Premium produce diversification

Ahead of the herd: the Scottish family farm diversifying into premium produce

Having grown up on family farms nearby and sharing a passion for the outdoors and animals, it was always a dream of Isla and George French that they’d one day start a farm of their own. Since 2015, they’ve been living that dream at Little Rowater Farm in northeast Scotland, with a small family of their own.

But what initially started as a small traditional farm with Belted Galloway cattle soon grew into something bigger, with Isla and George diversifying their traditional herd to include red deer, ostriches and emus, also electing to start selling their own premium produce from their farm shop. This decision to diversify was made pretty quickly partly because of the strong vision and passion both Isla and George share for healthy eating, but also because there was a gap in deer farmers in the area.  “From the outset, we were doing something different with the deer farming, and then we added some ostriches to the herd. We bought the farm in 2015, and by November 2018 when we were selling our meat, which is quite early on. We always knew that’s what we wanted to do,” Isla explains. “We started with the venison and beef, before adding the lamb, and we’ve just slowly continued to add to it over time.”

Passionate about locally farmed, premium produce, Isla and George strive to provide quality, lean meat while educating people about the food they eat and sustainable meat. “We want people to understand where their food comes from and to realise the amount of work that farmers put into producing food,” Isla tells us. “We all need to eat, but we all want to preserve the environment and Scottish agriculture for future generations. For us, it’s important that we teach children and adults about how food is produced so they can make informed choices about what they eat. We take pride in our farming methods and curate our meat to the highest ethical and environmental standards.”

But diversification hasn’t been without its challenges, especially given the fact that George and Isla are the sole workers on the farm and have three young children to take care of. “Finding the capital was a challenge initially, but that’s the same for any business,” Isla tells us. “But as a new business in particular, it was uniquely challenging because we had to rely on our off-farm employment to build revenue, leaving just weekends, evenings and holidays to build the farm and diversify our offering. That meant that what we really struggled with more than anything was finding the right support, especially as we had to balance all of this while juggling the requirements of a young family. Normally, you can go out and network and work amongst other people where it’s a bit easier to pick up help, but we couldn’t do that because it’s just the two of us doing this, and the kids were very young.”

However, while diversification isn’t always easy, Isla has learned a lot along the way and has plenty of advice to share with other farmers who may be considering diversification. “You see lot of businesses doing really well, and they’re just constantly jumping forward,” she tells us. “But my advice to anyone else would be take it slow. It can be really hard to take that next jump without compromising on something else. I’d tell others to take their time. Each new step is a whole new project in itself so you have to be sure you have enough headspace and time to push it forward, while balancing your homelife too, because for a lot of us, our farms are our homes – it isn’t just an ordinary workplace, it’s all encompassing and all around us. You have to make sure what you’re doing is something you’ll enjoy, and that you’d want to have on your doorstep.”

Isla is also a big believer in finding the right support and the importance of networking. “When diversifying, finding the time to network is so important,” she explains. “Now the children are older, we’ve been able to strike a balance and get out to events a bit more, which has been invaluable. That would be my biggest piece of advice; do as much of the networking as you can and join different groups for support. For example, I did the Rural Leadership Course with the Scottish Enterprise, and it really helped me because you’re around like-minded people, and it gives you access to support which can be quite hard to come by.”

Speaking of support, NFU Mutual has been a reliable ally for Isla. “A lot of insurers can be quite dismissive, which is disheartening when you’re trying to think outside-the-box and diversify into something new and different,” she confesses. “But with NFU Mutual, they’ve been really helpful on that front. I feel confident going to them and optimistic that I’ll get the response I’m hoping for rather than a straight ‘no’, and that’s invaluable to anyone that’s trying to diversify.”

To find out how NFU Mutual can help with your diversification journey, contact your local agency.