There’s not many things that would make me jump out of bed at 5am on a Monday morning – especially when a three hour road trip during rush hour is involved – but there was something about Muddy Boots Farm and its twenty-six year old Founder that made me know this would be an interview worth travelling for.
From quitting her job in the City, retraining as a teacher at twenty-two, and single-handedly educating herself about rearing livestock; to the sheer scale of what went on behind the scenes to get the educational smallholding fit to host members of the public; with zero prior experience before she launched last April, Katie Anderson is a first generation farmer who stands out from the crowd.
As the saying goes, ‘don’t work with children or animals.’
With the unexpected arrival of piglets two days before we met (more on that later), ewes in lamb and a summer season of back-to-back sessions for young children to learn about life on a farm fast approaching; last month I sat down with the woman who’s determined to do both…
Katie Anderson. When I first started I just thought, ‘this is what needs to happen!’ Kids need to learn about farming, about where food comes from and spend more time outdoors. There are loads of petting farms out there but when children come here, they’ll go into that pig pen, they’ll pick the piglets up, they’ll clean the pigs out, feed the goats… It’s really hands on and there’s nowhere like that around here or anywhere really!
She can. She did. I’m so in awe of this place already! You obviously weren’t raised on a farm so what were you doing beforehand when you decided to launch this place?
As a first generation farmer, Katie had no previous experience in farming before launching Muddy Boots. Having worked in property in London from eighteen to twenty two; her former career couldn’t be more opposite to that which she has now.
KA. My goal at eighteen was to make loads of money and work in London. All my family worked in London so I finally got this job in Kensington. It took two hours to get into work and I remember standing on the platform one day thinking, ‘what am I doing? This was my goal, I’ve achieved it and I don’t feel good about it at all’. I’d almost taken on the people around me’s goals and hadn’t thought about what I wanted. I just thought then and there, ‘I’m going to have a career change’ and I’d always wanted to teach…
With that, Katie joined the University of Essex at twenty two, opting to study Early Years Education with a focus on forest schools which offer children outdoor education. At the same time, she worked for the Essex Wildlife Trust in their education department.
KA. I was shocked at how little time children were spending outdoors. Even though I didn’t grow up in a rural area like this, I still played outdoors all the time as a child. I wasn’t sat in front of the TV all day, every day… It’s become the norm! Children need to be outside in nature and yet there’s such a disconnect so I really focused on that with my dissertation. The Wildlife Trust was focused on nature and just made me realise, ‘this is what I want to do.’ I always thought I’d go into education somehow but just didn’t know how.
SC.SD. Going to uni at twenty two is quite rare I think so looking back now, are you grateful for delaying your entry?
KA. I feel like it was such a good thing. When I was eighteen there was a lot of, “you’re not going to uni?!” It was a massive deal- especially for my family. But I knew exactly what I wanted to do by the time I went. I had time to experience the real world first and then go back and because I was working at the same time, I was so focused. I really recommend it so you know exactly what you want to do.
SC.SD. Especially now the fees have rocketed…
KA. Oh I know. You leave uni with £40,000 worth of debt- you don’t want to be doing the wrong course! It’s not just a degree you get out of it though. I got a focus on what I wanted out of life which was to spend more time outside and to have a better quality of life. Uni gives you that opportunity – because you’re not working full time- to spend more time with friends and family and that is what life is all about. It put me off teaching too though because I shadowed this woman during uni and she started work at 7am and finished at 7pm every day and she was completely stressed out all the time! I love working with children but no way in a primary school.
Whilst she was still studying, Katie also started working on the site where Muddy Boots is based. Formally an arable farm, the owners have turned it into a recreational holiday farm with barns to rent for long weekends. Katie now lives on site herself working part-time, first in the Farm Shop Café and now as their Business Manager…
KA. They had a couple of animals when I moved here- two pigs and two goats – and I helped out a couple of days and enjoyed it, so my boyfriend at the time booked us this course in Wales where you stayed on this farm and just had a little go at everything …
SC.SD. That is my dream holiday!
KA. I know! I just thought, ‘you know what? I’m loving this!’ So I got some chickens in my back garden and from there it spiralled… In my last year at uni, one of the assignments was ‘plan your future’ where you had to break down each step and I thought, ‘my main goal is to work somewhere where I have more control over what I’m doing, I don’t want to be stuck in an office, I want to be learning, I want to be teaching… what can I do?’ And I didn’t realise it but I was creating the business plan for Muddy Boots Farm.
