There is no denying that over recent years, gin has become the tipple of choice for many. According to Beverage Daily, which provides news and analysis for the beverage industry, in 2019 gin sales reached a new record as it saw Brits buying a staggering 83 million bottles. Even in lockdown, gin sales still soared and was the best-selling spirit through online orders. So it is no wonder that Lancashire-based dairy farmers, Lizzie and Rob Billington, have seen their farm-based gin distillery become a successful farm diversification enterprise.
Lower Barker Farm, near Preston, has been a traditional dairy farm for more than 90 years and diversified into cheese in 1969, a business venture set up by Lizzie’s grandmother, Jean Butler. Rob grew up on his family farm just down the road in Claughton, but now works at Lower Barker, running the dairy herd along with Lizzie’s parents, Andrew and Ann, and her brother, John, and his wife, Karen. The couple wanted to create something for themselves and, with a passion for educating people about the industry, their idea was to harvest natural botanicals from the farm and create a bespoke, and very British, spirit.
Farm diversification exposure
Lizzie studied business management at Preston College and worked in new product development within the food industry, equipping her with all the skills to run what would eventually be her own thriving enterprise. When their children, Annie and Betsy, arrived, Lizzie decided to take a career break, and with a background in food science, distillation caught her attention.
She says: “My brother and sister were always going to farm and do I love it, but wanted to do something which represented the heritage of the farm. You have to get out there now and talk positively about British farming, so we thought ‘let’s bottle it, have a gin and talk about what happens in British farming rather than South America’. We wanted to diversify and had exhausted the dairy options, but we have so many botanicals growing here that we didn’t know about. One field or hedgerow or orchard can grow a set of botanicals, but they’ll taste completely different to any neighbouring farm, so the flavours are totally unique to here. We’re bottling the heritage of the farm every time we distil.”
Lower Barker stretches across 263 hectares (650 acres), split between rented and owned land. The 550 Holstein Friesans are grass-fed and milked twice a day, with all milk going through to the family cheese business, Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses, which is just across the road. The farm supplies Butlers with 5m litres per year, priding themselves on milk which has the necessary high butterfat, protein and casein levels to produce quality cheese. To keep up with demand, calving takes place all year, having switched to artificial insemination about 20 years ago. This way, they can guarantee dairy replacements year-on-year.
And although it is mostly a family business, Rob says their biggest challenge is staff. He says: “There aren’t enough young people. They don’t want to do the work and, unfortunately with this job, you have to, don’t you? They need to get people interested at school level.”
The farm is also no longer in any environmental schemes, but Lizzie says their practices are already in line with what such schemes require.
Lizzie says: “British farming is totally sustainable. It’s almost ridiculous that you have to tick a box to say we’re doing this, but we’re doing all this anyway. This idea of ‘let’s not waste and do this more sustainably’, it’s engrained in us to not waste, we’ve been farming this way for hundreds of years. It’s like the rest of the word has just caught up and then said ‘wow, we’re wasting a lot, aren’t we?’ And by going plant-based, you’re not saving anything. Look at the factories they’re produced in.”
This is partly the reason for setting up Wild Fox Distillery on-farm. The couple, especially Lizzie, want to be open about the dairy business while utilising the farm’s natural resources. It began in 2019, with Rob taking the opportunity to build the new gin house during lockdown.
It is certainly a labour of love, with its rustic farmhouse decor and their shiny copper distils on show, but to one side you have the viewing gallery, where floor to ceiling windows allow visitors to look out to the fields and watch the work being done.
Lizzie says: “Having this business, it allows you to say come in, have a gin and talk. We ask people where they buy their food from, [but] go and find your local farmers market or farm shop and ask questions. That’s a positive of the pandemic though; people want to see the traceability of food, and now drink too, which is how it should be.
“Ask the questions, get rid of that plastic packaging and try to source food and drink within 10 miles.”
All fruits are foraged, including raspberries, blackberries and blackcurrants, along with Hawthorne, stinging nettle, dandelion and red clover; plus, Lizzie says, some others which are top secret. They have also started growing their own juniper, after finding a local grower following years of trying to source it sustainably. They harvest in bulk, weigh, chop and freeze to ensure year-round consistency in their gin. But Lizzie is a self-taught distiller, and it was literally, she says, a case of stripping hedgerows, distilling, tasting and starting again, adjusting the recipe by sometimes just 0.5g. It is this sort of dedication which has, no doubt, seen them fast become a sought-after product.
They sell nationwide through independent retailers, wine shops, farm shops and distributors, and even won the 2020/2021 Rural Drinks Business Award in the Rural Business Awards, which was covered by ITV.
Lizzie, who has had every product they sell emblazoned with their ‘farm to bottle’ motto, says: “Every country home’s staple spirit is what we want to be. “It’s a celebration of the countryside and we don’t want to be found on the supermarket shelf at a slashed down price. We want to be a premium brand which people associate with the best of British. We loved gin before it was trendy. It was always what we called our after milking drink. Mum and dad always had a gin and tonic, then that got passed down to us as siblings and we loved it.”
Farm diversification: The need to educate
But it is a new era all round and not just in terms of the new business. To further their passion for education, Lizzie’s dad, Andrew, has recently started hosting schools on-farm.
Lizzie says: “Although it’s something he’s not done in previous years, he loved it and so did the kids, so much so that one little boy held his hand up the yard and into the calf shed. We need to educate from a young age. Kids have no fear; it’s parents and adults who put that fear into them. When we give interviews or I’m on social media, I ask dad ‘what are you happy to show?’ And he says ‘everything – this is how a British farm is run’.”
Bottles of gin range from £38-£42, but they say that their customers buy into their story and all who go to the farm to visit the distillery are interested in its provenance.
Rob says: “It’s not good enough telling a story, so we get them to come and see it. We do say we’re an on-farm distillery, so you get farm smells, but not one person has complained. If we’re mowing, there are people lined up at the window watching. It’s stuff we take for granted.”
The move to produce milk for cheese was obviously a successful venture, but Lizzie and Rob’s idea to distil on farm was not a necessary diversification, more a legacy for their children to take over should they wish to. The name, Wild Fox, was even inspired by their two children, whose red hair and ‘cheeky faces’ can be seen wandering around the farm.
Lizzie says: “We get asked this question all the time, or people say, ‘you have to diversify now, don’t you?’ But my mum will say ‘no, we’re very good farmers’. We diversified because we wanted something to pass down to our children.”
With an award-winning brand, the couple have certainly made their mark, and created a lasting legacy for Annie, nine, and Betsy, six. But it is their passion for the sector which stands out, with both strong advocates for British farming supported by their grow, harvest and distil ethos.
Lizzie says: “You have to bombard [people] with positivity. We use the best ingredients and buy British ingredients. We say we’re a best of British brand so can’t go shipping things around the world. Our ethos is the unique selling point and we give that full traceability. People love the authenticity.”
Farm diversification facts
Runs 550 Holstein Friesians across 263 hectares (650 acres)
Milks twice a day using a 29-point herringbone parlour
All milk goes through the family cheese business, Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses
Averages 10,500 litres per cow
Calves all year round and all cattle are grass-fed