We've taken a path that I guess quite a few people daydream about at some point in their lives.
Back in the 1990's we followed the well trodden (at the time) route of A-levels, Degree, Graduate Training Scheme - joining the corporate world in about 1999.
Exciting times working as a young graduates in the IT industry during the first dotcom bubble - I remember helping build startup exchanges that were going to revolutionize the logistics industry, the paper industry, helped set up proof of concepts for interactive TV and other projects that seemed amazing at the time...sadly they all died too quickly but 10 - 15 years later those concepts seem fairly pedestrian.
We spent about 10 years living and working around the Thames Valley and London. Nice big global companies, nice salaries, generally nice lives.
But neither of us were inspired to continue climbing that ladder.
We were kind of happy early to mid careers in fairly big American companies, but were getting disillusioned by the material, consumerist world we inhabited.
It all felt a bit hollow and shallow.
We were very fortunate, we had another option.
On with the detail:
We were in a fairly unique position. I grew up on a farm in Somerset, a Crown Estate farm my grandfather took on as a tenant back in the 1940's ish.
The tenancy allowed for 2 further "successions".
My father was the tenant and approaching retirement. My siblings didn't want anything to do with the farm ... probably sensibly so.
I'd had nothing to do with the farm for 12 plus years and wasn't really interested in farming, but it was an option.
A massive opportunity that we could perhaps build on and develop.
Having grown up with self-employed parents I had always had this niggling desire to be self-employed.
We started thinking about quitting corporate life and moving back to take on the farm. What would we do for income for ourselves while we took over the farm?
We stumbled upon Glamping.
Back in 2009 glamping was a fairly nascent industry. 10/11years on it's fairly saturated with seemingly every farm business publication urging farmers and landowners to set up a glamping enterprise with the promise of amazing returns.
It took the best part of a year driving back to the farm every weekend, planning out what we'd do. Everything seemed to slow down as we went past Bristol on our weekly journey down to the South West.
We bought a Yurt and camped out at the weekends to test it and see how it felt throughout the season.
We had a bit of cash saved, somewhere in the region of £40k, and a couple of houses with a bit of equity in them, one that we rented out and one that we lived in.
The £40k could help us get something up and running to provide a little bit of income on top of the rental income, and given that we were moving to a rented farm we'd keep the houses we owned (with mortgages) and rent them out to maintain some property ownership.
It was a long winded process getting through to the local council approval process.
There wasn't much precedent for them to go on. The fact it was just a few fancy tents in a field that could be converted back into agricultural use in about a week if needed still required the full weight of the planning process to be applied.
Depending on the culture of the local council in your area it's worth being mindful that this could / will likely be a source of frustration.
You may be lucky.
Without wanting to get too bitchy, it seems some councils operate with an open forward looking culture, embracing appropriate / unique change and development which helps their area grow, whilst others seem to operate with a culture of fear of change, of doing something wrong, stifling and suffocating progress and development in their area... but I shouldn't dwell...
If you've found a property you like with plans of doing something that will require council involvement, it is well worth having a conversation with some local land agents / developers / architects about the local council planning process and how they compare to other areas. Whilst you may choose to push ahead with your plans whatever the verdict it'll possibly save you time / money / heart-ache / from developing (more) grey hairs.
Anyway, moving on.
We pulled together budgets, cashflows, drawings for planning, design and access statements, bat and nesting bird surveys and documents I've long since forgotten.
We got through the planning process and got the site set up - from memory that took around 18 months in total. From initial discussions with the council, to the site being open for guests.
We over ran our initial budget by around £20k.
With my "enough knowledge to be dangerous" I set up a website, paid for a bit of online advertising, built a very simple online booking system, and we were up and running.
We were still fairly early to market and started taking bookings.
Scary and amazing.
The site has evolved a lot since those early days. We've grown the number of units we have on offer. We've changed processes, booking systems, websites, advertising, pretty much every element of the business has evolved over the 10 years to try and keep the business running relatively efficiently.
It has it's challenges but it's a good business to run alongside the farm.
I guess I should mention the rest of the farm.
It's probably not something that most people reading are going to be taking over, so it'll be brief.
When we moved back I had to earn over 50% of my income from agriculture to be eligible to take over the tenancy. It was one of the criteria so we had to focus on it.
We decided to change the main business of the farm from a traditional mixed farm to just dairying.
I felt we were too small in each thing from wheat production to milk to beef to be efficient. It felt like nothing was done properly while trying to spin too many plates.