Looking back now, I didn’t sit down and think ‘I’m going to set up a farm’. It just grew out of experiences and I think in business you have to be quite adaptable anyway…
SC.SD. Just go with it?
SC.SD. So post-uni, you were helping out here… I’m intrigued to know why you chose to stay here. Was it just a case of one day asking, “actually can I set up my own farm please?!”
KA. Basically yes! As soon as I finished uni they said, “right, we don’t want you to leave so here’s a full time job” and I said “I’ll take it because I haven’t worked out how I’m going to make Muddy Boots happen yet!” I was honest so I didn’t string them along!
Finding the land on my own was a nightmare though. Because property is so expensive around here because of the links to London I was looking at Wales and Norfolk and I had all these plans but couldn’t quite get what I wanted so it was taking longer than expected. I spent ages trawling through internet sites but it was so hard. I was explaining to my bosses what I wanted to do and they were like “ask this guy, ask this guy…” but nothing came from it. But the classroom on the farm is an old World War Two cinema…
SC.SD. The bunker where the piglets are?
KA. Yeh! It’s where all the troops would sit and watch their training videos!
SC.SD. The history geek in me loves this!
KA. I love all that as well! But a couple of people had approached my boss and said “can I use it for this, can I use it for that?” and he said no- he was really keen on keeping it original. So I said, “look I know you really love that building. How about I take a little bit and turn it into this idea?”
SC.SD. Did you have to gear yourself up for that conversation or was it quite casual?
KA. No, no, I completely freaked out about it for about three weeks! I’m better at writing things down than saying it so in the end I made this little presentation because I really wanted to sell it to him… He spoke to his wife about it because at first he wasn’t so sure but she said, “if we don’t do this, Katie is going to move to Wales and we’ve lost an employee” and they’re good like that, they invest in their staff. So they ended up saying, “you’ve got three months to come up with a final idea” and that was a year ago…
SC.SD. Wow! And what did it feel like when they said that because “prove yourself” is very different to “100% we’re in” isn’t it?
KA. Yes definitely! I never thought this isn’t going to work though. I always had faith in it but I knew I had to be adaptable because not everything would work out. To begin with, I had loads of different clubs, I had a farm shop and an open day and in the first six months last summer, I just worked out 1. What made me money 2. What I enjoyed and 3. What visitors enjoyed so this spring I’ll just stick to those. It was such hard work doing everything but it was important in my first year to do that because it made me realise what worked. I never thought, ‘what if this all goes wrong’ though because I just knew it would work. Even if this bit goes wrong, I’ll make it work some other way.
SC.SD. I can relate to that. Talk to me about the logistics of what you had to do in those three months to get this place up and running….
KA. So when they first said, “go for it”, they had their pigs and goats which were pets but the goats were massive and had huge horns and I said, “I’ve got under-five’s coming in… no way!” So they were moved! I kept the pigs and I moved my chickens down here and then it was a case of, ‘what are the basic animals people want to see and that are easy for children to look after?’
I have to think about safety all the time so I couldn’t have anything with horns, anything too big or boys because they tend to be more aggressive. Also, because it’s a small holding, I do eat some of them or the produce from them so every animal had to pay for itself and provide activities for the children. They can groom them, feed them, walk them, clean them…
SC.SD. That makes sense. What about all the health and safety checks, DPS checks etc… When you’re dealing with members of the public – children especially – I imagine it’s not straight forward?!
KA. No way! Luckily, when I was doing my final year assignment I really went above and beyond because I knew it was for my business so I did some market research and interviewed some parents. I basically said, “ifyou were booking me, what would you want me to have?” and that was so valuable. Market research is one of those things where you’re like, “do I have to?!” but it was so valuable because not being a parent myself I wasn’t aware of what they look for.
SC.SD. Which was?
KA. Things like, “I only book people who are first aid trained, have a DBS check, food and hygiene certificates…” So when I was still at uni, I thought, ‘I might as well get these things done’ because once you start a business it’s so hectic; the last thing you want to do is a two day course. The council have to inspect the building just before you open too so that was stressful because so much was going on that week… You have to do risk assessments for every single activity you do on the farm, fire drills… There’s a lot but the best thing to do is to spread it out because had I done all of that the week before I opened, I would’ve lost it. I feel like I slept for a week after the launch!
