Keeping the farm for the next generation is at the heart of all the Forster family do, from making the decision to go organic, to setting up their shop on-farm.
Emily Ashworth visited them to find out more...
Walking in to the grounds at Home Farm, Haigh, Wigan, it is almost like stepping back in time, with its red brick, traditional buildings and large central courtyard.
Home to the Forster family, Chris along with his wife, Anne, and son, Jack, have built their business by switching to organic farming and running a thriving farm shop on their second site in St Helens, Lancashire, 20 minutes’ drive from Haigh.
A fourth-generation business established in 1891, it is very much a family affair, with Chris’ mum Jan, 82, still out delivering orders locally, while Anne and Chris run the organic meat side.
Jack came home in 2012 after his career as a professional rugby player was cut short by a neck injury and he has now added another income stream to the Forster family farm by setting up a successful straw trading business.
Across 56 hectares (140 acres) at Home Farm, Chris runs an extensive system with his 120 Ruby Red Devon cattle and 100 breeding ewes, making the best of what is a somewhat old-fashioned set-up.
But his methods benefit from having the two farms and, having switched to organic in 2002, they work well with the system.
“We’ve always been summer feeders,” says Chris.
“We run a grass-fed, extensive system which fits in with the organic farming regime well and, having the two sites, we’ve plenty of grass.
“These old-fashioned buildings are listed so you can’t do anything with them. But I’ve always lived here don’t really want to change things too much because we’re satisfied with how we do things.”
Chris buys in another 300-400 store lambs EACH YEAR which, along with the beef, all go through the shop to be butchered and sold, but the family take what they need on demand.
He says: “We’re very much of the scale that when we need something to slaughter, we’ve got it.
“We’re not one to get batches of 20 and 30 ready, we just want one or two at a time.
“Yes, it is slower progress here but since the war, the Government asked farmers to produce more to feed us, and we’ve got so efficient that the industry produces a surplus, so when prices are low everybody complains.”
Cattle are put to the Ruby Red Devon bull with a view to build up the suckler herd, and the farm has recently entered in to the Countryside Productivity Small Grant Scheme (CPSG), investing in a new handling system with weigh bars and an electronic tagging system.
“We’ve never weighed anything and just gone off eye,” says Chris.
“We need to go forward and although we haven’t got vast numbers, we feel we need to be more efficient.”
Going organic also tied in with switching breeds, turning to native Ruby Red Devons after running Limousins.
Chris says: “Native breeds are much more amenable and don’t need as much protein feed.
“It was Anne’s idea to go organic and seeing as we were extensively farming anyway, they fitted in and suit the whole business cycle.”
After selling their meat at local farmers’ markets, the family built up such a customer base that when the market shut down, they decided to turn an old cattle shed at their St Helen’s site in to a shop.
And by producing organic meat, the family feel they have a unique selling point.
“I always say to people you that you have Welsh lamb or Scotch beef, but Wigan lamb or beef doesn’t really have a ring to it,” says Chris.
“The organic status gives us a unique selling point and we follow it through right from conception to shop and I’m proud of that.”
The shop is packed full of local and other organic produce, kitted out with a large glass-fronted fridge with the beef and lamb on display.
But it is providing families with quality produce for the right price which Anne is passionate about.
She says: “We try our best to make our meat affordable.
“There is an element of ‘we are different’ and this helps us set apart.
“More people need to consider who produces food and support not just local farms, but businesses too.
“Most of what is in the shop is organic but if it’s not it will be local or free-range.”
Growing the business has always been a gradual process but the family now employ six staff, all whom are integral to the Forster family, says Anne.
“It isn’t something you can close the door on at 5pm. We all have this inner sense of duty and I know we’re not a big business but now we have staff, their livelihoods depend on us keeping going and doing well.”
The beef is hung for 21 days and changing the mentality of how people shop is key in ensuring all their produce gets sold.
“Because we bring our own beef back, the standard butcher can say I need more sirloin or a bit more rump and you can always sell steak. But we have the rest of the animal to sell so we’ve tried to make every cut appealing.
