Farming feature: The ex-Government boss who downsized to smallholder
SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to farm shop owner Tim Freathy, of Depden, near Bury St Edmunds, about his career change from Government roles to smallholding
IT’S not really a surprise to learn that would-be farm shop owner Tim Freathy sailed through the planning process with what was probably one of the best-prepared applications local planning officers had ever seen.
Tim had previously worked in the Department for Culture Media and Sport, reporting directly to then-Secretary of State Tessa Jowell. He moved on to a high-powered job at the Government Office for the East of England (GO-East) before that was abolished by the incoming Tory/LibDem Government after it took power in 2010.
A keen gardener and grower with a degree in agronomy and land sciences from Newcastle University, he took the news of his redundancy with equanimity. After the coalition Government was formed, the work simply dried up and it was clear his department was for the chop.
He was keen to see his redundancy more as an opportunity than a setback, and set about deciding on a new career.
By the middle of last year, he was ready to launch a new venture, Depden Farm Shop near Bury St Edmunds, set on the smallholding he owns and works with partner, Mark Leadbeater, a Cambridge University academic.
The couple had previously run the six acre Rookery Farm as “a bit of a hobby”, but Tim’s impending jobless status prompted them to try and make the smallholding into a sustainable business.
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Tim and Mark were becoming more and more concerned about how much of our food was grown and produced commercially, with profit margins driving the bottom line instead of quality, taste and animal welfare.
They decided to launch a farm shop, cafe and smallholder training centre as a means of promoting their ethos.
“When I was made redundant last May and we were casting around for things for me to do, I could have joined the ranks of consultants or I could change my life and do something completely different,” he said.
“The barn was used for various reasons but was derelict. We said: ‘OK, let’s open a farm shop and see if we can develop the holding.’ We had always had a passion for local food and growing.”
“We thought: ‘Why not let’s pass on our enthusiasm to others who want to try this life?’
Tim, it would appear, can eat red tape for breakfast. He devoured all the information and training he could concerning setting up the business, carefully prepared a business plan and approached planners with their proposals, successfully navigating them to planning approval.
Tim and Mark restored a stable block on the smallholding, then stocked it with produce grown on the smallholding, together with meats and delicacies from Depden and carefully selected local producers. He and Mark also decided to offer homemade cakes, artisan bread, filled rolls and lunches, giving the barn a community feel with plenty of activity.
They also wanted an educational side, with workshops which would enable people to learn new skills while at the same time building a community of like-minded people with an enthusiasm for growing and local food.
The skills Tim has learnt since taking on this mammoth task are diverse - and very different to the ones which he honed in the corridors of power at Westminster.
The change in his way of life was dramatic. At Go East, the Government Office in Cambridge, he had fulfilled a number of roles but latterly was director of housing, planning and transport.
“I seemed to be quite good at what I was doing,” he recalls. “You are negotiating and managing relationships. It was a fantastic job. Really I loved it.”
But having moved to Cambridge from London about 15 years ago, in their spare time, the pair had thrown themselves into gardening.
“We had done the garden. That wasn’t enough. We had done the allotment that wasn’t enough,” explains Tim. They moved to Depden, and Tim put his farming degree to good use in using the land for small-scale food production.
“Now we are sharing our experience through the provision of training for the Eastern region,” he says.
“Our first smallholding and sustainable living skills courses were really popular, drawing people from London as well as East Anglia.”
From a very early age, Tim was keen on gardening and gardening history. After Newcastle University, he was invited to Cambridge to do a PhD in biochemistry.
“While I was there I fell in love with the theatre and spent far too much time in plays. I didn’t finish my PhD. I spent several years acting and directing Shakespeare with Cambridge Experimental Theatre,” he says.
Tim seemed set for a career in the dramatic arts. He was taken on by Snap Theatre company at Bishop’s Stortford as a theatre and education specialist.
“It was a solid job which enabled me to buy a house. I spent a lot of time working with young people and working with adults working with young people,” he recalls.
He landed a job as an arts development officer at South Cambridgeshire District Council and went on to work for Essex county council as arts services manager. His career really started to take off with his move to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, eventually reaching the point where he was preparing briefings for Tessa Jowell and talking directly to ministers.
His recent change of career paths has brought him down to earth, in a very literal sense. As well as a polytunnel and outdoor growing, he and Mark rear pigs, ducks, geese, turkeys for Christmas and grow fruit. Gradually they have transformed six acres of pony paddocks into a viable smallholding, but early on, they were struck by the lack of local training opportunities in smallholding skills and decided to do something about it by holding training courses.
