This place buzzes with a heady concoction of passion for our environment and business nous! It’s a phenomenon which has to be experienced to be believed.
I drove to Abbey Home Farm from Close Farm. They are broadly on opposite sides of Cirecester, about 15 minutes or so drive apart. But what a difference in travelling that short journey! They could be worlds apart – but to be honest Abbey Home Farm is nothing like anything else anywhere that I saw on my travels!
The farm is the home and business of Will and Hilary Chester-Master. They took over the management of the farm from Wills family in 1990 and set about establishing an organic system of farming from day 1. Both are totally committed to organic practices and are striving to make Abbey Home Farm a truly sustainable, and to them that means both environmentally and financially. Will is the general overseer of the land, whilst Hilary manages the cafe, veg garden and conference room, and with her two daughters, the astonishing farm shop and education centre,
The first inkling I got of something special was when I drove into the car park – it was just about overflowing with 50 or 60 cars parked there! How many small scale, organic producers get that on a Friday afternoon? I took a deep breath and followed the signs to the shop where I had been told I would find Hilary. Wow, this was some shop….its through here that the produce of the farm – beef, pork, lamb, chicken, vegetables, flowers, bread (baked in the on site bakery), milk and dairy produce (again all processed on site) – are all sold direct to the public along with an array of Fairtrade and similar goods. I was gob smacked!
I was even more gob smacked when I found Hilary. She is just energy and drive on legs! Too busy to talk right then – or was that just camera shy! – I was packed off to the fields to see what the vegetable growing team were up to.
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In fairness it was a good job I was pointed somewhere. Abbey Home Farm is a very sizeable operation. It’s around 1600 acres in total , with the whole farm registered organic with the Soil Association. Basically you are talking – give or take one or two – 25 dairy cows, mainly Shorthorns, and their young prodigy; 60 beef cattle comprising a pedigree herd of Gloucester cattle, a commercial herd of South Devons, and some Hereford Cross cattle producing quality finishing stock; a closed flock of 750 Lleyn ewes plus lambs and breeding replacements; Hampshire x Landrace and Gloucester Old Spot breeding sows, plus 2 Duroc boars and their progeny; 350 egg producing hens and 4 flocks of 170 table chickens – the number in the flock being limited to 170 having researched the control of feather pecking through limiting flock sizes. Then you have the 10 acre vegetable and flower production with the rest, around 750 acres, put over to cereal production!
Clearly all that lot takes some managing, and Will and Hilary oversee the management of the farm with John Newman as the farm manager. John has been farm manager since Autumn 1992 and planned and executed the conversion to an organic system. But, as you might surmise, its the whole team working there that is the key factor to success. In total around it amounts to 40 people from many different backgrounds, but all with the common link of a passion for local and organic food, high animal welfare, caring for the environment and protecting our wildlife. The success can be felt by the vibes on the site, but if that’s not enough there is a long list of awards. The Organic Food Awards Producer Of The Year 1999, Organic Retailer Of The Year 2000, both the farm and the shop Highly Commended in the 2001 Organic Food Awards, farm shop awarded national Environmental Award for the second time in January 2012. The list goes on and on!!
The jewel in the crown so to speak though has to be the environmentally friendly visitor accommodation comprising campsite, 4 Yurt Eco-Camp, Single Yurt, Shepherd’s Hut, and a Hut-by-the-Pond. Here you get everyone has the chance of a unique experience. But again that’s not all, there is a 200 seater conference and event centre – built using green oak from the farm, and with low energy lighting and environmentally friendly paints – and, the fields that I was pointed towards have as their backdrop the then brand new education centre. Here Hilary and Will can accommodate up to 10 young people at a time for a week in which they not only get to see what is going on at the farm across the day but can get involved in things like milking which occur outside’ social hours – and all delivered with the individual attention that you can only give with a small number.
My short time at Abbey Home Farm passed all too quickly. I really only had time to make a few picture with the vegetable and flower growing team headed up by Andy and comprising some half dozen assistants and apprentices, one of which was a young Dutch lady, Jolke de Moel, whom I had met at the LWA Farm Hack and who had been responsible for me visiting Abbey Home Farm. After a delightful supper with Jolke, I bade my farewell but with a resolution to return one day soon to do Abbey Home Farm justice. I haven’t kept that resolution yet, but I will! This place was something else……..but a model to which others can surely aspire. Passion and commercial nous are not totally incompatible, indeed if the small scale, local organic production scene is to survive and grow it will need both aplenty.
For more on Abbey Home Farm see the farm website.