To be honest 10 years on, I'm almost thinking of changing back to a more permaculture small set up growing produce for our local community but that's another post in itself.
Our thinking at the time was that dairying is arguably (most years if you're lucky) the most profitable type of agricultural business to run, so switch the focus to that, and try and do it well.
Over time we changed the herd, altered the calving pattern, my father very generously put money toward a new milking parlour to facilitate the continued dairying operation on the farm and we grew the herd to almost double the number of cows we started with - we're not huge, about 150 cows "plus followers" as they say, which just means the youngsters you have to rear to replace cows that leave the herd.
It does OK - we run a simple low input, low output system that's fairly robust against changing market conditions (normal markets, not necessarily global pandemic conditions!), with fairly happy content cows grazing grass most of the year.
At times it can be great, there are usually a couple of months a year when you can enjoy an amazing peaceful warm summer evening watching your cows happily grazing lush grass.
Much of the time it's a demanding f&%king nightmare of dirty relentless work, mixed with painful cashflow juggling whilst being bombarded by ill-informed sensational click-bait negative media articles whenever you look at a screen.
However, if you have a passion for cows, or a huge pile of money you'd like to reduce, dairying could be a great option. For anyone else, I'm not sure it would be something I'd recommend.
That said, we're planning on keeping on keeping on with it for the next 5-10 years because it pays the bills while trying to build other businesses that are more enjoyable, flexible and offer a better effort/return ratio.
I'm aware some of the above sounds like I'm whining. I guess after 10 years I'm getting into the farmer mentality ;) - it's been hard work getting to where we are, and there's still a long way to go to where I'd like to be.
Everywhere I look there's things I want to improve, which is frustrating - but of course I know we were very very lucky having the opportunity to take on a tenancy.
Assuming you don't have a family tenancy to take on and you're wanting to buy a property in the countryside to do something different with your life it's worth finding and talking to local agricultural auctioneers in the regions you're interested in.
Some examples for the South West of the UK include:
Whilst there's lots of big expensive farms on those, small farms and houses with land do come up for sale relatively frequently often for prices not too far beyond that of a "nice" executive new build house in a more prosperous part of the country.
With an interest only mortgage, some equity and savings it's not impossible to make the finances work. There's some amazing regenerative type businesses you can find on YouTube for inspiration about making a living from a not huge area of land. Richard Perkins is as good a place to start if you're interested in more on that.... it's something we're seriously looking at moving toward.
So it's been about ten years since we left the corporate world.
We've grown into self employed farming and glamping:
The good stuff:
We live in a lovely (cold, damp, slightly run down) farm house. We've got a huge garden and space to experiment with growing stuff, keeping animals.... all those smallholder type things. At the time of writing this we're in the lock down of Covid-19 so we really really appreciate the space.
We've now got a family of three young boys.
We were trying to get pregnant back in the our old lives with no luck.
It wasn't something we were trying for many months and we didn't investigate the reasons but we (I say we, it wasn't we, it was my wife) were fairly quickly pregnant after moving away from the corporate world.
Obviously something we wouldn't want to change for the world.
We're now running a couple of small businesses, which have ups and downs, but the freedom that brings is great - we decide what to prioritize, when to do it, if we want to take a bit of time off in the middle of the day there's no hassles from anyone.
The business performance gives us the feedback on whether we worked hard enough and focused on the right things through the year.. most of the time there's room for improvement(!)... no need for KPI's and 360 degree views and all those other HR things we had to do back in our old lives - although we do now answer to the Accountants and Bank Managers.
We've got a huge amount of space around us on the farm....as a farm we're small to medium ish sized, but as an ex-city dweller it's a huge amount of space. There's 150 acres outside the house to explore with bits of woodland, streams etc which is awesome for the kids.... tearing the older two off Minecraft is a constant challenge!
We moved back with the intention of being happy tenant farmers, hopefully running reasonable small businesses and living a simple ish life. The goalposts moved when our landlord the Crown Estate announced they were selling all their farms in the area.
With the dairy and the glamping business we were able to raise a fairly scarily large mortgage to buy most of the farm we were renting.
Even a year after the transaction completed that still feels like an amazing achievement - slightly scary making sure we can manage it, but it's good to push yourself and all that :) (Not financial advice etc).
It was a lot of work with spreadsheets, land agents, consultants, accountants, bank mangers and solicitors but we've now got a large (to us) mortgage, and an asset that's worth a bit more. So we're now fairly asset rich, but cash poor.
The less good stuff:
Less / no disposable income. We were cash rich before.
