Growing produce and rearing livestock, the Eggins love island life

The opportunity to take on the tenancy of Hillside Farm in 2015 saw two dreams comes true for the Eggins family, Ruth, Graham and their three children Sam, Lizzie and Martha. We had both had rural upbringings as Graham is a farmer’s son and Ruth has a love for horses and smallholding. From early on in our relationship, 22 years ago, we dreamed of having our own piece of land on which we could grow our own fruit and vegetables and produce our own meat, eggs and honey.

However jobs, children and rising house prices meant that what we managed was a small cottage with a large garden and ¾ acre that we rented from our friendly local farmer. On this we created our “micro holding”, grew a small selection of fruit and veg, and kept about 20 hens, two or three weaner pigs and two goats. Over the years we have read a lot of books about keeping pigs, bees, and smallholdings, we have been on courses and taken on much advice from farmers and growers that we know and we still learn new things every day!

In 2014 a small advert in Farmers Weekly magazine caught our eye, a 40 acre farm on the beautiful little island of Bryher, the smallest inhabited island in the Isles of Scilly, 1.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide, with approximately 80 residents. Having fallen in love with the Isles of Scilly after many years of holidays, we jumped at the chance to live there. So after viewings, business plans, interviews, selling our house and camping in a friends garden for 12 weeks, in August 2015 we moved into our dream life at Hillside Farm.

South West Farmer:

Fast forward nearly three years and we are well and truly settled into farm and island life, and have never regretted the move. Hillside farm is a Duchy of Cornwall farm, 40 acres made up of five acres of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers and 35 acres of land used for grazing our herd of ten North Devon cattle, rearing Saddleback pigs, two ponies, 200 hens, 14 ducks, a colony of black bees and making silage and straw.

We also work closely with the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust and have a grazing agreement in which our cattle are used as conservation grazers on open heathland across Bryher. We were fortunate to inherit from the previous tenants a thriving vegetable growing business with five large poly tunnels, an irrigation system and high pittosporum hedging that protects the crops from the harsh Atlantic winds that can batter Bryher.

We continue to grow a wide selection of vegetables and have increased the fruit production. Now we have 3000 strawberry plants, with plans to increase this further, and with these we make and sell fresh fruit and homemade jam. We have started growing rhubarb, gooseberries, red and black currants and are planning to introduce raspberries. We’ve also planted an orchard of plums, cooking and eating apples.

A new crop to Bryher is our asparagus. It has grown very well in our sandy soils and has sold well in its first year of cropping so our aim is to increase this crop next year. We grow approximately one acre of new potatoes which we can usually plant on Boxing Day and start lifting in late April, however this year we are a little later due to the cold, wet winter we’ve had and started lifting in the first week of May.

Pretty much all of our plants are grown from seed in our greenhouse, planted by hand and picked by hand early every morning so that they are sold as fresh as possible from our farm stall. We have a small and varied selection of machinery varying in ages from our 1960s Zetor and “very old” potato planter and lifter, through to Flo, our 1980s Ford 4110 and the Kubota M8540. Growing and

farming the way we do means that it is a lot of hard, manual work and we are definitely much fitter now and we sleep extremely well!

South West Farmer:

One of our great passions is to be able to breed, rear and sell local meat from happy animals that we know have enjoyed a wonderful life on Bryher. We introduced the saddleback pigs and North Devon cattle not long after we moved over. We had kept Saddlebacks before and loved the temperament of the breed and the super pork they produce. Numbers have steadily grown and we now have three breeding sows and one boar and produce three litters per year.

We have five breeding cows, three two-year olds (two of which will go for beef this year) and two calves. We hope to increase our herd to eight breeding cows but feel that this would be the maximum as we have to be fairly conscious about water usage and winter feed. We produce it ourselves and are limited by our farm size and shipping. All our meat, at present, must travel back to the mainland for slaughter and butchery due to the lack of facilities on Scilly. We are hoping that this may change in the future and there can be an abattoir and cutting room on St Mary’s. This would be great for our animals and our business. The meat returns from the mainland ready to sell which we do directly from the farm gate, at local farmers markets and occasionally to our local hotel Hell Bay. We have had fantastic feedback about our meat which is very rewarding and we hope that having access to local meat will help to sustain the farm and, of course, benefit the residents and visitors of Bryher.

The most challenging part of living and farming on a small island several miles from the mainland is the shipping. Everything has to leave or arrive by boat and this means that our lives are very much governed by the tide and weather. We do have days when we can’t boat between islands, and, due to the sandbanks, Bryher is regularly cut off for several hours a day so what you have on the island is what you’ve got. We can’t just nip down to our local farm store to pick something up. Our nearest vet is on St Mary’s and so for TB testing and welfare calls boating has to be taken in to account. All of our hard feed, equipment, supplies arrives by boat. It takes time, organisation, invention and a willingness to change your plans at the last minute.

South West Farmer:

However we wouldn’t change it for the world! We feel so lucky that we can run a small farm in the way that we do. Two holiday cottages are our main income and guests not only have a wonderful holiday on Bryher but can feel involved with the farm too. The farm is small, diverse, environmentally aware and wildlife rich. We are surrounded by stunningly beautiful wildlife and scenery so it is very much in the forefront of our minds to keep it this way. The more we farm this way, the more benefits to the land we can see, in which one part of the farm helps to maintain and sustain another. Our pigs weed and rotavate the veggie fields in winter which in turn reduces our need to spray and use artificial fertilisers. The bees help to pollinate the crops and wildflowers and of course produce wonderful honey! We hold farm walks and take part in Open Farm Sunday in a bid to continue educating people about farming, wildlife and promoting the farm and what we do.

With so many aspects to the farm we keep busy! There is always a new challenge or plan for the future and we wish for the farm to be successful and sustainable. The farm is now our way of life. Our children love being here and the freedom that Bryher and the farm offer them. Although it can be hard work and long hours, the rewards and satisfaction of producing your own produce and helping to look after such a beautiful part of the world makes it the most wonderful way of life, and when we do get a spare few hours we can enjoy it walking, swimming, kayaking or just sitting on the nearby beaches….heaven!

Follow the Eggins’ adventures on Facebook @hillsidefarmbryherios Twitter @Hillsidebryher