Emily McVeigh: The changing face of farming
- Credit: Kenton Hall Estate
Anyone who watched Marmite TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s Prime series The Farm last year will have had one takeaway, if nothing else. Farming is not easy.
Managing land and animals comes with a litany of challenges – many of them (weather, for example) beyond even the most seasoned farmer’s control. It’s long hours, often for little reward. There is no ‘9 to 5’. For those who rise with the sun each day to feed their animals, or reap in a harvest before the rains come, this life is a vocation.
Today it really is a case of diversify or...fold.
There have been fears about the future of farming, especially in the face of the pressing issue of climate emergency. Yet still, new faces, both first generation, and family heirs are coming up through the industry.
Amongst them is Emily McVeigh who, alongside sister Lucy brother Tom, has spent the last decade building a career that both supports and complements the arable and Longhorn cattle farm at Kenton Hall Estate near Debenham, which her father’s been lovingly tending to for decades.
Born in Norwich, Emily says she’s a Suffolk girl at heart – all she ever wanted to do was carve out a life for herself in the country, having spent a childhood helping her dad out on the land...playing in the yurt (complete with pot belly stove) he built for her and her siblings in the woods.
Emily attended the local primary school at Debenham, then Brandeston Hall and Framlingham College, and admits although she was involved in the farm from a very young age, she was keen to show her creative side as a teen – taking history of art and art as A levels.
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Uni didn’t appeal, and after a spell working in hospitality and as a PA, she says she knew she wanted to do her own thing, with two criteria. “I wanted to be in Suffolk, and to live and work in the countryside,” she says.
“Early on I kind of knew I wanted my own business and thought I could create a job for myself, basing something new on the farm. Around the same time I was having these thoughts, my dad got planning permission for weddings at the hall.”
That was 10 years ago. Today Emily, 31, runs a successful wedding venue at Kenton, alongside glamping, and popular cookery school, The Food Hub.
“At the time, dad gave the reigns to us and I thought ‘I’ll see what happens’. We set up as a venue, and I went around all the weddings fairs. I got six bookings for the first year that we launched.
“From there, brides and grooms were looking for accommodation, and I kept thinking about how lovely it was to have sleepovers in the yurt in the woods. Lots of other venues had big houses with rooms for accommodation, which we didn’t have. I started to see a few glamping sites popping up around England, and thought I could develop the idea.”
Emily’s dad, David, added a shepherd’s hut, later joined by a series of lodge tents alongside the woodland and moat.
“They’re very popular and have really taken off,” beams Emily. “Hen parties love them and they are just brilliant for groups. People arrive on a Friday, and we have various packages available, depending on what they want. That can be anything from a basic breakfast with an activity, or our top package, which is fully catered, with activities on the farm, like axe throwing, clay pigeon shooting or bake-offs.”
The experience, Emily says, is a bit like having your very own private campsite.
So far 16 hen parties are booked in this year, outnumbering weddings, with only six to eight events pencilled in annually.
Are there any trends for 2022?
“The festival vibe was huge pre-Covid, with food trucks, and a more relaxed feel. That’s definitely what we’re seeing more of – informal weddings. I really think now people have shifted their mindset. Their priority is wanting to get their closest friends and family together over anything else. They’re incorporating lots of greenery, and things like macrame plant hangers in the marquee. Getting back to nature, and keeping it simple.”
Having built a reputation for hosting elegant country weddings very early on, Emily could have rested on her laurels. But with the energy of youth of her side (always helpful) and an ingrained love of food and local produce coursing through her veins, she knew there was more she could do at Kenton.
So she took a leap, converting an old cow barn into The Food Hub – initially taking on tenants such as Palfrey & Hall butchers during that business’s infancy. They’re still onsite today, and have two butchery shops in the area.
“They produce all their cooked goods here,” says Emily. “Sausage rolls, and pies. And their smokehouse is here. It smells amazing!”
Having prime space left over, the cookery school was created, and launched in 2014. “We thought, ‘let’s see what happens’. And it took off! We’ve worked with some fantastic chefs over the years, and Sophie Glover, who does most of the courses now, has been with me for nearly three years.
“Just as Covid was happening we came to a bit of a crossroads. So, for example, Sue who ran our baking workshops was moving to Wales. Sophie had contacted me. She was a freelance chef, mainly cooking for private families, but she wanted a more permanent job. She’s full-time here now and has really taken what we do to the next level.”
And that includes the recent addition of an outdoor kitchen and cookery space, planned to launch in March 2020, but put on hold by the pandemic.
The covered area is, Emily laughs nervously, Covid social-distancing friendly (just in case) and doubles the capacity of the school. There are plans for loads of outdoor cooking workshops, and for monthly burger nights (starting in May) where diners can enjoy patties made from the estate’s own beef.
“We’ve offered Weber barbecue courses for a long time, and this new space allows us to expand that offering. It's actually really cool. We’ve developed it so we can have barbecue, pizza and fire pit evenings – we've teamed up with Firepits UK to do open fire cooking which I think will be quite a big thing moving forward.
“I think a lot of people invested in their outdoor areas at home over lockdown, with fire pits or pizza ovens...and we can show them how to make the most of those things. We’re offering hands-on experiences where you can learn a lot, talk to other people, and eat the food.
