Share farming, care farming, and fine dining mix at Whitbourne Estate to create a more circular system. Jez Fredenburgh meets Joe Evans to find out more about how making each strand of the business work.
The 1,500-acre Whitbourne Estate is in an enviable position. Just east of Worcester, it lies between the Shropshire and Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Beauty, and the Brecon Beacons National Park. But sharing its natural assets with the public, alongside a growing list of commercial enterprises, is at the heart of its ethos.
Joe Evans, managing director and sixth generation to farm at Whitbourne believes their estate can demonstrate to wider society that farms such as theirs is not ‘just about making money farming.’
He says: “We do lots of other things as well. That doesn’t need to be at the cost of farming, it can all work together in tandem. The industry is going to go through a lot of change and if we can be on the front foot of demonstrating [our] wider benefits, that can only be a good thing to secure the industry.”
JOE took over from his father, Bill, seven years ago to allow him to retire. Using his banking experience working in the Channel Islands, India, London and South East Asia, Joe has been expanding the estate’s commercial enterprises since, while paying close attention to family values.
“We decide our objectives together as a family. It’s normally about what we want to do in terms of environmental impact and what we want our farm to look like,” he says.
A key aim is to create a more circular economy. The estate’s 450-acre organic farm hardly buys any inputs other than straw for winter bedding, and a proportion of its finished beef and lamb is sold to the estate’s hospitality businesses.
These include a 30-seater fine-dining restaurant, Green Cow Kitchens, which Joe launched in a converted pig shed. A chef prepares seven-course tasting menus based on the seasons and uses as much from the estate as possible – wild boar, pheasants, partridges, apples, pears, herbs and foraged foods such as damsons and elderflower. Joe would also like to try temporary stocking, such as ducks, for the restaurant.
“We can do eight to ten lambs a month, but beef is more of a challenge because you end up with so much mince,” He says.
“But we want the restaurant to be a showcase for what British agriculture can do.”
Demand for the estate’s produce will soon increase, following the family’s investment in a new 200-person event venue and business, Crumplebury, complete with 13 bedrooms. It will be powered entirely by a woodchip boiler using byproducts from Whitbourne’s forestry management activities.
The on-site care farm, Longlands, also makes use of the estate’s farm, with young students getting hands-on farm experience and providing extra hands to activities such as moving stock. The estate also has four let farms and 19 cottages.
But it is still a lot to juggle and has meant an expansion of the team.
Joe says: “When I took over there was four of us at the Christmas dinner the first year – [last year] there were 52 including staff and volunteers. It’s a big job to make sure that I have the brain space to help everyone do what they need to do.
“Before we were just a very sleepy estate that could afford to be a bit more reactionary, but now we have to have a really clear plan. The biggest challenge now is making sure Crumplebury is a success – we’ve borrowed a lot of money and will be opening the estate up more to the public. I need to make sure we don’t get too distracted by this beast and compromise our farm values.”
Part of that plan was taking nearly 300 acres of farmland back in-hand to create a 450-acre beef and sheep unit.
Tim and Lara Roberts run the organic unit with a hybrid agreement between contract farming and share farming. Tim is self-employed and farms on a contract basis, with all sales and bills going to the Evans family. But as the livestock builds up, a proportion of them will be owned by the Roberts.
The couple bought half the farm’s existing flock of Lleyn sheep when they took over and have gradually built them up to today’s 400 ewes.
“The aim is to sell breeding females as yearlings,” says Tim. “We are crossing about 50 per cent to a Hampshire ram, which has been giving us higher growth rates, easier finishing and we’ve been getting some very good commercial carcasses.
“They seem to thrive off fresh air and a good view, which suits us since we’re very low input. We’re trying to be the best we can from what we grow.”
Tim and Lara have also added their own herd of pedigree Salers cattle to the farm’s existing pedigree Beef Shorthorns. Now, numbers are up to 45 Beef Shorthorns and 30 Salers, and finished stock is sold to Meadow Quality and retailed under supermarket organic meat labels.
“They’re maternal beef breeds, so we also sell breeding females and the odd breeding bull to fatten. So, there’s quite a mixture of animals being sold, which helps with cash flow,” says Tim
To keep outside inputs to a minimum, the couple grow 10 acres of spring oats, but is looking to expand the arable area. Tim grew 25-30 acres of brassicas for the sheep this year in a rotation of temporary grass and red clover, but the brassicas suffered from flea beetle.
The Roberts also work in partnership with Longhands Care Farm, which Joe’s mother, Julia, established a decade ago and still leads. The charity is paid by local authorities and police to give vital support and education to vulnerable young people.
Through hands-on farm experience they can gain qualifications, including equine studies and tractor driving, and a new teacher will now teach GCSEs in math’s, English and art. Up to 30 young people attend each week.
Under a large amount of supervision and safeguarding, the students take part in farming activities.
“It’s really handy if I need help moving cattle of moving animals up the race” says Joe.
“They arrive in their white trainers and hoodies on day one, very nervous about being on a farm. My mother has a very smart tactic of first introducing them to the guinea pig, and before you know it, they’re helping to handle cattle.
“They’re given gentle encouragement and they gain confidence, which is part of equipping them with life skills. These kids are in a perilous position in society, so it’s about trying to get them out of that cycle, give them a bit of belief and being trusted to help Tim halter-train cattle is a pretty big step.
“It’s hugely gratifying to see improvements in their chances and outlook. It’s part of what an estate can offer, which goes beyond the traditional and is about adding a little bit of societal good, sharing our natural environment and improving these kids’ lot.”
The estate also has 390 acres of trees managed by a forestry team. Oaks are grown for high-quality timber, while general coppicing and thinning activities provide enough material for a small firewood business.
“We also sell acorns to a nursery – trees themselves can be a yielding crop, you haven’t got to cut them down to do something with them,” says Joe.
The estate is also looking ahead with climate change in mind, to which species of fast-growing non-native species might thrive there.
He says: “We’re working with Tim to identify areas of grassland that aren’t particularly productive and thinking about turning them into forestry, as I think that’s going to be a really big part of where [government] policy drives us.”
Managing the estate might be hard work, but it beats corporate life, says Joe.
“It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to do this because there are relatively few of us that are given the responsibility of managing land in this country – and I have the privilege and responsibility to try and get it right.”