“We do about one a month,” says Tim. “We have branched out a bit. The mainstay of our work is smallholding skills. then we do one that focuses on sheep. That’s very popular and we have a course for sausage lovers with pig keeping in the morning and sausage making in the afternoon.”
There is now a rich array of courses available, from carving pumpkins to wine tasting.
“We have a monthly evening testing event where we invite local producers to come and talk about their food and a local wine maker who comes and matches matches the wine to the food. The popularity of that never ceases to amaze me. We are always sold out and we have a complete ball,” he says.
When he worked in London, he was talking to Government ministers and while working at the government office he had a team of 50 staff and a PA. His new life couldn’t be more different.
“I miss elements of it. It was tremendously exciting,” he admits.
“I sat there and if I had great ideas someone else did it. Now I have to do everything from cleaning the toilet to doing the finance, selling the stuff, everything. It’s quite fun I’m absolutely loving it.”
He adds: “I met very few people who were vain or drunk on power. Most of the ministers I ever worked with were charming and lovely people.
“The difference that any administration can make is only at the margins to be honest.”
Now he can see the results of his labour. but doing what he does now is equally high-pressured, he says. He admits he is still learning.
“I’m employing four now part time and they are wonderful,” he says.
“Every year of my life has got better than the last year. Just when you think life can’t get any better - even getting made redundant because I was managing it.
“We closed the government office down but we closed it down in a really humane way and we did a survey and everyone told we had done a brilliant job in supporting people through that transition.
“You kind of plan things as you go through.
“When the Tories came in they didn’t give us anything to do. We knew the manifesto - we were being closed down.
“It’s hard to keep up morale in that situation but it does give you time to start planning for your future life. There was lots of training provided.
“I had lots of training and advice through Business Link, and Menta here in Bury. That really gave me confidence to run a business.”
As a public servant, Tim had become used to being derided as someone who would not have the skills to run their own business. It has been satisfying to prove the sceptics wrong.
“As a civil servant I did masses of research and wrote a far bigger business plan because I’m a bureaucrat, but it convinced Mark that we weren’t going to lose the house,” he says.
In fact, despite the recession, they have managed to exceed the targets on their business plan by quite a margin, quickly turning the farm shop into a profitable enterprise.
Footfall, one of the areas Tim has been focusing on, is growing. His attention to this side of the business does mean, however, that he gets to spend less time on his beloved smallholding than he would like.
Despite the tough economic climate, Tim feels there is still a strong market for local produce, in spite of some farmers’ markets around the country falling by the wayside.
“I think farmers’ markets have always failed. I don’t think it’s necessarily a recession thing. Shops come and go. What I’m seeing in the sector is that, whilst it’s almost counter intuitive because there’s a recession on, they are much more careful about what they spend it on but they still want quality.”
“I think the local food sector is growing. People’s interest in buying local is growing. It’s partly economics. It’s partly environmental concerns. I’m finding a lot of people want to support local business so I’m finding actually the local food sector is holding on quite well.”
He’s also careful on pricing, although he does sell only premium products, such as Sutton Hoo chicken or Riverside beef.
“I’m not expensive and I’m very conscious about my pricing policy. I don’t want people to come in and suck their teeth. The vast majority of my vegetables are cheaper than the supermarket.”
The seasonal bounty includes beans, courgettes, garlic, aubergines and cucumbers.
“I try and get it as locally as I can. When I first started, I insisted on getting everything locally but I quickly learnt that people want tomatoes even if you haven’t got them,” he says.
“You grow footfall by providing a really great service so that people tell their friends. People come back to me because shopping in my shop is a really fun experience. You provide a good service. You make it fun and interesting.”
Tim quickly decided he needed to work on his stock and his displays to make the business take off. He went to a speciality food fair with his daughter, and brought in about 30 new lines.
“Since then our spend here has been going up,” he says.
“It’s hugely energising. It’s hugely exciting. I’m working harder than I ever have in my life. I’m working 12 hour days. When the shop is closed I’m doing the ordering, the website, sorting out stock, paying bills.”
Mark, although he has kept his day job at Cambridge University, works equally hard, Tim stresses.
He does most of the animal husbandry before he goes to work and when he comes come.
“He’ll also make all the calls for the shop before he goes to work. On shop days and while I’m setting up the shop he’s making Victoria sponges. I then move in making the sausage rolls, pork pies and soup and jacket potato fillings. It means you have to be quite organised so the night before everything is let out ready.”
Retail is detail, says Tim, who admits he more an improvisor than a details man, so it is a skill he has had to learn.
“The pressure is the same but somehow it’s very different,” he says. “If you do a good job in a salaried position, people won’t notice. If you do a good job here, your profits go up and your turnover goes up. Likewise, if you fail you lose everything which sounds quite dramatic, but no one’s going to die.”