“Mince, for example, is £9 per kilo, but the caveat to that is we trim it hard and make it really good, quality mince.
“People come to us and understand they might not get everything they want on that day.”
Anne is also keen to educate people on what they do and for the past three years the family has taken part in Open Farm Sunday, welcoming as many as 2,000 people to the farm.
“It can be easy to take our lifestyle for granted. But the kids cannot believe seeing things like the bulls and we feel we’re part of the community. We’re not just some mad, organic farm,” says Anne.
“We’re doing what we can with our USP to compete in a market.
“For some farms, it’s not so simple to go organic but because of the farming we do, it was easier for us to make the switch.
“We originally did look on it as a business opportunity and it was a fit for us.
“At the end of the day, it’s about keeping the farm but there’s a lot which goes on just to keep it together.”
Having an abrupt end to his sporting career, Jack wanted to make use of himself back at home and make the most of some elements of the business which weren’t being used on farm.
He says: “I finished playing rugby in 2011 and always wanted to eventually come back, but I didn’t think it would be when I was 24.
“Dad always had a lorry for transporting cattle around.
“We had the wagon and didn’t do much with it anymore as the shop had taken over and I wanted to have some sort of input in the farm.
“I used to bring a bit of straw in for ourselves to bed the cattle on and I started to sell it. It just went from there.”
Although Jack is adamant his parents have been the main proprietors in the success of the shop, he wants to ensure it’s pushed to its full potential, and that next step is making it more accessible for customers.
“We’ve almost reached capacity with the farm shop but we have always been limited by the access road as it’s narrow,” says Jack.
“We’ve started the process of getting new entrance driveway and it’s not been popular with everybody, but the pros outweigh the cons.
“The neighbours won’t have the wagon rumbling by their houses and customers will have a much safer and bigger access.
“Geographically we’re in a great position but we’re kind of hidden away.
“Nine times out of 10 customers will come back, but it is getting them to make that first visit and it’s not the most inviting entrance.”
And the plan is to keep pushing forward and continue with what is a mentality spread across the whole business.
“If you keep offering a good service, people will keep coming back,” says Jack.
What do you want to be I said to young Joe?
He was playing with diggers and tractors on the floor,
A farmer he said with a smile on his face,
For the love of the outdoors and the lack of rat race,
Choose your path carefully, listen to me,
Farming is just not what it used to be,
Farmers haven’t changed, our values are still true,
But now there are imports and rules and hoops to jump through,
Us British farmers standards are the highest by far,
But the supermarkets would rather import from a far,
New Zealand lamb and Argentinian beef,
When the best is from our own native breeds,
When I was a lad farmers were respected and looked on with pride,
Now the neighbours complain when we work through the night,
There are passports, and licences for cattle and sheep,
And piles of paper work 5 feet deep,
The grain is worth less than 1974,
Yet the diesel and Fert and labour costs more,
A tractor and trailer cost more than a house,
But then I do sit in that more than I sit on my couch,
I was born into farming, didn’t choose it, it chose me,
But if I had to pick something else, I’ve no idea what I’d be,
A banker, no thanks, or a surgeon no way,
I would have needed to stay in school and got more A’s,
I love caring for animals and tending the land,
it can be heartbreaking, breathtaking, unpredictable but grand,
You see birth and new life, witness death and also strife,
But you know you did your best and you did what was right,
Now I don’t want to deter you from farming this land,
I would burst with much pride if you took the reigns from my hand,
But don’t do it for the money or glory or holidays,
The farm won’t make money when you are away,
It takes hard work and sweat and an aching back,
But the rewards are all worth it when you’ve built that hay stack,
No one will praise you or say you did well,
But they will phone the council because of the smell,
They forget that when they are all tucked up in bed,
That its us working all night just to keep them all fed,
So don’t be put off son, don’t be afraid,
But choose your life wisely or you won’t make the grade,
No this farm life is not the same as way back when,
But you can’t change the past so why envy them,
Instead look to the future, create it and mould it,
Because you only reap rewards from a seed if you’ve sown it.