While it’s not uncommon to read about farms being handed down through the generations, it’s quite unusual to come across a family who started out from scratch. Such are the Knowles family, however, who made the move into farming just five years ago when they bought Trenchmore Farm in Horsham.
“My father studied agriculture at college, and had long dreamed of having his own farm, but it took him 40 years of working in London before he could actually afford to do it,” says daughter Rachel, who now works alongside him with her mother and brother. “It’s actually quite an interesting way of doing it, though, because whilst you might not inherit any machinery or knowledge, you do get to start with a blank canvas.”
This perhaps goes some way to explaining the family’s fresh and innovative approach to farming. Passionate about the environment, animal welfare and operating sustainably, they run a mixed-used farm producing beef, apples and grains – with each part working in perfect harmony with the other.
“In short, our cattle graze on the grass and eat the apple pulp, the straw from our wheat is used to create their bedding, and the cattle muck is spread on the fields to feed the crops,” says Rachel. “It’s a virtuous circle that allows us to improve the soils and grow more delicious, sustainable food.”
At the moment, the range includes their 28-day dry-aged beef from the Sussex-crossed Wagyu cattle; their Silly Moo Cider produced from the traditional apple orchard; and their heritage grains that are grown from locally-sourced seeds. And for each and every one of these there is an interesting and inspiring story.
For a start, their herd of high-welfare cows lead lovely lives, chomping on the grass in the summer and cosying up in the fresh-smelling straw in the winter, with copious apple and linseed treats along the way. “We love our animals and their welfare is very important to us,” says Rachel. “Any sentient being deserves respect and to be well-looked after, but, also, we know that the happiest and healthiest animals produce the best meat.” As such, any source of stress for the animals is avoided at all costs.
Then there’s the farm’s heritage grains, which, whilst lower-yielding than modern varieties, produce a far fuller flavour, a richer texture and more fibre. Their efforts in this area paid off recently when their wheat berries – which are the seed of the wheat before milling – were awarded a star in the Great Taste Awards. “We were so surprised about that, as so many people have never even heard of wheat berries, but we were of course delighted,” says Rachel. “They’re a great local, high-fibre alternative to rice and couscous, or can also be sprouted and eaten raw.”
Our favourite story of all, however, concerns their Silly Moo Apple Cider, which picked up a coveted two-star rating in the Great Taste Awards. Not only is it unusual in being an unpasteurised cider, producing a more potent, appley flavour, but there’s also a lovely local spin to the story. Every October, they invite Sussex residents to bring their own surplus garden apples to the farm, to be used in the next production cycle, in exchange for a bottle of cider.
“We’ve done this for the last couple of years now and it works really well,” says Rachel. “Rather than all that surplus fruit rotting on the ground, it gets put to good use – and we get a lovely local mix of Sussex apples in our cider. It’s especially nice for the people who have been along before because they can enjoy their bottle of cider knowing that it contains their own apples!”
With all these innovative projects, it’s no wonder that Trenchmore Farm is starting to gain wider recognition. As well as being a finalist in the Sustainable Food Made Good Supplier of the Year Award in 2016, they were named the Sussex Food and Drink Awards Farmers of the Year in 2017. In addition, they have also been nominated in this year’s Rural Business Awards for Rural Food Business of the Year, with the awards ceremony in October. Not bad when you consider that they only started out five years ago...