SC.SD. I’m not surprised! Let’s talk about the launch!
KA. I had two hundred children turn up on the open day…!
SC.SD. Oh my gosh!
KA. It was crazy… But I learnt from that! Basically, my bosses’ café had an Easter Egg hunt on so I had an Open Day. It would be free, people can learn what this is all about and hopefully they’ll book sessions off the back of it… but then loads of people turned up. I mean it was good… I had some friends and family come down and help but it was quite chaotic. We had one pygmy goat get out and one sheep go into the goat pen… oh and a child fell in some stinging nettles!
SC.SD. As far as dramas go though, in the grand scheme of things when you’re dealing with two hundred people, that sounds like quite a success if you ask me!?
KA. Yes definitely and I suppose the good thing about that was because it was so chaotic, worst case scenario, these are the things that can happen. I got rid of the stinging nettles, I put a temporary pen up so the goats can’t get out and I always have someone on gates now to keep the animals in!
SC.SD. That’s a lot of pressure!
KA. It is a lot of pressure! I I get why other people don’t do it because the stress and financial side probably isn’t worth it but I genuinely think it’s important for the children and I also think a lot of parents want that.
SC.SD. What did it feel like when everyone went home on Open Day!?
KA. Amazing! I was running on adrenaline all day, it was such a high, but when it finished I slept for a week! It was so amazing though to have an idea in your head and then to be able to look at the farm and it’s here. It’s so surreal. When you spend so much time thinking about something, when you eventually get there you don’t realise how much work you’ve been putting in and for how long.
SC.SD. Absolutely! I’ve seen recently how active you are on Twitter… what’s your main marketing tool to get the word out there?
KA. A lot of parents are on Facebook so that’s been the best thing for the business. I did competitions on there like, ‘name the goat’ and I started way before the doors were open. I also promote myself on Twitter and try and get as much coverage as possible. I appeared in the Guardian once- just a comment on female farmers- but Muddy Boots Farm is then in a national paper. Social media is my main marketing tool though but you have to keep on top of it and that’s my problem…
SC.SD. Mine too!
KA. It’s so hard! The good thing about the farm though is that I’m there every day so I can just take a picture of one of the animals and people love it!
SC.SD. Have you had any days where you’ve wanted to walk away?
KA. YES. The hardest thing for all farmers is winter and this has been my first. Even though I got the keys last January, I was so busy every single day. I finished work at 5pm, I’d have a quick dinner, get my thermals on and work until 10pm every day before opening in April and it completely wiped me out, yes, but it got me through that period. I really struggled in January this year.
It’s important to be realistic with people though because if you have your own business there’s going to be days like that. Even though I love it, I’m not going to pretend that every day is amazing because it’s not and you’re probably going to understand this but when you’re working on your own, it’s so hard to motivate yourself. If you’re having an off day in the office, you talk to the girls and they pick you up whereas down on the farm, if I’m having an off day, everything still has to get done. The animals are relying on me.
It’s been so wet this winter and sometimes I just think ‘why am I doing this?’ If I was a teacher, I’d have a nice warm classroom, I’d have a regular pay cheque each month but that’s not what’s going to drive me.
SC.SD. But you’d also have all that stress and I know this too comes with its fair share of stress but…
KA. It’s a different kind of stress, it’s on your own terms and when the summer comes, nothing beats it. When you’re outside and everyone else is stuck in an office and you’re surrounded by animals with the sun beaming down on you, you can’t beat that feeling.
I’m quite a social person so for me the hardest thing has been working on my own- it’s what I struggle with most. That’s what is so good about Twitter though. I know a lot of our generation are on Instagram but there’s a huge community for farmers on Twitter and there’s a huge focus on the mental health of farmers because they’re on their own so much. It can be so isolating but Twitter is amazing because I can post a question and you get that interaction. It’s a social thing.
SC.SD. Has anything gone drastically wrong?
KA. People say don’t work with children and don’t work with animals…
SC.SD. And you’re doing both..!
