Farming feature: The farmer who bought his village pub
- Credit: Archant
Owning your own pub is a popular pipedream, but a path many farmers might fear to tread.
When farmer Phil Dennis took the unusual step of buying his local, it was more a case of responding to an approach from the owners, and thinking: “Why not?”
He was keen to see a much-loved local facility preserved, and also saw it as a potentially useful outlet for some of his new diversifications.
Phil continues to run the farm business, H E Dennis of Stansfield, near Bury St Edmunds, but opened up the freehouse pub, which lies in front of his farmyard in the village of Stansfield, on the May 25 Bank Holiday weekend following extensive refurbishment.
Recently, he leased the pub to the owners of Benson Blakes bar and restaurant of Bury St Edmunds, and they are keen to use ingredients sourced from the farm. Phil also has ambitions to create a brewery there, using barley from his own fields to make the beer.
Phil managed to annex a neglected part of the farmyard to create a beer garden with stunning views of his farmland and the local landscape.
“This was an overgrown corner of the farmyard. We have cleaned that up,” he explains. “The signs are new and we slightly rebranded it as Stansfield Compasses rather that the Compasses at Stansfield.”
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Trade picked up at once, and Phil hopes that because Stansfield lies on the old wool route between Clare and Bury, the pub can attract significant trade from the market towns of Sudbury, Bury and Newmarket, thus increasing its viability.
Phil believes running a farm business, which can be complicated at the best of times, has helped prepare him for the challenges of owning the village local.
The refurbishment, which included upgrading the toilets, bar and dining areas, was carried out by local tradesmen, from builders to electricians, underlining Phil’s commitment to the local economy. The previous tenants of the pub left in September last year, and Phil was approached about buying it by then-owner Gastro Pubs Ltd, which had bought the freehouse in 2007 from previous owner, Scott Chapman.
Phil felt it would fit in well with some other diversifications he was developing on the farm, including a turkey-rearing enterprise, a rare pig operation rearing Oxford Sandy and Blacks, and a “woodland weekends” business where fishermen and wildlife lovers can get away from it all camping in a log “pod” by a fishing lake on the farm dug out by Phil’s wildlife-friendly farmer father, John, in 1979.
Produce from the farm is being used in the pub dishes, along with local food and drink, including Aspalls cider and Fairfields crisps. Phil, whose forebears were millers, is keen to see his wheat processed into local food and already has an artisan bread maker at nearby Rede who is turning it into bread.
Phil grows wheat, oilseed rape and sugar beet on his 1,000-acre farm. His diversifications are currently quite modest, and his free range turkey operation, started last year, numbers a couple of hundred, while the pigs come in batches of six, and have about half an acre of wooded land.
The family also grows cricket bat willows over five or six acres. It’s something they’ve always done and which was probably started by Phil’s grandfather.
Phil’s younger son, Jonathan, 24, is studying at Writtle College, while his elder son Robert, 27, is a solicitor based in Cambridge. The log pod, set up last year, was their venture and has been a hit with people from as far as London. Charcoal fuel is an optional extra, sourced from the farm.
The pigs are again free-range and have half an acre of wooded land in which to roam. The farm employs three staff, plus a couple of extra hands at harvest time.
“My grandfather came here in 1927. He only came from Chilton Street just outside of Clare,” says Phil. “They were four brothers and they all had land. Their father was a miller and they all bought land when no one particularly wanted it and being the youngest he had the land furthest away.
“He was Hubert Dennis. They were already millers over there. We still have some relatives in Chilton Street, some Dennises who still farm. It was about half the size. My father John took over the farm. He had a sister, Sally, who married a farmer.”
Phil, who was reared on the farm, was always drawn to farming, and went to Shuttleworth college before returning home to help out.
“I was brought up on the farm and liked the farming life, being an outdoor, practical person,” says Phil. “I have been running it for quite a few years. It’s just a natural succession has taken place. John (his father) cuts all the grass. He spends all summer on his John Deere mower. He was born in 1929, so he’s 84 this August.”
In 1986, the family took on some more land and Phil branched out into contract farming. It currently contract farms a further 450 acres of land. With Jonny coming back to the farm in the future, Phil has been looking at making more of the farm’s assets and developing some diversifications, so the new pub is in keeping with the ethos. Phil is keen on conservation, and the land, set in beautiful west Suffolk countryside, is in Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship schemes and is Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF) marque approved. This commitment to the natural environment provides a foundation upon which to grow new ventures, and attract visitors to the area.
“We are in a naturally very beautiful area anyway so it just lends itself to this landscape and this area. We have already got the hedgerows but there’s the hedgerow management and field margins,” he says.
Many of the conservation measures are a natural progression from what his father did on the farm, which is home to skylarks and includes some ancient woodland, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a charcoal kiln. A high proportion – about 70% – of the wheat he grows is bread wheat. He is interested in the provenance of food and in sustainability, and this is what has led him to want to follow the chain through to producing bread.
“People are interested in where our food comes from. If we have got an outlet and we can’t produce it, I don’t know who can. Purchase of the pub gives us the outlet for the other things we want to do. We want to use as much as possible,” he says.
Phil’s farm has some grassland and he has used it to graze a few horses over the years, and used it for haylage.
“I think the more we develop those, it just gives us more options down different routes,” says Phil.
“While they are in infancy, if we don’t dip our toe in the water we won’t find out. There’s a lot of potential with things around here. You have got to start from somewhere. They hold their own in their own right but it’s extremely easy once you have got the set-up there.”
Jonny doesn’t have time at the moment to develop the log pods theme, but points out that once the set-up is established, as it has been, the business can be stepped up. Phil says the farm will need somebody younger to push things forward, but this year has been an important milestone in its history, with the purchase of the pub. There’s no doubt that the purchase had an element of altruism to it, although it is run on a business basis and will hopefully provide a shop window for the many things the Dennises are doing on the farm.
“I think the village deserves it anyway. They don’t all have to shut those village pubs. It’s all about the structure to start with and whether you have got something of interest. You have got to draw people a little bit as well. We are drawing people,” says Phil.