When young farmers Hannah Kinston and John Davies started selling cheese to help fund their way through university neither dreamt the venture would become a full-time business. Kate Chapman find out more.
It simply began with a pop-up cheese shop.
On Open Farm Sunday in 2016, Hannah Kinston, 22, and John Davies, 22, set up shop on her family farm in Burton on Trent, Staffordshire. And after selling out, they started taking a regular monthly pitch at John’s family farm alongside their homegrown potatoes, in Snarestone, Leicestershire, before attending more county shows and food festivals.
They’ve since added clotted cream, butter, yoghurt and biscuits to their product range and due to their continued success, have rebranded their business British Food Box, after expanding into wholesale seven months ago.
Their customer base covers five counties - Cheshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Shropshire – and the Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop is also among their clients.
Although their business has evolved, Hannah says they have always maintained the same aims – to champion local producers and to encourage more shoppers to buy quality made British food.
“We just wanted to earn a bit of extra cash to help us through university,” says Hannah, who recently graduated from The University of Nottingham with a veterinary medicine degree, while John is in his final year studying agri-business at Harper Adams University.
“We started with cheese, because everyone loves cheese and, it is what fed us through university.
“Our farm has 880 cows and we supply milk into Joseph Heler’s dairy in Nantwich, where it’s used to make a range of regional British cheeses.
“So, when we decided to start selling cheese, it was logical that was our first port of call as we have that connection – now I complete the loop selling their products to specialist farm shops and delis around Cheshire and the surrounding counties.”
Hannah and John met at Nertherseal Young Farmers when they were 17 and they have been a couple ever since.
They both invested £500 into their fledgling venture to buy their first batch of cheese from Joseph Heler, plus a table and a small marquee.
In between their university studies and working on their respective family farms, the pair found enough time to develop their weekend job to a level where it could become a viable full-time business, and after Hannah completed her degree in April, British Food Box opened for officially on May 1, 2019.
“Local businesses like the fact that we are young farmers, working hard to support their local food producers and promoting quality British food,” she says.
“But as a relatively new business venture there are lots of challenges facing us and both - John and I are learning new things every week.
“Staying on top of the finances is priority number one for us. If you can manage this part, you can then be relaxed and focus your energy on building the businesses.
“We’re lucky that we have a great group of food producers and local customers – they are very supportive, and they understand the difficulties of running your own business.”
The pair believe it is important for younger people to pick up the mantle and show support for British food and Hannah says they are determined to highlight the quality of products available in their local area and beyond.
Through British Food Box, they aim to take a range of British cheeses and sell them on to the consumer at a reasonable price, so families can try things they have never tasted before.
“We have a traditional range of cheeses – we sell a Dovedale blue Stilton made in Derbyshire, Staffordshire Brie and some lovely Cheshire cheeses among others and they are all reasonably priced,” says Hannah. “We’re finding that as we attend events people want to know where their food comes from, they want to know the story of the farm and about the cows producing the milk used in them.
“There’s a lot of support for the farm to fork movement. In reality, there are so many middle men between the actual producer and the consumer, so we’re trying to cut this out and get products straight to the consumer at a reasonable price.
“And it seems to be working, we get a lot of repeat customers and people coming back to events to seek us out.
“As young farmers we know what it takes to produce quality food – hard work, knowledge and a passion for real food.
“Too often today the element of quality gets lost in the chase for cheap and convenient.
“All young people are the next generation of food consumers – therefore, as young people we should take responsibility to make sure that locally grown, quality British food remains available for everyone to enjoy.”
The pair agree all farmers are facing tough times but say this is nothing new and they can’t see it changing in the future either.
When it comes to the challenges facing today’s young farmers, they believe it is because they have more choices to make.
“We made the decision to go with our passion and to work with what we knew,” says Hannah.
“We then made sure we worked with people who were happy to share their knowledge – so that it made it easier for us to make the right choices as we have progressed over the last six months.
“Young farmers have a great opportunity to start their own businesses, or takeover an existing business – there are plenty of people looking to buy quality British food.
“Whether that be from a farmers’ market or via online shopping, there are plenty of examples of young British farmers who have started a successful business in the last few years.
“But good young farmers have two key attributes that will help them be successful: they know how to work hard, and they have a great knowledge of their farm’s produce. Next, they need a clear plan and to work with people who can support their ideas.”
Hannah agrees there are a lot of ongoing debates about food production, food consumption, food miles, animal welfare or lifestyle choices but she thinks this generation are primed to help people make informed choices.
She says: “Whether you are young or old, I think people are wise enough to know that there isn’t just one thing that is going to answer all of the questions regarding food in the modern world.
“There are people far more intelligent than us to be able to debate these subjects, but what we are seeing is that the younger generation is making a lot of noise about world issues, world food production and consumption.
“Veganism is a badge that much of the press likes to put on a lot of the stories. However, we believe it is more complicated than arguing vegan – yes or no?
“The debate is really about a sustainable, quality food system that can feed the world. “When you talk about food miles, farm standards, animal welfare, sustainable agriculture and quality and healthy food, buying British is important.”
As for the future, Hannah says her career as a vet is on hold for the time being while she and John see how far they can take British Food Box.
“The future looks very good for the business. British Food Box has only been going for seven months but each week we’re getting more new customers – we have grown so fast that we have already recruited two new people to join our team.
“Obviously growth is something on our minds though. We are keen to keep expanding but there is a thin line as we don’t want to grow too quick too soon, so we are careful about how many new lines we take on.
“Our immediate aim is to service more customers with a wider range of locally produced products.
“Being your own boss when you’re our age, well it doesn’t seem or feel like work, it almost feels like a summer holiday job. It’s great fun – we work hard, but we’re also enjoying it too.”