“It’s great fun, and everyone will go home with more knowledge – so when they have people over for a barbecue they can offer more than burnt sausages!”
Longhorn beef, managed by Emily’s sister Lucy, is available to buy (maybe to put all those new outdoor cooking skills to the test).
And could fruit, nuts...even wine, be available from Kenton Hall in the future too?
“It’s quite an exciting time in agriculture at the moment,” Emily explains, talking about brother Tom’s most recent involvement in the estate.
“From a governmental position, we’re moving away from the Basic Payment Scheme, and into ELMS (environmental land management schemes), part of the new environmental bill, using public money for public good.
“Farmers are being encouraged to do much more environmental land management, and moving forward most will have to move away from monoculture, looking at the landscape to create more habitats and biodiversity. We need to get wildlife back on the farm. To create better soil health.”
Coming from a farm that rears beef, what does Emily have to say about the impact of cattle on the environment? A (literally) hot topic in the climate change debate.
“There’s definitely a place for livestock. When it comes to livestock on farms, they help create the manure to spread on the land, improving the soil naturally. I think we need to go back to farming practices harking back over 100 years, where people had cattle, pigs, sheep and arable all in one place.”
Tom is part of a government-backed sustainable farming scheme, with plans, says Emily, to plant lots of fruit, nut and other trees on the family’s land. “It’s our way of moving into regenerative farming. It’s becoming a real movement- a bit like organic.”
How is it working alongside her siblings?
“Nice actually,” Emily reflects. “We all have our separate enterprises, but it’s fun working in the office together. It can be a bit distracting though with all the chatting!”
As I’ve already pointed out, Emily’s not one to rest on her laurels. After a shaky two years of lockdown, the businesswoman has multiple strings to add to her bow in 2022.
This includes The Food Hub hosting the masterclasses at this year’s Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival – something she’s both immensely excited about, and proud of.
And then there’s the Nuffield Farming Scholarship, which sounds like hard work...but clearly has a few perks to appreciate along the way.
The fiercely contested scholarship, a charity project, accepts 20 scholars per year, from a pool of hundreds of applicants, all aged between 30 and 45, with the aim of learning, and sharing knowledge in the farming industry.
Those who are successful have two years to research a thesis, encompassing eight weeks of global travel, and resulting in a five-minute video, and 5,000-word report on their chosen topic.
Emily was beyond thrilled to gain a place – and selected farm-to-glass drinks as the focal point of her study. So, naturally, in the name of science and study, she’s going to have to sip a fair bit of wine along the way.
In March, Emily attended the scholarship’s international conference, with a tongue-in-cheek comment that she may have been just a teensy bit disappointed in the destination. Norfolk. Well, who can blame her? The year before, everyone jetted off to Australia. And to Japan the year before that. Hopping over the border is hardly glamorous is it?
But she had a good time.
“There were 130 scholars from 15 nations – Japan, Brazil, Chile, Canada – it was held over seven days in Norfolk and in London and it was so amazing to spend time with each other and learn from one another.
“We went to Holkham and Houghton Hall, and Norwich Research Park. So interesting. Most of the people I was with are quite innovative in farming and have businesses on farms, it was fantastic to hear about what they do.”
Emily’s has trips planned this year to South Africa, Sweden and Norway, to name a few, and has already made one research journey to California, back in February.
“I’m possibly thinking of doing a vineyard in the future so it made sense for me, and California seemed a good place to start. My main idea is to look at what you could grow on a farm and turn into a drink. What could be the next big thing? Alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
“I’m looking at milk alternatives, natural wine...more interesting wine. When I was in California I went to see a fellow scholar Tom, who has a vineyard, and I went to an almond farm where they produce almond milk. I saw other vineyards along the way, with lots of wine tasting. It was such a great trip.”
Watch this space in the future for Kenton Hall wine then...
In the meantime, Emily and husband Alexander Aitchison, of The Brandeston Queen (who she married in lockdown after two Covid-thwarted attempts), are turning their respective hands to blooms, and bread.
“In lockdown Alex discovered a real passion for baking, so we’re putting a wood-fired bread oven in where we live. We got it from Germany where wood-fired baking is huge. Alex will be baking sourdough and pastries on a small scale, offering them probably through a subscription service, and with click and collect. That’s something we’re looking forward to.
“We’re putting in a flower farm over there too. Florists had been talking about how the price of stems is going through the roof, and everyone we see for weddings seems to want a relaxed, country-style bouquet or floral arrangement. We think it will be so nice to grow flowers for people to use on their wedding day.”
Outside of work, Emily says she thrives in the outdoors, especially along the coast, and adores walking and eating on the seashore. “We eat out as much as we can!
“I would say the Butley Oysterage is one of my favourite places. And Pump Street. Oh, and The Little Fish and Chip Shop in Southwold. Sole Bay is amazing too. We tend to spend our days off at the coast, going to Dunwich and walking on the beach.”
Emily got an electric bike for her 30th birthday, and has been trying to get out and about on it as often as possible. “Everyone says having an electric bike is cheating – but I am cycling,” she giggles.
Find out more about Kenton at kentonhallestate.co.uk