In 2015, we quit our jobs and sold our flat in London to become farmers. Seven years on, we were the UK’s only organic duck egg producer – then it all came crashing down. In hindsight, what we did was crazy, but we have no regrets.
When we quit our jobs to start farming, we had a small budget and lots of enthusiasm. Our mission was to earn a living as full-time regenerative farmers on just 10 acres in South West Wales. We were going to do this with no farming experience, no side hustles and no farm subsidies. We knew from the beginning that it would be hard, but now we know how unrealistic that mission really was.
Building the dream
Over the years, we threw a lot at it. All of our time, all of our money, and then some. We went about building our farm – Parc Carreg – using a combination of organic regenerative practices and permaculture design principles. We had zero farming experience – really, zilch, which meant that everything we learned pretty much had to come from books, YouTube or the neighbours. At the time, it felt like we had unlimited options and that was overwhelming but – looking back – we really only had a few realistic options. We experimented with a combination of ruminants and agroforestry, perennial crops and poultry, as well as some annual crops.
We expected things to move much faster than they did. Instead, progress felt painfully slow but progress we made. Bit by bit, we inched forward in little development cycles. We’d debate, design and build – then we’d observe. Along the way, after many mistakes, we started to see signs of success and we made bigger leaps, with our focus landing on organic certified duck eggs.
Eventually, we became known as the UK’s only organic duck egg producer, and our customers really loved our product. We’ve been featured on BBC Radio 4, Farmers Weekly, Organic Farming Magazine, ITV’s Coast & Country and BBC Countryfile. We felt we had some momentum.
Despite the success we had seen, we were not immune to the brutal economics of farming, and we were not yet profitable. If any external shocks came along, we were toast. Not only were we new entrant farmers – trying to do something different and making lots of mistakes along the way – but we were also up against a combination of environmental and economic pressures that could wipe us out in an instant.
The perfect storm
After seven years of grinding through all sorts of challenges – COVID, our first baby, health issues, a major house renovation on top of building a farm business – we were exhausted. Then, in 2022, we faced a gruelling period of feed price inflation. We thought this would be the end of our farm — we had 30 days of cash remaining and not enough funds to buy the next load of feed for our flock of 600 ducks.
People so frequently got in touch with us asking for advice about starting a farm, that we felt obliged to start sharing some of the harder aspects of the job as well as the good bits. Perhaps others could learn from our experiences. Up until this point, our posts had been quite inspirational and idealistic, but we decided to start sharing our struggles more openly and honestly.
After coming out on YouTube about the economic pressure that our farm faced, we started getting lots of comments and emails offering financial support. It was after we put out this video, How to Fail At Farming: Part 1, that we decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help us reinvent our business. We had aspirations to start producing Black Soldier Fly Larvae as an alternative sustainable protein source for our ducks, and to recruit earthworms to compost our duck manure, turning it into a super compost. Executing the entire vision was going to require a lot more money and time.
While we didn’t raise the full amount, over the course of the campaign we managed to raise enough money to keep the egg business going through the winter, and to help fund the vermicomposting business. We were blown away by all the support and were so appreciative of the donations that we received from all around the world. We were given a second chance. We had new ideas and we felt invigorated, ready for the next seven years of farming.
The final blow
Despite our renewed enthusiasm, the winter (2022-23) was hard, but spring arrived along with new opportunities. We were just about ready to launch our new product, worm casts, which looked promising. We had also been approached by a farm in Europe that wanted to purchase a very large number of hatching eggs from us. This was a great opportunity, as it’s much more profitable than table eggs, but it turned out to be the nail in the coffin for our egg business.
To export hatching eggs to Europe, one of the requirements was a negative salmonella test on our flock (a test we had never done before and is not routinely required for a flock of our size). A positive test would be disastrous for our business, as it would likely mean depopulation (culling of the entire flock). We knew there was a risk that we could test positive, but as our flock was in good health and were kept in a clean environment, we decided to take the leap.
The result came back and – to our horror – was positive. In March 2023, we were instructed by the Food Standards Authority to stop selling table eggs. This marked the beginning of the end for our egg business. It’s worth clarifying that nobody got sick, and it wasn’t the eggs themselves that tested positive for salmonella. Despite our ducks being very healthy and kept in high welfare conditions, they were carrying salmonella, which was identified using stool samples. We have since learned that keeping ducks salmonella-free is unfortunately not as simple as keeping the environment clean and rodent-free.
To rebuild our egg business, we would have had to ‘depopulate’ the entire flock, completely sanitise the farm, hatch a whole new flock, vaccinate the new flock, rear them for five months before we could start collecting eggs, re-test for salmonella, and hope for the best, without any guarantees.
So, with great sadness, we decided to close the egg business.
Failure is a powerful teacher: three lessons for recovery
With each challenge we’ve faced, there has been an important lesson or opportunity. Both events felt awful, but they have taught us so much. We have battle scars, but we are very grateful for the learning they bring.
1. Letting go
The salmonella test result ended up being a blessing in disguise – what previously seemed like the worst-case scenario ended up being for the best. After closing the egg business, we felt so much lighter. Our friends and family all commented on how relaxed we looked. We took our daughter to the beach for the first time as a family, two and a half years after her birth.
We had lost sight of how much we were sacrificing – putting our personal needs after the farm and the flock. Had we continued to ‘just about manage’, we could have ended up losing the next seven years of our life to a slow and painful decline in financial and mental health. We needed a break, but our grit had turned into stubbornness.
2. Opening up
Opening up is hard because it can invite criticism, but it also invites opportunity. The support we’ve received since has been more than just financial. We’ve had phone calls, emails and heart-warming comments from people all around the world. We’ve even had a few experts get in touch with us directly to give us advice around some very niche problems that we’ve always struggled to find the answers for.
In the process of trying to communicate our story, we were forced to organise and unpack our thoughts, which was, in itself, therapeutic. The ‘How to Fail at Farming’ videos that we created on YouTube gave us the opportunity to explore some of the lessons we learned in a way that we might not have done otherwise. Sharing our challenges with the world has significantly amplified what we have learned from our experiences and we’re so glad we did.
3. Moving forward
In many ways, our journey has only just begun. We hope to continue our work in regenerative agriculture – just give us a minute. We haven’t entirely figured out how we will do that yet, but we have a lot more experience to draw on now, than we did when we started seven years ago. In fact, when reflecting on the experiences that we have faced so far, it seems that the larger the disaster (or what felt like a disaster at the time), the more meaningful the lessons learned. If we could go back seven years to tell ourselves one thing, it would be: “carry on”!