Meet Sophie Gregory, organic farmer and family helmswoman..

As part of ‘The Journey’, back in September, we drove over to meet Sophie on her family farm in Dorset, and were blown away by her enthusiasm for what she does and her approach to her farm business.

Sophie Gregory is a woman, once met, probably never forgotten, in fact, we’d probably go so far as to say that she is a veritable force of nature.

Back in September, Holly, our photographer Rachel and I went to meet Sophie at the organic dairy farm she runs with her husband Tom.

Situated in the rolling Dorset countryside, the gorgeous Autumn sunshine and bucolic setting could easily lead one into musing how idyllic country life in Sophie’s gorgeous farmhouse could be. Throw in an aga in the kitchen and the cliched farmhouse dreams could go into overdrive.

But make no mistake, this is a working farmhouse, the Aga is drying a family full of clothes and Sophie and her husband live a very busy life that revolves around family and their farming business.

Running a dairy farm isn’t for the faint-hearted, and although Tom has a background in farming, the idea of having a farm was very new to Sophie.

But let’s rewind a bit here…As we all know, even the best laid plans have a knack of twisting into a new reality and Sophie and Tom certainly started with that at an early age.  They met when they were 16 at Glastonbury Festival, and hadn’t been together very long at all when Sophie fell pregnant with Harry. This unexpected, but much wanted pregnancy at the age of 19, changed the order of their plans somewhat, but never one to be derailed, Sophie still did some travelling in her gap year and then went back to Yeovil College when their baby was 6 weeks old and completed an Open University accounting qualification on a one day a week basis.

This progressed to Sophie working for a local accountants, but then the opportunity to take a farm on came up and as Sophie says, “We took on the farm and it just wasn’t going to work, me training and studying.  Plus I just didn’t love it (accounting) enough to go, hmmm actually, I want to do this properly so that led to me just drifting into the farm.  We had a 4 year old son and a 2 year old daughter and we brought them here at that age.”

Here, at that time (2014) was a 575 acre dairy farm and they started with a small herd of cows, which needed some attention. Sophie was involved in the farm pretty much from day one, and then in the last 18 months has taken on running the herd herself, with Lottie, her right hand person, who is her absolute rock.

However, all of this was a bit of a surprise to Sophie, she told us, “I never really thought I was going to go on the farm, I mean I absolutely love it, but there was no way I woke up, came here and thought I’m going to do it.”

The initial driver was Tom, who had always said that he wanted to go back dairy farming, having grown up with his family running two family farms, but his Dad gave up farming when he was 10.

Sophie took up the story, “Tom was foot trimming and as he was out and about on all the farms, he knew a lot about what was happening with local farms and he heard about this one going onto the market.  We went and had a look, but it was an hour away and so I just thought I would live at home.  But, our business partner was not willing to look at it unless I moved as well.  He had never done share farming before, he brought all the experience and I suppose we brought all the energy.  We’d worked really hard and saved like mad to do this farming thing and put in £120K which was a massive amount of money and I was really apprehensive about putting all our life savings into it.”

The farm was really intensive for them both to begin with, but now they have a farming system and a team who  work 5 days a week.  They milk once a day, which is mainly done by Sophie and Lottie, with Tom concentrating on the other elements of the farm.

Holly and I were both struck by how forward and entrepreneurial Sophie’s thinking is, this is most definitely a farm that runs as smoothly and simply as possible with the young team being involved in the decision making.  Sophie’s refreshing approach shone through as she told us, “I don’t think it’s fair to expect employees to do the same as us, we have money in the business, they don’t.  We try and keep things simple at the weekend to keep the workload down.  I’ve always been really keen to have a young team, I don’t mind if people come here and move on to somewhere else.  We’d like people to stay longterm, but I’m aware that means that I need to step aside to give people the chance to step up, which is partly why I’ve applied for a Nuffield Scholarship.”

Sophie is really keen for people to see farming as a career and it’s obvious that she is passionate about bringing the younger generation into the story.   As she says, “I go into schools and talk to them, being a herdsperson can actually be really well paid, for someone looking after a big herd it can be £30K plus accommodation.”

Holly did herdsperson work when she visited New Zealand, so she was intrigued to hear about Sophie’s young team and it being approached in a way that gives Sophie’s team a career path. (Side note : If we lose Holly anytime, we perhaps should be checking a particular corner of Dorset ;-))

Sophie is a true believer in sharing knowledge and often has vet students staying and gaining work experience on the farm, particularly during calving.  Introducing people to the farm system and them leaving with more farming skills that they started with is obviously a real passion of hers.

Running the farm is a never-ending cycle of monitoring feed, cell counts and fat ratios and connecting potential causes with the consequences to ensure ongoing improvement.  Sophie is a firm believer in ensuring that people understand the whole cycle so that hers are not the only eyes monitoring if everything is running well.

As we sat in the homely farm house kitchen, it became clear that Sophie’s approach is well thought out and planned with an intuitive touch, and pervades into all areas of the farm.