We had a good South-East level joint income 10 years ago - early 30's, no kids, it was no issue consuming whatever material stuff we fancied within reason.
Maybe it's the stage our family is at, combined with farm life, but that disposable income is no more.
We now live fairly frugal lives: Aldi replacing Waitrose for the weekly shop, passports have expired and we've not been abroad in 10 years, 15 year old 150k mile 4wd cars replacing little sports car type things, clothes shopping being something you do once every couple of years rather than a couple of times a month.
Whilst we don't really want for much (except for a week in the sun!), and mostly don't really give it any thought, we don't have a lot of spare cash to buy the latest and greatest whatevers social media tells us we must have.
The main farm business is a dairy herd, weekends and holidays don't exist as far as the livestock are concerned.
Christmas day? Your birthday? Friends / family over? Feel a bit run down, hungover, ill? Raining / cold / blowing a gale?
They still need feeding, milking and checking.
Essential machinery breakdown on Christmas Eve when everywhere is shut?
You've got to patch something together to make it work.
At times it feels like you're a bit isolated from civilization - whilst it's mostly lovely having so much space to ourselves, the demands of the farm can sometimes make it feel like an open prison that you can't be away from too long...I initially wrote this post as a draft a couple of months ago and never clicked publish - with the current Coronavirus shutdown that feeling of isolation is probably something that much more of the population are now feeling without the luxury of the space we have.
I do feel for people stuck in towns and cities at the moment.
Global pandemics aside, most of the time for me that situation is self inflicted due to running a dairy herd.
A significant portion of me would like to sell the herd and a load of land, clear down debt and see what else we can do with remaining assets - and that's kind of what our loose 10 year plan looks like.
Whilst some of that is negative - the good out weighs the bad.
The past 10 years have flown by.
Day to day we never feel like we're achieving as much as we'd like, but it's been an amazing 10 years and we've achieved a lot over that period.
In general no.
There are times I miss living in a busy vibrant city. There are times I also miss working in a technology role. I think my wife misses those things less, but perhaps misses the weekends off and the more spare cash of our old life than I do.
I love technology and have since our family's first BBC B Micro 30 years ago. At times I feel I've missed out not being in the industry during an amazing 10 years ... advances in AI, the birth of Bitcoin, but I also know the day-to-day of my previous roles was at times mundane.
Again the pros out weigh the cons.
I still enjoy a bit of coding, tinkering with React or Python, a bit of experimenting with Raspberry Pi's, TensorFlow, or Minecraft servers for the kids ... but it's largely irrelevant to my day to days jobs now so it makes it harder to justify spending time on it. Most things on this farm that could, and I'm sure will, be automated in the future are physical, and therefore probably require robotics ... which largely puts it out of my current budget. But I love tech and code - I think I'll probably be tinkering with code until I die.
I don't miss the office politics, annual reviews, and KPI's - all the noise that surrounded the jobs I used to do. But at times I do miss the work I used to do.
It's certainly a shift in mindset moving away from a vibrant city life to the space and tranquility of the countryside.
If you're in an industry that you enjoy but also want to escape the city - it's all obvious stuff, but perhaps there's a side project you could build up to bring with you, or a possibility for flexible remote work or freelancing - it's something I occasionally think about trying to get back into but concerns of spreading myself too thinly and not doing anything as well as it should be have tended to put a dampener on those thoughts.
That's a tricky one to answer.
Family: amazing having 3 boys - at times demanding, crazy, and frustrating but as any parent knows a soul fulfilling joy.
Glamping: it's been eye opening running an accommodation business. The vast majority of people are wonderful, and for the more challenging ones thankfully we have friends and family that run similar businesses to laugh with and compare notes on some of the slightly more crazy demands and experiences.
Farming: it's bloody hard work, often mundane, but occasionally quite soulful and rewarding.
General country living:
- no more just walking to the shops if you're low on one or two items / need another bottle of wine at 9.30pm,
- the pub is a drive away,
- it's very dark at night - the stars can be amazing!
- mobile reception is often shit - you might find a spot somewhere around the house that you can awkwardly lean into to maintain a conversation ... and that probably only works when the weather conditions are right,
- internet speed is pedestrian,
- your car will be covered in mud through 7 months of the year,
- the kids and dog will be too,
- delivery drivers may hate you,
- you'll shop at amazon even more than you already do (excluding during global pandemics),
- it's very quiet at night,
- wildlife can be surprisingly noisy at night.
Would we do it again - yes, I think so.