reared on diverse terrain, from the rough hill down to the Loch Riddon salt marshes, makes the meat particularly flavoursome and gives it a unique selling point. They have also made the most of the wet climate by installing a hydro system, a £120,000 investment which has been running successfully now for two years.
Nikki says: “We started small scale, selling lamb and mutton at local producers’ markets, through the Food from Argyll group and using a local butcher, R.H. McIntyre, Bute, who we still use today.
“Getting people to try lamb burgers was a challenge at first, but we found once they did, they loved them.”
The next step was investing in a stall and gradually building up a list of events, starting with the Loch Fyne Food Festival.
They now also travel to the annual Islay Whisky Festival and have done festivals including Belladrum, in Inverness, and Trnsmt, Glasgow. But it’s not always the biggest events which make the most money, as Nikki explains.
“It’s been trial and error with the events. Some of them charge a fortune for the stall space and we barely make anything, while smaller ones can often be the most profitable.
“We tailor the produce to the specific event too. For some we offer slow roasted lamb, cooked in our hog roast machine, served in wraps with tzatziki, while others just require burgers and chips. We have seasonal staff which we hire in as required.”
Nikki believes having a marketing budget and creating proper branding has helped improve the look of the stall and its promotional material, which will be useful going forward, with work now underway on a commercial kitchen and butchery unit at the farm.
The couple secured a Leader grant to help fund this expansion, which was matched by the S.J. Noble Trust, a local initiative which aims to promote rural regeneration.
“It was a long and sometimes difficult process to obtain the Leader grant, but after 18 months we are now at the ‘project live’ stage, which is an exciting prospect for the business,” Nikki explains.
“At the moment, we are really busy through spring and summer, with the farm and various events, but it’s far quieter in the winter.
“This unit will allow us to expand into other areas, including ready meals, which will be frozen to avoid the need for preservaties, and also private catering. We will be able to enhance what we can provide at events and also cater on a far larger scale.
“We have such a beautiful setting here which we think would be a perfect location for weddings, so this is something we want to think about in the future.”
The farm system which provides the flavoursome lamb is a simple one and Fraser keeps it as low-input as possible, with the aim being to get as many lambs on the ground as he can and to keep survivability rates up.
The picturesque surroundings bring their own challenges, mainly ticks, which they treat against, and predators such as eagles and foxes.
“We bring all ewes down to the in-bye fields for three weeks for tupping, using home-bred ram lambs and some bought privately. That way I have better control over what’s been tupped and when. They lamb on the hill in April and are back down for clipping in summer.
“We put hoggets and lambs away between March and September, with most brought down to be fattened on the salt marshes.”
“We did have a small breeding herd of cattle, but it is difficult to make money out of rearing cattle here as it’s so wet and the ground was becoming poached, plus we have no housing for them, so we sold them last year to focus on the sheep.
“That said, we intend to buy in a more traditional breed of store bullock to fatten on the hill and finish for beef production in the future.
“We’re using traditional, low-input farming techniques, but mixed with modern ideas. The lambs are grown naturally, with minimal concentrates and we’ve found this, combined with the traceability aspect, is really important to customers. We supply a few local restaurants too, who like using quality local produce.”
The coming months will be particularly busy for the Browns, with construction of the new unit hoped to be complete by September, and two-year-old Elsie’s sibling due to arrive in December.
But Nikki has a passion for cooking and is eager to get stuck into the new venture of ready meals, which should keep them busy through winter.