West Ilkerton is a family-run hill livestock farm in Exmoor National Park. They blend modern knowledge with traditional sustainable farming methods using local breeds to produce top quality breeding stock and meat.
What is your product?:
Pedigree Red Ruby Devon Beef and Exmoor lamb, supplied direct from our farm freezer or fresh if purchased on the day we pick it up from the butcher. We can send frozen or fresh meat by courier to England, Wales and most of Scotland for next day delivery, too.
Why did you start your own food/drink product?:
We have been farming at West Ilkerton for over 30 years, but we only started selling our own meat directly to the public in 2017, when the local abattoir at Combe Martin was bought by two enterprising young farmers who have turned it into a well designed, well run business. This has made all the difference to us, as we can look after our animals throughout their lives and guarantee that both stress and food miles have been kept to a minimum.
What is a typical day like for you?:
No two days are the same when you’re farming, and that’s one of the joys of it. What we do from day to day is governed to a large extent by the seasons and the weather. For instance, in the winter most of the daylight hours are spent mucking out, feeding and bedding up the housed animals, feeding the sheep outside and doing maintenance work like hedging, walling and fencing. From January until May we’re monitoring the in-calf cows so we can be there when they calve (a favourite time for that is 3 in the morning!), and from mid March until mid April it’s all hands on deck for lambing. Summer is easier in some ways, but the animals still need to be looked after even though they’re eating grass, and we’re constantly watching the weather for big jobs like hay-making, silaging and shearing. Autumn is market time, and the rams are put with the ewes. As well as all the physical work there’s lots of record keeping and form filling to be done on a modern farm. It depends on the season, but we usually work for at least ten hours a day, seven days a week.
What has been your biggest challenge with regards to your business?:
The weather is always a challenge, especially the weather we’ve had in the past twelve months, with unbelievable amounts of snow last winter followed by two months of drought just when the grass should have been growing. Another challenge is the endless rules and regulations, which seem to change as soon as we get used to them. It’s looking as if Brexit may be our biggest challenge yet. Farming is a very long-term business, and it’s difficult to plan when nobody knows what’s going to happen. Money is always a worry, as every year our input prices keep going up but the price we get for our animals stays roughly the same.
What aspect do you enjoy most about your business?
We love the animals, the feeling of belonging and knowing that we’re carrying on a tradition that has made our farm what it is today. The things that give us most pleasure are seeing new calves and lambs being born in the spring, watching happy, healthy animals grazing contentedly in the summer, watching the wildlife on the farm at any time of year and people telling us how much they’ve enjoyed our meat. The thing we least enjoy is picking animals to go to the abattoir, but I think that’s good because it shows how much we care about them. We prefer taking them to the abattoir than taking them to market, where as soon as they’re sold we lose control over what happens to them.
Is there anything you would do differently if you started over again?
Yes. With the benefit of hindsight, we would buy the land that was for sale nearby when our children were young. At the time it seemed like a lot of money, but by today’s standards it was incredibly cheap!
Do you have any advice for people wanting to start their own food or drink business?
There’s a lot of competition out there, so you’ve got to strive to provide a really good service. Care about what you do and have pride in what you produce. Don’t cut corners, be honest and pay attention to detail. Try your best to give your customers what they want. We can’t compete with supermarkets on price but we can on quality and personal service. Oh, and if you go to trade shows and farmer’s markets, be careful to make your free samples small and ration them so people don’t treat them like a free meal… It’s a great compliment if they keep coming back for more, but it can become expensive!
What are your plans for the future?
It’s difficult to plan for the future in these uncertain times. We want to carry on with what we’re doing at the moment, and do it to the best of our ability. Also, we are planning to get a purpose-built trailer with a weather-proof canopy next year so we can take visitors in a tractor-drawn trailer around our farm and they can share our pleasure in the animals and the gorgeous views.