Difficult times brought Katie Mitcham-Henry back in touch with farming after a successful career as an international chef.
Now the family farm in Hessett, Suffolk, is base for her new livestock enterprise with business partner Mike Phillips. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
As a professional chef, Katie Mitcham-Henry worked for the Royals, Ducati and various celebrity clients.
But as a farmer’s daughter, quality British ingredients were always a priority. She loved her life as a chef and aimed high.
By 2005, her Suffolk roots were pulling her back and she decided to make the county her home again, moving back to be near her father Brian Mitcham, while continuing her work as a chef.
She started growing vegetables and rearing chickens, as she had done during her childhood.
Then, in September 2012, Brian had a horrific car accident which would bring major life changes for them both.
Katie says: “Dad suffered spinal cord injuries and shattered every rib.
“He was in the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital for three months.”
Brian survived, but was left paralysed and unable to walk.
The majority of the 202-hectare (500-acre) family farm, BL Mitcham & Son, was already contracted out to a large farming company.
But Katie made the decision to give up her chef work to oversee the business and manage the farmhouse grounds, as well as her father’s care.
It was enormously difficult time, admits Katie, who by then had a two-year-old daughter to look after.
Around the same time, Katie heard about Mike Phillips, who was starting his own livestock business from scratch in the area.
Katie’s family farm included some environmental stewardship meadows and she heard on the grapevine that Mike might be interested in taking on more grazing for his sheep.
“I found him selling sausages at the South Suffolk Show, introduced myself and asked him if he wanted to graze our land,” Katie says.
Having livestock on the farm was a strong emotional connection to the past, says Katie.
During her childhood she remembers her father rearing livestock and recalls happy memories of helping baling hay, trailing after the beet harvester to pick up stray beets and pulling wild oats.
But this came to an abrupt end when she was 11 years old and her mother, Mary, passed away from cancer, leaving Brian with Katie and her brother, William.
“After mum died, the decision was made to get rid of the livestock and to go down the arable route with contractors,” she says.
“It was the only way to make money and it was what dad needed to do to be able to bring us up.
“But to me the farm had become soul-less. The life had disappeared.”
Mike began his farming career soon after turning 40.
Like Katie, he had been brought up on a farm – his father was herdsman for a Dorset dairy farm – and he had also worked on farms in his teens. But he had followed alternative career paths after that.
He longed to return to the countryside and started pursuing his farming ambition with 5ha (12 acres) of rented grassland and a disused piggery on Heath Road, Hessett, in 2011. He called his business Heath Farm.
His first animals were 12 dairy cross steers, 12 Oxford Sandy and Black pigs and 12 mixed native breed ewes and rams.
At the same time, he enrolled at Writtle College to study for a degree in agriculture.
“When Mike brought the first lot of sheep to our farm, the place came alive,” says Katie.
“Then in spring 2013, Mike had to get a full-time job for financial reasons. I was at home finding caring for dad very difficult.
“He was on a lot of controlled drugs and falling many times during the night, and I was also trying to be a mum.
“I looked after him 24/7 and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was breaking myself.
“Every spare moment I would go and see the sheep in the field. Then one day during lambing there was a breech lamb struggling to be born.
“I phoned Mike and he was too far away to come back quickly. He told me to get on with it. I told Dad what was happening, and he told me to go and save them.
“Sadly, we lost the first lamb, but there were two more and I pulled them out.”
Katie continued to oversee the flock and instead of payment for her help, Mike gave her some lambs to sell. They soon realised they were targeting the same potential customers.
“We had a conversation one day and decided that with our mix of skills we should go into business together,” she says.
Katie and Mike are passionate about high-welfare production and wanted to rear grass-fed meat from slow-growing traditional breeds.
Working together enabled them to grow the livestock numbers. The sheep flock grew to 350 ewes, but they have recently made cut back to 100 as they decided to sell meat only through their own shop.
They also have 10 breeding sows – Oxford Sandy and Blacks and British Saddlebacks – and their progeny.
In 2014, they started a herd of Longhorn cattle too, with the purchase of three females.
“It has always been Mike’s dream – he has wanted them all his life,” she says.
“They are the oldest breed in the world and the meat is a phenomenal flavour. They are a very good environmental grazing animal and wonderfully calm. Their presence is quite overwhelming.”
The herd now stands at 20 females and breeding bull.
The sheep flock continues to be a ‘motley crew’ says Katie.
“They are predominantly Dorset Downs, but we also have some Jacobs, Soays and so on. I want to be different,” she says.
They also rear small numbers of geese, ducks and Christmas turkeys, and maintain a flock of 100 laying hens. Katie and husband, Simon, also keep bees and produce honey for the farm shop.
“We try to farm as nature intended,” says Mike.
“We are not organic, but we do run a basically organic system, although we will use antibiotics if our breeding animals need it.
“The land is grazed extensively, and we move animals by road when we can, which also helps strengthen up their tendons and naturally trims their feet. They know where they are going, so it’s simple.”
All livestock is out year-round, but they are looking for winter accommodation for the Longhorns.
“They didn’t do so well in the very cold winter with the beast from East,” says Mike.
Cattle and sheep are fed just haylage, hay or silage, and only the pigs have concentrates.
“They go to slaughter when they are ready. It’s very individual in terms of when they are ready and when it is needed for the shop,” he says.
The Longhorn beef is hung for 28 days and the lamb for 10 days.
“We believe in what we are doing,” says Katie.
“Every single one of our animals is valued.
“Some people may mock us and don’t take us seriously, but we are still here with no subsidies and no grants, and we are loving it.”
Until recently, meat was sold through farmers’ markets, but Mike and Katie have found the time commitment increasingly difficult alongside managing the animals.
They opened their small shop in a converted workshop in Brian’s grounds in Hessett and are working to grow their sales through that.
A pig share scheme also gives local people the opportunity to buy into a share or half of a pig and learn about production.
Katie has also recently added a small café with homemade cakes to encourage customers to stay a while. Children are invited to meet a selection of animals and play with ride-on tractors.
“I am very keen on the education side and making sure people know where their food comes from,” says Katie, who has a part-time job at West Suffolk College, teaching apprentice chefs alongside her commitments to Heath Farm and her father.
She also likes to bring her students to visit the farm to learn about meat production first-hand.
Her father, Brian, uses an electric wheelchair, which enables him to visit the livestock, shop and café, and see happy customers. He says he is ‘enormously proud’ of what Katie and Mike have achieved.
Brian says: “Quite simply it has put life back into the farm. They have done this all with little or no capital and managed to build it up.
“People are showing an interest in the countryside now and it has coincided with this venture.
“Katie has worked incredibly hard. I’m full of admiration for what she has done.”