Whether it is by nature or nurture, Susan and Justin Harmer’s passion for farming has certainly been passed on to the next generation, with all three of their children working alongside them at Offham, near Lewes in Sussex.
Clemmie Gleeson reports.
Farming and diversification enterprises go hand-in-hand at Offham Farm with sheep, beef cattle and pigs all reared for the Harmer family’s booming farm shop, near Lewes. There is no shortage of labour either with Susan and Justin’s three grown-up children all involved in the business too.
“We all have our own area – we all specialise in the things we are most interested in,” says Susan, who oversees livestock management.
Her husband Justin manages the four holiday cottages and the arable unit.
Their eldest daughter Lizzy, 28, is heavily involved with the sheep flocks while also being a mum to her children George and Maggie; Edward, 26, focuses on the arable work and beef cattle, while Gussie, 22, is responsible for the pigs, while also looking after her baby daughter Connie.
Susan and Justin married in 1989 and took over Justin’s father’s tenant farm the same year. The business was ‘just about held together’ but not thriving due to a large generation gap of 53 years and it needed a lot of work to make it viable.
Over the years they have turned its fortunes around, moving away from dairy production to breeding livestock.
They bought the farm in 1996 and in the early days they worked with Susan’s brother Richard Wakeham-Dawson, later helping him to buy his own farm in East Hoathly which is close enough to allow them to share resources and machinery.
Throughout 2001-2002, Justin and Susan converted some barns into holiday cottages which was an excellent diversification, says Susan.
“They really helped pull things round,” she says.
She was awarded a regional Women in Farming Award in 2006 for her success with the business.
Office units were also rented out and later became the location for their farm shop. The family had first dipped their toes into direct selling via farmer’s markets which proved there was keen demand locally for their meat.
“We have always cursed the busy road here, but it is a fabulous location for the shop which we opened in 2011. At first it was just me and one other person,” says Susan.
“Now we have five people working for us with a really good turnover and it gets bigger every year.
“We have outgrown the building, so have planning permission to move into a bigger one – that is our next project.”
Initially Susan worked long hours to develop the shop including creating the recipes for her meat pies which have developed quite a following.
“The pies in the shop are epic,” says Lizzy.
Pigs are relative newcomers to the farm, having been introduced to supply the shop which had already become the main outlet for their beef and lamb.
“We tried various traditional breeds, but they weren’t productive enough and too fat,” says Susan.
Next, they tried commercial hybrids before Welsh pigs were recommended. Fast-growing and lean compared to other traditional breeds, they were ideal. About the same time, Gussie took over management of the pigs and has grown the herd to 16 females plus progeny – about 160 head in total.
She has also had success in the showring, with inter-breed championship wins this year at the Royal Norfolk, Devon and Royal Welsh, where the winning pig was also named Supreme Champion of Champions.
The pigs are reared in straw-based yards, says Gussie.
He says: “We use 360-degree freedom farrowing crates. Typical litter size is 10 to 15.
“After 10 days they are moved to straw-based yards and all of the pigs are on barley straw from the farm and fed on a commercial ration – it’s the only feed we buy-in.”
They reach over 100kg by five months of age.
The Sussex cattle herd was founded with the purchase of two beasts in 1991.
“They are great converters of our poor Site of Special Scientific Interest brookland grazing into saleable product,” says Susan.
“They have been fantastic.”
The herd now stands at 50 breeding cows and Edward hopes to grow this further.
“We hope to take advantage of more efficient grassland usage and match the increasing demand for beef from the farm shop,” says Edward.
The cattle have been Signet recorded since 2011 which has helped improve performance, he adds.
In particular, weaning weights have increased and finishing times have reduced.
“The cattle are run as both autumn and spring calving herds, which allows for a constant supply for the farm shop,” says Edward.
Calving is outside with the exception of heifers in order to minimise workload.
All bulls are kept entire and finished on a barley ration from 14-17 months with the best examples kept for breeding.
Meanwhile, heifers are reared extensively and finished primarily off grass at 18-24 months.
After a decade away from showing cattle the family returned to the showring in 2017, winning their first inter-breed title at the Heathfield Show that year as well as the breed society’s female of the year for two consecutive years.
The pedigree Southdown flock was founded by Susan’s father Paul Wakeham-Dawson in 1981 and have lived on Susan and Justin’s farm since 1989.
It now stands at about 70 ewes in total with Susan, Edward and Lizzy all having their own flocks within that.
Lizzy also has her own commercial Beltex flock in Battle where she lives with husband Chris Sargent who is also a farmer. Chris has a herd of 80 commercial suckler cattle and 500 Suffolk Texel cross ewes.
The Harmers commercial flock of 450 ewes is a combination of home-bred Texel-sired ewes, North Country Mules and Scotch Half-breds. Finishing lambs are sired by Southdown tups which are faster growing and easier finishing on the family’s ground compared to the Texel-cross lambs which are sold as stores, says Edward. All the commercial lambs are finished on red clover leys after two cuts have been taken for winter forage for the cattle young stock. The commercial flock mostly grazes SSSI land on the South Downs.
The Southdown flock produces pedigree rams which are sometimes available to other commercial and pedigree breeders.
This brings about 40 additional ewes who come for a month to be sponged and tupped on the farm.
“I believe that the Southdown is the most underrated breed of sheep,” says Susan.
“Those that have been improved are able to hold their own against all the other major breeds.
“We think they are fantastic – lambs finish very easily off grass, they are not too fat and make good sized carcasses, finishing at 40 to 44kg which is ideal. Lambs finish from 11 weeks old onwards.”
Lambing is in January while the commercial ewes and Edward’s Southdown flock lamb in late March or April.
Susan has been Signet recording the pedigree flock for the past eight years.
She says: “It has completely revolutionised production. Conformation is better and they have faster growth.”
The family are stalwarts of the showing scene with the Southdowns too. This year’s successes include inter-breed championship at Royal Norfolk and Heathfield shows, reserve inter-breed at Nottinghamshire and Hertfordshire shows and supreme inter-breed group of three at Royal Bath and West.
“Showing is a hobby which we are successful at, but our main business is farming,” says Susan.
“Because there are so many enterprises on the farm it is good to have a break, see friends and have a bit of fun – otherwise we would never leave the farm.”
Nothing stays the same for long at Offham. As well as plans to extend the shop, Gussie is keen to add shepherds’ huts to the current holiday home offering. Susan also wants to succeed in poultry rearing and possibly egg production too.
“Poultry is the only meat that is not ours in the shop,” she says.
“Over the years we have tried things that haven’t worked. The secret is to start small, feel your way. Farmers have to take financial risks all the time, it is a bad idea to spend half a million expecting it just to work – go at it a bit at a time.”
In the longer-term, Susan and Justin do plan to slow down eventually.
She says: “We are getting the children to run their own sections independently so that we can gradually reduce what we do when the time is right.”
In the meantime, the three younger generation are hoping to glean as much from their parents as they can.
“Dad is so knowledgeable, and Mum is a really good businesswoman,” says Lizzy.
Despite the uncertainty of Brexit and beyond, Susan is sure that change should not be feared.
“If you are entrepreneurial then change is an opportunity. Brexit is not necessarily a bad thing unless you are uneconomic and living off subsidies,” she says.
“Forward thinking youngsters will embrace the opportunity.”