In 1986, David and Sharon McVeigh moved from Northern Ireland (via the Isle of Man), to renovate a stunning but near-derelict Tudor Hall in a quiet part of Suffolk. Over the next 25 years or so, they invested time and money into restoring the hall and various farm buildings that made up the 500 acre estate. This is also where they raised their family.
Having worked hard to improve and develop the farm and its buildings as well as complete a restoration project for Kenton Hall, David knew that working with the next generation would provide exciting new opportunities.
David’s twenty-four-year-old daughter, Lucy explains. “The saving grace for this family and its future is that dad has been willing to accept change. We’re a close-knit family and it’s all about trust. I think it’s liberating to have parents who believe in you. Dad has always been remarkably supportive of any new ideas and never casts doubt on our enthusiasm or plans. He says we can learn from our mistakes.”
Lucy has two older sisters – Alice, 31 who teaches in Dubai, and Emily, 27. At 22 Tom is the youngest sibling, recently graduating with a degree in agri-business. But it is Emily and Lucy who have successfully diversified this family farm and driven it into the future. There are five key strands to the business: the arable enterprise and the Longhorn beef herd – both run by Lucy, the wedding venue, the glamping site and the cookery school.
Emily drives the diversification side of the business. After deciding not to embark on a university degree, she realised she wanted to live and work in the countryside, building her career in Suffolk. She now heads up the marketing and sales for the business, having created a stylish website, and runs the growing diversifications with a mixture of maturity and youthful enthusiasm. Effectively she has built the Kenton Hall Estate brand.
“When we were little,” says Emily, “Dad built a yurt in the woodland for us to play and sleep in. When I was 19, I went to him with a business plan for a wedding venue and glamping site – and this is how it all started. I knew I wanted to be my own boss and live in Suffolk.”
Lucy observes: “Dad always says the 10 acres of mixed woodland he planted all those years ago, makes more money than the all crops we grow.”
Lucy gained a business qualification at the University of East Anglia and puts that to good use developing her English Longhorn Cattle burger business. “Welfare standards are important to us. The Longhorns don’t get antibiotics and calve in the summer so they can stay out in the meadows for the longest time,” she adds.
Boredom is not something Emily and Lucy know much about. Lucy works four days a week at Gressingham Foods and throws herself into farm work in free time, evenings and at weekends. At harvest, she will take holiday to drive the combine.
Emily, too, is a skilled multi-tasker. She developed the seasonal glamping business from a yurt and shepherd’s hut, to what is now a woodland village offering lodge tents, stylish shower pods, toilet blocks and a catering area with fire pit and armchairs. “At the beginning,” Lucy explains, “Emily cleaned the yurt and scrubbed the loos herself. Now, she has a team of cleaners, we have 100% occupancy at the weekends and Emily is marketing exciting glamping hen weekend packages, and offering accommodation for those on courses at the cookery school.
“We also offer woodland blessings for those who want something different. We even hosted a Harry Potter-themed woodland wedding,” Lucy remembers with a smile. “The owl was supposed to fly down with the bride’s ring, but it decided to stay perched in a tree. A few years ago, Emily was time rich and money poor. Now she is time poor, slightly better off but still works all the hours.”
Lucy recalls that her father had realised that with three daughters it would be more economical to buy a marquee with planning permission for eight weddings a year, than to hire a marquee on three separate occasions. “That sort of strategic planning is so typical of him,” she says.
The Food Hub, renovated from a disused agricultural cow byre, is now home to a thriving cookery school which employs local chefs. On the premises there is also a commercial butchery, and the field to fork ethos underpins the business.
Their summer events programme now includes food fairs and Film on a Farm, an outdoor cinema enterprise. Both events provide entertainment, boosting tourism and the local economy. Emily remembers: “Last year we had a wedding party from Los Angeles with almost 200 guests who, as you can imagine, contributed hugely to the local economy by pouring cash into the local B&Bs and pubs.”
Still, no amount of energy and enthusiasm, vision and hard work can overcome some of the inevitable challenges that the family faced in moving their business forward.
“Broadband and internet connection was awful,” explains Lucy. “We had to dig our own trench and install fibre optic. Our mobile signals are still appalling though.
“Business rates are another serious issue for us which has resulted in an expensive four-year battle to claim relief. It’s not viable otherwise.”
They have exciting plans for the growth of existing enterprises and also some new projects in the pipeline. Each year they try to organise new events and showcase different parts of the farm – this year hosting their first Film on a Farm cinema experience.
The evolution of the business through the family generations has been at the heart of Kenton Hall’s recent developments. “Succession is an evolving matter, it’s not an overnight fix,” says Lucy. “With three siblings involved in the farm, and the land only being able to support one, we had to diversify. Dad has encouraged us to set up individual businesses, which is great forward thinking. We have to future-proof our assets and work out the tax implications for the surviving generation.
“As a family, we have a great approach to succession – we even talk about it over breakfast. It’s all about communication and, as a close family, we are trying to avoid problems in the future.”
Emily and Lucy’s top tips
• Communication is paramount
• Be prepared to accept change
• Don’t be scared to try – you can learn from your mistakes