Sophie went on to say, “Every six months we get each of the team to set three goals, one home one and two work ones and we review them 6 months later. Often, they do complete them all. Over time, I’ve learnt that people are motivated by different things, for some it’s money, for others it’s time – but we try and understand that and individualise the rewards that people get”.

Like many business owners, Sophie finds it difficult to switch off when she’s at home, she says, “the only time I truly switch off is when we’re away, the trouble (or good thing) is I that absolutely love what I do”,

Sophie laughed, when we pointed out how busy her life must be,

“There’s so much to think about.  We have to consider our impact on the environment, and our neighbours, but above all our ideas have to make commercial sense, cashflow is key and is monitored every month and if it doesn’t make sense, you can’t do it.”

As we sat and talked, the hustle and bustle of family life carried on around us in the kitchen; children needing snacks and swimming gear questions to be answered.

With their original herd, they inherited a high ratio of empty rates (cows who don’t produce a calf in that gestation period) so they bought in new stock and then put the bulls in. Sophie recalls, “I just love seeing how much the herd has progressed from those early days, it’s a real buzz.”

Their herd is now some 350 cows strong and the expansion has continued as they took on another farm at Mapperton, which is eight miles away.  With the 312 extra acres, they are able to send the weaned four month old calves over there to  outwinter for their first two years.  This sounds easy but actually involves moving the electric fences everyday to move them across the field, whatever the weather.

With a beef herd of White Park cattle roaming on a different block of 180 acres of rewilded land and another 350 acre arable block of land on Sophie’s godfather’s farm, which they took on in mid-2023, life must be very busy for Sophie and Tom.  Although Sophie freely admits that the arable side of things is Tom’s domain as he absolutely loves that side of things and can do his own soil samples and analysis.

Sophie brought us up to date with their plans for 2024, “We’re aiming to have 400 cows next year, we only had a 12% empty rate this year so will be milking more cows, and managing Spring and Autumn calvings.  Doing it this way balances the milk profile and the workload load on the team, calving 400 cows all in the Spring would just be too much. We’re also aiming to do something parlour improvements next Autumn.”

Holly asked Sophie what her favourite thing about farming is and what her biggest challenges are, she said,

“My favourite thing about farming is the early mornings in the summer, being awake when it’s light at 430am in the morning.  I also love seeing the next generation of cows coming through, there’s nothing better than see a new calf born to a heifer that you’ve raised. Lastly, I also find it really rewarding seeing how people progress and grow as well.”

“My biggest challenge is staying motivated and calm when you’re tired.

The weather can make things really hard because our system relies on the weather, especially in the winter, the rain can be such a problem for us.

The other thing is juggling home life alongside my farm jobs, things like making sure there is a meal on the table – I find it much easier in the winter when I can just chuck something in the bottom of the Aga and leave it there all day.”

We asked Sophie what she does to help maintain a level of calm and she shared with us that she is part of a group of 60 farmers on WhatsApp who meditate every day – and share an emoji when they’re done or share the meditation for others to use.  This was part of an initiative called Focussed Farmers set up in 2017 by a Nuffield Scholar called Holly Beckett. Sophie finds this invaluable and as she says, “who says farmers won’t meditate!”

It’s obvious as she talks about her participation in this group that this is an absolute keystone in Sophie (and many other farmer’s day) and is one of the good examples of where social media plays a part in connecting pockets of remote rural communities in a way that just wasn’t possible in years gone by.

Sophie’s enthusiasm for what she does is so captivating and we could genuinely have sat round her kitchen table for hours chatting and learning more about the farm that she is obviously so knowledgeable about. But milking was beckoning and children were circling so it was time for us to go and join Sophie in the parlour briefly to meet her girls as they ambled in for milking.

This is a lady who, along with her husband Tom, is a vanguard for the future of organic farming. As we left she was rushing off to complete the final stage of her application for a prestigious Nuffield scholarship, which we’re happy to report she was awarded and has joined the latest cohort of Scholars

Her research topic is, “What is the future of organic farming” and we’re willing to bet that there’s going to be some innovative thoughts and solutions from this livewire lady who is shaping the future of her family farm, the reverberations of which will no doubt have a big impact on the future of organic farming.

We always ask our interviewees for a piece of advice they’d like to pass on to others and Sophie’s advice was something that we all overlook too easily.

“Put your own oxygen mask on first, it’s hard to remember to do that, but if you’re not OK, the whole ship goes down,  You’re usually at the helm of everything so you have to look after yourself. Oh, and don’t give yourself a hard time, I’m not the most confident person in what I do, I’m very self-doubting and my friends and I support each other so much.  I’m a believer in surrounding yourself with people who build you up, and that you should build others up.

Lastly we wondered what Sophie’s one thing that she wouldn’t be without is – and it is a good pair of wellies and a cap. Sophie said, ‘It took me until about two years ago to invest in a good pair of wellies and it has been so worth it!”

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