Debbie Kingsley & Andrew Hubbard, South Yeo Farm West, Devon
Are we smallholders? Are we farmers? Bigger than the norm smallholders? Small scale farmers? To be honest, I’ve stopped worrying about it and these days just describe what it is that we do at South Yeo Farm West, our 108 acre farm in Devon, on the Dartmoor fringe.
Having met in London in our early twenties, we found ourselves renting a tiny house on a farm in Warwickshire. It was a complete change of lifestyle and we lapped it up, getting involved in lambing, shearing, milking goats and finally taking on a horse of our own. After that there were some relatively dull years as we worked hard and saved to buy our own smallholding, which we did, and then, ten years later we needed a bigger challenge and found ourselves in Devon, with a twenty-five year project on our hands, although I think we may have broken the back of it in just eight years.
We arrived with a small flock of Badger Face Welsh Mountain sheep, some geese, ducks and our trusty guard llama Humphrey. These days we have a pedigree suckler herd of Devon Ruby cattle, three flocks of pedigree sheep (the traditional Torddu Badger Face, the Torwen Badger Face and Whiteface Dartmoors) plus one or two commercial mule sheep. We also have pedigree Berkshire pigs, the rare Pilgrim geese, Aylesbury and Black Indian Runner ducks and Black Orpington large fowl chickens. In the summer we keep a few Norfolk Black turkeys and have had Boer goats (both for their excellent meat).
Our farm is in Higher Level Stewardship, parts of it are now County Wildlife sites, and it is unrecognisable from the dereliction that originally faced us. We have restored the tragically dilapidated traditional 17th and 18th century barns and rebuilt the thatched roundhouse, converted the more modern barns into suitable overwintering cattle accommodation, and restored most of the 11 kilometres of slumped Devon banks and hedges. The orchard has had a new lease of life and many new fruit trees planted, all old local varieties of cider, dessert and culinary apples, pears, cherries, plums, gages, damsons, mulberries and medlars.
When we arrived, the majority of the fencing was in a horrible condition and our sheep were regularly getting tangled in it. From having paid fencing contractors initially to sort out one or two fields, we now just get the posts bumped in and do all the rest of the fencing ourselves, to an equally high standard, although it took us a few years to get there.
From selling a few lambs for the freezer to friends and family we now courier our lamb, pork, gammon and bacon (and very soon our first Devon Ruby beef) to customers we’ve never met, all around the UK. Our wool is sold to spinners and weavers, our lambskins grace armchairs, sofas and floors that we have never sat on, and our hatching eggs, ducklings and goslings also travel across the country.
For several years we have run a variety of smallholder courses, helping people get to grips with the reality of smallholding, testing out if the life is for them and giving them a really thorough understanding of what is involved. We have had hundreds of people come to us from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Switzerland, France and even Saudi Arabia. It’s one of the joys of living here, sharing the ups, down, complications and simplicities of the farm with people who have a real appetite for knowledge.
Our biggest challenge so far has been taking on the cattle; we always said we wouldn’t do it, that it was too expensive, too difficult, too much of an unknown. And now? I only wish we’d done it years ago. The cows are an absolute delight. Knowing that all being well, a cow could be with us until well into our own retirement means that you build a strong relationship with them. Their herd interaction is fascinating, the calves clever and quick and curious, the dams caring and affectionate. Seeing Devon Rubies in the Devon landscape just feels so very right. They are the icing on our rather wonderful cake.
For more information about the farm: http://www.southyeofarmwest.co.uk/
For more information about our smallholder courses: http://www.smallholdertraining.co.uk/