Edward and Gemma Lovejoy have overcome life-changing challenges but they are optimistic about the future and the opportunities it can bring. Chrissie Long visits Kent to find out more.
High land prices, limited access to investment funds and the need to diversify to add value to core farming activities are just some of the reasons many young people find it difficult to get started in farming.
However, one Kent-based couple have proved that, with a bit of determination coupled with ingenuity and a willingness to think outside the box, there is no reason why their dream of farming in their own right cannot be fulfilled.
For Edward and Gemma Lovejoy, Hope Farm, Wittersham, hard work and a flexible approach to land tenure has helped them realise their aspiration to farm.
Under the trading umbrella of Lovejoy Farm Partnership is a pedigree and commercial sheep enterprise, a hay and straw business producing 16,000 small bales a year largely serving the equine market, a livery yard and recently established campsite.
Both self-confessed farming fans, there’s no doubting Edward and Gemma have a passion for the sheep business, but there’s a deep-rooted belief in both of them that, in order to remain sheep farming, other enterprises had to join the mix.
Commenting on his childhood days, Edward explains how he grew up on a family farm in Sussex which had a large camping and caravan site.
“I became self-employed in 2003 and Gemma and I bought our first sheep that autumn and our numbers have grown from those original 13 mixed breed tegs since.
“We started by renting various pockets of land and contract shepherding for nearby farms, while living in a two-bedroom, semi-detached house in Woodchurch, always with the dream of having our own farm one day.”
While Edward admits there was a lack of security due to not owning any land, the system worked on mutual trust and respect.
“Many of our landlords had entered their land in to environmental schemes to maximise their income.
“While this can be a disadvantage to them, it meant we had access to land which otherwise we may not have the opportunity to. As a result, we farmed in line with the schemes rules and helped the landlords abide by the agreements.”
Meanwhile, contract shepherding work allowed business expansion with additional machinery purchases.
Starting out without any single farm payment also meant the Lovejoys were focused in the approach they took to establishing a sheep business.
“We operate a relatively low input system with the bulk of lambing done outside in April to coincide with grass growth,” says Edward.
“Sheep numbers are running at 1,050 commercial ewes, including 75 pedigree Poll Dorsets and a grading up flock of pedigree Romneys, which are run across 263 hectares (650 acres), most of which is rented alongside the 22ha (55-acre) home farm holding. The main commercial flock consists of Romneys and Suffolk cross Romneys, of which 250 replacement females are retained each year.
“The Romneys are able to thrive off the lower quality grass we have available and these are put to Suffolk and Texel rams to maximise the value in lambs, while the early lambing Poll Dorset flock enables us to spread the cashflow from lamb sales further through the season, providing a valuable income at what can be a quiet time for the sheep enterprise.”
“We’ve worked hard to increase the output of our flock through increasing prolificacy by breeding and retaining ewe lambs born as twins where possible,” he explains.
“However, with much of our ground being lower input grassland we still want to maintain an easier care system so, while increasing lamb numbers is a priority, it won’t be done at the expense of easier care traits or with sheep which cost more to manage.
“Maintaining good feet and overall good condition from lower inputs while boosting lamb numbers to about 165 per cent is the aim as this is the best way to maximise profits from our system,” explains Edward.
The big break for the family came in April 2014 with they bought Hope Farm, Wittersham, the new heart of their farm, with all their land within a seven-mile radius. The holding came with a farmhouse in much need of investment, hard work and some TLC.
Gemma says: “We knew it would be a huge project, but with three young children the need to expand was desperate and while the task at hand was big, we knew it was totally achievable.”
But the family then suffered a blow at that time, as their eldest daughter Chloe was diagnosed with Leukaemia at just five years old.
“It certainly knocked the stuffing out of us, but throughout the immense worry and heartache, we all pulled through and Chloe has been beyond remarkable in her attitude to fighting the disease, which now sees her clear for the last two-and-a-half years,” she adds.
“Life is full of challenges, but it is your attitude towards those challenges which will either break you or make you stronger and I think the important thing, while it is really hard, is to remain positive and focused on the future.
Chloe and her two younger sisters, eight-year-old Katie and four-year-old Poppy, all adore living on the farm and are all heavily involved in various duties.
“All three children take part in lambing in one way or another. Chloe also has a pony and works closely alongside our liveries and all three girls enjoy competing at local shows either in the main Poll Dorset or young handler classes,” adds Gemma.
This year also saw Chloe compete alongside the Lovejoys’ shepherd Will Edmonds and part-time lambing helper Amy Langdon at the National Young Stars event in Malvern, which showcases the best of youth in agriculture.
“Here, the team represented the Romney sheep breed. It was a fantastic experience for all three of them and while Chloe was the youngest they pulled together as a great team which was a pleasure for Edward and I to witness.”
While the Lovejoys have always been confident there is a future in the sheep industry for themselves and others like them, both Edward and Gemma are keen to expand the business portfolio and spread risk.
The main farm holding has allowed the Poll Dorset flock to be housed at home, allowing the children to be involved. But it also lent itself to a livery business and the family have also recently added a camp site.
Gemma says: “It was important when we were looking for a farm holding to find one we could add value to with a view to running another business alongside the sheep to fund the mortgage on the property.”
The DIY livery yard now has 20 stables full to capacity, with a further two being added currently and it is fully equipped with kitchen and toilet facilities, an all-weather sand school and near-by hack riding.
Edward says: “We pride ourselves on good grass management, not only in the sheep enterprise, but for the horses as well. The ground is all permanent pasture. It’s an old fashioned type grass which has never been ploughed and it produces a soft green hay which is ideal for the equine market.
“Paddocks are rotated and during winter the horses are kept in the larger ones which have been rested and allowed to grow in autumn. Fields are harrowed and rolled in spring and left to recover. Strip grazing is also encouraged to help reduce grass wastage,” he adds.
While the campsite, which features a small number of hard standing plots for caravans and 10 tent pitches, was only opened this summer, the family is already looking to expand the business.
Gemma says: “Plans are afoot for electric hook ups and a shower block and Edward has a dream of adding other enterprises to the business portfolio, but it all takes time.”