It’s the early 2000s and Meryl and Steve Ward have been living at Waddingham Grange in North Lincolnshire since the late 1980s. They bought the neighbouring farm from their family friend Henry in 1991. The farm buildings are derelict and there has been a recent foot-and-mouth outbreak that is set to cause the biggest crisis the British agricultural industry has seen. The couple are keen on diversifying the farm, converting the barns and finding an outlet for their home-reared pork and farm-grown vegetables. From this, their farm shop concept is born. Fast forward 20 years and the 19th century limestone buildings have been transformed into Uncle Henry’s Farm Shop, Butchery and Café. Meryl, director and founder, has farmed with her husband and co-director, Steve, for 30 years. Together, they farm an integrated pig and arable enterprise, and use renewable energies. All three of their children are working in the family business, having gained experience elsewhere: Emma runs the shop and café, Graham the award-winning butchery and wholesale business, and Sam works alongside Steve on the arable farm. “We’re fortunate that the business is big enough for everyone and has a structure in place,” Meryl says, smiling. “We were really pleased to see the family come back to the business. We’d reached the limits of our abilities, particularly when it came to IT and social media. Steve and I were given a chance to run a farm in our late 20s and we want to give the next generation the same opportunity.”
“You get used to becoming a problem solver and prioritising which ones to solve first this comes with experience"
“Mum and dad have always been quite entrepreneurial,” says Emma, 30. “It’s almost like natural evolution, and there’s been a lot of growth and reinvention over the last 30 years. Retail has to be dynamic and ever-changing.” Emma, the fifth generation of her family to work at the farm, has played a crucial role in growing and transforming the business. She used experience gained at Sainsbury’s to help the business recover from the recession by redesigning the shop to maximise footfall and rebranding Uncle Henry’s to incorporate the core business values. “It’s important to seek inspiration from other fields. Look beyond your own back garden,” she recommends. Emma reveals that sales have been positively impacted by recent trends such as the popularity of gin. “We didn’t actually sell alcohol when we first started and we didn’t think we needed to, but now it’s 12% of Uncle Henry’s total sales.” Meanwhile, her brother Graham, 28, who heads the finance and admin, has successfully built partnerships with 70 Lincolnshire Co-op stores that now sell their sausages. This revenue stream matches that of the butchery itself. The quality of Uncle Henry’s home reared pork is widely recognised. Earlier this year, its Pork Leg Joint was awarded the Great Taste award, earning three gold stars. One of the biggest highlights, however, was when a chance meeting with the so-called ‘Sausage King’ resulted in Uncle Henry’s being called onto the BBC’s One Show to participate in its sausage festival – only to go on to win on live TV.
Running such a diverse family business can be challenging. Both Meryl and Emma stress the importance of everyone having their own areas and giving each other space to manage and have accountability for delivering their own budgets. “We have our different skill sets, but it is critical that we haven’t pigeonholed ourselves. We have monthly family catch-ups on what’s happening in each enterprise.” Emma emphasises that their skills complement each other without clashing. “Graham is more financial and loves spreadsheets. Mum’s very good at people management and dad has got a wealth of farm knowledge that he’s passing on to Sam.” A very defining moment, Meryl recalls, was in 1998 when the pig farming business went through a major crisis. A change in welfare legislation coupled with a massive price crash caused the industry to go into meltdown. “That was quite pivotal because it went on for five to six years, and you either decide that you can’t stand the pressure or you find your way through and your business ends up much stronger because you have to innovate to suit the circumstances. Having been through that, I am far more relaxed about other things that go wrong. You get used to becoming a problem-solver and prioritising which ones to solve first. This comes with experience. Life is no dress rehearsal,” she says. “You must do what you love.”
Innovation, efficiency, and sustainability are some of their core business values. “We’re always looking at where the high costs in the business are, and how we can bring them down and be more efficient,” Emma explains. The sustainable loop is one of the best examples of this. The pig manure is processed by the anaerobic digester to provide electricity and heat for Uncle Henry’s, and the digestate is then spread back out on the fields as a soil fertiliser. Emma believes that you should always be prepared to adapt and learn. She highlights that Government incentives and national training schemes help small businesses like theirs to invest in their people. “Networking is important in finding inspiration, including events such as the annual CLA Rural Business Conference, which enables you to continue learning from others.”
When asked what the future holds, Meryl hands over to her daughter: “I daren’t talk about the future. The future is in the hands of the next generation,” she says. “It’s a failure in the farming community that many farmers love doing what they do and do so until they are 80 and then realise the next generation has vanished because they were never given any real responsibility.” Emma and her brothers have formed a five-year business plan. Despite many industry uncertainties, they remain positive. “It’s about picking the right opportunities,” Meryl adds. “There’s a lot happening with improved energy use, so that’s exciting.” Emma says that the business today is a completely different beast to what her parents were dealing with 30 years ago when their aim was expansion. “Size isn’t everything,” she says. “It’s about doing things more effectively and efficiently. I believe you can be smarter with what you’re already doing.”
Top Tips for Landowners
- Be comfortable with what you do. Do what you love
- Be prepared to become a problem-solver. There will always be difficult times
- Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Do the research and find out for yourself
- Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone and to work hard. It can be a seven-day-a-week job