How a diverse family farm overcame pandemic challenges
- Credit: Danielle Booden
A Norfolk farming family says the diversity of their budding livestock business - and finding more local customers for their produce - were the keys to surviving the economic shocks of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lee and Kirsty Oakes run Oakes Pedigrees, based in North Pickenham near Swaffham.
The business, which started as a hobby with two cows, has grown into a multi-faceted operation including 30 pedigree Beef Shorthorn cows and a flock of Southdown sheep, with pedigree and commercial animals sold through markets, and meat sold directly to customers via box schemes - as well as supplying their own fledgling catering venture.
And the benefit of spreading their risks proved invaluable when Covid-19 struck.
The lockdown wiped out the county shows which were their traditional "shop window", and closed the weddings and outdoor events which the catering business relied on.
But this was counteracted by growing domestic sales from their lamb boxes, butchered locally by Willgress of Fransham, and finding a much-needed local outlet for their pedigree animals via a buoyant Norwich Livestock Market - which had itself battled to find a way to remain open within social distancing rules.
Mr Oakes said the live sales and lamb boxes kept the business afloat during the depths of the pandemic, and put it in a good position to capitalise when its other markets re-open.
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"That diversity has been imperative to us," he said. "When Covid hit it took away catering, it took away weddings and events and it took away the Norfolk Show, the Wayland Show, it took away everything.
"We were really panicking. With us, there is no big financial backing. We have not got a big farm, we are first generation farmers and we started this up from nothing.
"We went down the live market route selling our bulls and heifers and lambs to Thame market (in Oxfordshire) and it was a couple of months into Covid we decided to support Norwich Market.
"That has worked really well for us because you have got animals born and bred in Norfolk being sold in Norfolk as well, which was wonderful.
"We used to drag everything to Thame because that was where the buyers were for Beef Shorthorn cattle, so that was where our income was.
"But we were persuaded to try Norwich and now we are getting the same price we were getting at Thame - except it is on our doorstep. It helps with the cashflow massively.
"Thame is once or twice a year, while Norwich is every other Saturday. Rather than having to save everything up for six months, with Norwich we can put a livestock trailer on and sell three or four animals at a time so it helps the cashflow.
"That is what has kept us afloat - with having the catering events away and not being able to showcase our lamb and beef at events, having Norwich Market there for the live sales, as well as lamb boxes through Willgress the butchers and our customer base having lamb and beef from us, that has basically kept us going. It was a lifesaver."
Mr and Mrs Oakes, who rent their winter sheds and much of their main grazing land at a farm near Shipdham, are also on the livestock committee for the Wayland Show, whose organisers took the difficult decision last week to cancel their 2021 event, mirroring similar decisions made by the Royal Norfolk Show and the Aylsham Show.
"A lot of people don't realise those shows are our shop window," said Mr Oakes. "They were deeply missed. This is why it is so important for us to do different things rather than channelling everything down one route."
Another pandemic challenge for the family was keeping the couple's two children - George, 10, and Phoebe, seven - entertained and educated while managing the demands of the farm.
"Those young children have been absolutely fantastic this year," said their father. "It has been hard on them but they have learned a lot of life skills they probably would not learn from school. My wife has structured her day so she will check the animals with them in the morning and then they do the home schooling for a couple of hours during the day.
"It has been challenging but it has been very rewarding having them around as well. They are an integral part of what we do."