While running a smallholding at the same time as holding down a full-time job can be hard work, it is also well worth the effort, as James and Jo Middleton can testify.
The desire to move from London and spend more time outside producing their own food was the driver behind James and Jo Middleton taking on Rose Cottage, a four-hectare (10-acre) holding near Aldershot on the Hampshire/Surrey border.
It has been in Jo’s family for five generations, but had been unfarmed for some time before the couple moved in. The first few months were spent making the house habitable before tackling the land, grass and woodland, which was completely overgrown with gorse and bracken.
James says: “I knew nothing whatsoever about farming, but Jo grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in Surrey, so she did have some knowledge, but it has been a steep learning curve for me in particular.
“I completed a small-scale farming course at Merrist Wood College. It was an evening course and fitted around work, so it was a great opportunity to learn and meet like-minded local people. In fact, through this course was how we ended up buying our first piglets.”
The couple both have full-time jobs, James as a management consultant and Jo as an occupational therapist, but James took a nine-month sabbatical to enable them to them get the farm up and running.
He says: “We needed to get on top of things and get to the point where we could manage just by getting up early and working late in the evenings and doing everything else at weekends.
“I have now gone back to work, but just four days-a-week, which gives me an extra day on-farm.”
The couple grow their own vegetables with the aim of putting up a polytunnel this year to grow more.
The first livestock arrivals were five rescue hens and, since then, they have hatched their own flock of hens which produce eggs for their own use, selling any surplus via an honesty box.
These were followed by three Soay ewes and two wethers, with the flock having now grown to 14 ewes to lamb this spring.
James says: “We chose Soay mainly because they are low maintenance and will lamb outside on their own. They are wool shedding, so do not need shearing and do not have many foot issues, making them an ideal starter flock.
"However, since then we have realised they are impossible to catch and often have to enlist friends if we need to move them, which is always fun.
“They are slaughtered as hoggets at about 18 months old and the meat is fantastic. It is lean and flavoursome. It is amazing slow-cooked, but it can also be smoked or barbecued and the chops flash fried are incredibly tender.”
The hides are also retained for making into rugs and there are plans to keep some of the horns for stick-making.
Initially, James and Jo kept some Boer goats, which had their kids while he was on sabbatical.
“It was fine when I was at home, but when I went back to work it was more difficult to manage them, so we found them new homes. It is important to be realistic about what you can do, particularly if working as well,” James says.
The couple have also tried various breeds of pigs and currently have a Mangalitsa cross Saddleback cross Large Black sow with the aim of keeping a couple of daughters out of it.
James says: “We tried a variety of breeds to see what works for us and think we are now getting towards the best cross. The Mangalitsa is very tasty, but it is slow-growing, taking up to a year to finish, which is why we crossed with the Saddleback.”
All the pigs are reared outside and have arcs in the woodland.
James and Jo have set up a ‘pig club’ whereby customers buy a pig or half a pig and own it from birth, so they know where it has come from and how it has lived its life. They can visit the farm and be involved in rearing it and then when ready for slaughter they choose how it is butchered, including the size of joints and flavour of sausages.
All animals are slaughtered and butchered just 10 minutes away in Farnborough. The meat is then wrapped in recyclable packaging and labelled ready for the customer to freeze or cook.
James says: “The pig club is proving to be really popular and we already have a waiting list for it. We are also hoping to start a hogget club to go alongside it.”
The couple have developed a strong social media following. Any surplus meat is advertised on Facebook and Instagram and usually it is quickly snapped up by friends and local people.
James says: “We have a summerhouse which we use as our farm shop, just opening on Saturdays when we have surplus meat and eggs. We can get as many as 50 people turning up and sometimes do not have enough for everyone.”
Last year, through a competition run by Eat Natural as part on its Pollenation initiative aimed at producing in new generation of bee keepers, James won a complete set of beekeeping equipment along with all the necessary training to set up hives on-farm. So by this summer they hope to be producing their own honey.
Although the couple have absolutely no regrets about moving out of London, they admit it has been hard work.
James says: “The hardest part was taking our first pig to slaughter, but once you get the meat back it is very rewarding to be able to eat home-produced food, to be self-sufficient and know the pigs have had a great life in our woods.
“The other downside is now we have long commutes to work. When we lived in London I could cycle there in 20 minutes, but now it takes me an hour and 20 minutes on the train, which is not ideal.
“But we accept it is very much a lifestyle choice and we are never going to make enough money not to have to work, but we have dreams of diversifying and expanding so that maybe in the future, one or both of us could work less in London or not at all.
“To anyone thinking of doing something similar, I would advise, be prepared to work hard, but do not put too much pressure on yourself, particularly to start with. Build up slowly and make sure you enjoy what you do.”