Zoe Colville | The Chief Shepherdess
Doesn't it feel like we are entering un chartered waters at the moment? What with the pandemic and then new trade deals on the horizon. With so much uncertainty lingering in the air its become a constant battle to not spiral in the dark depths of the internet and to concentrate on the present and what YOU are doing, not what your neighbours are doing, not what your friends are doing but decide what YOU want to do and how you want to live. Nothing like a pandemic to give you kick up the bum!
We were in the full swing of lambing 700 ewes whilst living in a tiny caravan where you could check your food in the oven without leaving your bed. We suddenly had a massive surge in footfall on the footpaths on the farm, some were complete idiots with dogs off the leads but some were asking genuine questions surrounding animal welfare and farming in general, this fuelled my “farming education” fire but also got the cogs whirring in our heads about moving forward with our dream of selling our meat straight from the farm. The interest was there, people were buying local because they were scared of going in supermarkets and we had a now or never conversation in bed one night and then “the little farm fridge” was born. We borrowed from the bank and then went and stood in the rain on our landlady's doorstep (about 5 metres back!) and pitched our plans. She agreed to rent us a patch of dirt and that was that, new notebooks were ordered and the 5am wake ups became 4am wake ups as I was researching what legislation we needed to follow and the best supplier of sausage skins. Talking of sausages, its a good point to mention here that we are often asked how we learnt to butcher and make sausages and the honest answer is Youtube. We used to prop my phone on the hob and lay in bed and watch videos on repeat until we fell asleep. Don't be fooled by watching Scott Rea and thinking the butchery is a walk in the park. It's not. I think I've cried several times at various points, mainly while having to cut open the badly filled sausage skins and having to put it back into the machine to pipe for the 5th time because I cant co ordinate both hands to do different jobs it seems. We decided to create our own recipes for the seasoning's and at first it seemed like the best way, after 5months of tweaking the recipes by 0.2oz of pepper at a time to get it perfect we were questioning our decision. But we now have a book of secret sausage recipes that was worth the tears, arguments and sausage sandwiches 3 times a week.
We decided to document the entire journey on the Instagram page, the concreting which felt like it took weeks for the footings, the buying of the beaten up porta cabin and having it air lifted into the gap, our late night sausage making sessions after full days of working on the farm, the lamb bacon diaries and then eventually the launch. Through showing all of these hurdles and milestones we felt it would be encouraging for others to see and perhaps give them some confidence in coming outside of their comfort zone and starting something from scratch. Being so honest and showing the raw side of farming is something I do a lot of on my Instagram account but to then start a business with the same ethics somehow felt a little daunting, there is a certain amount of professionalism required in business and “The Chief Shepherdess” is far from professional. We found the happy medium though and hopefully as the business grows so will that skill. The hardest thing about this entire process has been the logistics of getting the produce to the customer. It so happens that this was my area, Chris dealt with a lot of the building, electrics, plumbing and stocking the chiller. Shelf life became my nemesis. Certain animals are hung in the chiller for different lengths of time to start with, also different animals are slaughtered on different days, we also only have 4 hands between us and a fully stocked farm to run. This side project was fast becoming all consuming. Courier companies don't seem to deliver at weekends or at astronomical prices so it would mean by the time we had all the stock hung, butchered, packaged, sausages and burgers made and then sent out ..they would need to be eaten that day. Not going to work. We ended up buying freezers to eliminate that issue and turns out no one remotely minds their order frozen. Packaging was easy, I knew from before we even came up with the name that we would use Woolcool, sheeps fleece thats made into insulation liners to wrap the order in to hold the temperature from the icepacks. I became almost obsessive over using this as it just seemed so perfect, sheep farmers selling their lamb and mutton, travelling to the consumer in fleece, couldn't have been more perfect, a match made in heaven.
Having spoken to a lot of farmers they all have considered the pros of selling direct from the farm, guarantee the consumer the welfare of the animal, full traceability, low carbon footprint etc HOWEVER its the getting around to it that seems to be the issue. Working all hours under the sun (or moon) to rear the animals is a full time job, adding extra work can seem like utter madness when you can just send them on a lorry to the market or abbatoir and cross your fingers and toes they make the price you want. What I would like to say is that the “legal” side of things isn't too tricky. You have to register as a food business, comply to all their standards which is common sense if I'm totally honest and then have your food hygiene inspection which is all done with your local council. In terms of qualifications its also simple, food safety related and also a HACCP (advice from FSA is helpful!).
Now more than ever we all need to be more aware of supporting local businesses to keep them afloat and this includes farmers. Buy your eggs from the little stall at the side of the road with the honesty box and use your milkman, these two things alone help to back British farmers. If you chose to eat meat in your diet then you will know that you have to spend more if you want the benefits of knowing the provenance, that its high welfare and free range so maybe you cut down your meat consumption so you can spend a little more for the quality and assurance that it was farmed ethically. We have been “open” a few weeks now and its not been smooth sailing, we have had courier issues, a broken mincer, a drought, aged 20 years and increased blood pressure but getting tagged in photos of people's meals just erases all of those sleepless nights. They may well have watched us help that lamb come into the world on the farm, seen it graze the fields on the farm, we then butcher on the farm and then one Sunday morning they come and pick it up FROM THE FARM. Isn't that how its meant to be?