KA. And I’m doing both so things go wrong all the time! In farming, animals get sick and animals die and the first time I got a sick animal I thought, ‘oh my god this is terrible! I’m responsible for this animal and I’ve let this happen’ but you can’t blame yourself for everything. My first sheep died this year, on New Year’s Day in fact and I completely beat myself up about it. It had pneumonia and I spoke to people on Twitter and they said “this happens all the time; as long as you’re not neglecting animals which you’re clearly not doing, you’re fine.”
I do really struggle with that though and I think that’s partly because I don’t come from a farming background because all the animals I’ve owned previously have been pets.
A few days before this interview took place, one of Katie’s pigs unexpectedly went into labour… Though I got to meet some gorgeous little piglets after our chat, unfortunately a couple were trampled on by Mother Pig (!) at birth.
KA. It was awful! Pig Mums are the worst Mum’s in the world!
SC.SD. And again, was it a case of going on to Twitter and asking, “are pig’s supposed to be this useless?!”
KA. I did! I ran home, grabbed my piglet manual trying to find some information (!) then went on Twitter and learned that yes, pig Mum’s are in fact crap! If that had happened a year ago, I would have been an absolute mess but you do toughen up!
SC.SD. See it’s so funny because I’ve watched so many animal documentaries and to this day, if an animal dies I’m sat there sobbing at twenty-five like, “WHY?!” Mum was forever saying, “it’s the circle of life Fi” and I’d just be sat there thinking, “I don’t give a shit, it’s just so mean!”
SC.SD. Anyway (!) let’s talk highs…
KA. Having children on the farm is brilliant; especially children that haven’t been before because I’ve got children that come all the time now which is great. Even having the parents around is great because seeing them watch the children having fun feels good because I hope they’re then more inclined to spend more time outdoors with them.
We don’t always do farm stuff, we do lots of nature based things too so we go around and look at habitats and nature trails… Knowing that they can do that in their back garden and take that home with them always feels good…
SC.SD. I have such a hideous memory of primary school… Did you ever hear that rumour about cutting a worm in half and it survives?
SC.SD. I remember trying it in the school playground and it died right there and then and I remember just thinking, ‘erm, this is not what I signed up for! Why do I have two halves of a dead worm in front of me?’
KA. I take it that wasn’t part of an organised activity!?
SC.SD. No no! This was probably eight year old Fiona’s wildlife club…! “Gather round everyone!” So please don’t try that with the kids!
KA. Hahaha I won’t, don’t worry! That is a high though! When the kids are having fun and the animals are behaving!
SC.SD. You’ve mentioned that at the beginning, not everything you tried worked… Talk to me about some of the things that have taken you by surprise since launching…
KA. When I first opened people said, “oh you should open a farm shop” so on the first Sunday of every month I had an Open Day where you could walk around the farm and come into the farm shop. My market research said that’s what people would come for but it’s a lot of set up time, it’s a lot of investment because of the food and hygiene certificates etc.. and it’s made no money at all. It was a loss in fact and that really shocked me because everything on paper said it would work. I think it’s important to remember that in practice, just because you’ve done your research, it doesn’t mean it will work!
I also offered loads of types of sessions from one hour up to four hours and the longer the session the more interest I have and that was really surprising for me. I thought parents would just want to drop them off and pick them up an hour later.
Oh and birthday parties – oh my god they’re so popular- and I only did that because someone asked and I said yes! There’re normally ten kids so that’s instantly ten slots filled. They’re so hyper at the parties though! I remember on my first one, one of the Mum’s said “you’re going to sleep well tonight!” and I did.
That’s another thing. I didn’t realise how exhausting it would be! Because the children are focused on you and they’re constantly asking questions it can be so tiring. I thought financially, I could do a couple of sessions a day but realistically I’m so exhausted by the time the first is over, I don’t want the second group to think, ‘oh she’s dull!’
SC.SD. Haha I’m tired after a few hours with my Goddaughter so I take my hat off to you! So it’s just been a case of adapt and move on then?
KA. Definitely! The thing with farms is you have to diversify in so many ways to survive so to help pay the rent for the farm for instance, every time a group stays in one of my bosses’ barns, they get a little pot of jam, eggs and some fudge and I make that at home in my kitchen. It’s my time but it barely costs me a thing. So I have my lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, ducks and eggs which I mainly sell to family and friends… and now jam and fudge for guests!
SC.SD. You mentioned that no one you know is from a farming background so how did everyone react to this initially and have their reactions evolved over time?
KA. My family are completely not farmy people so when I first started my Mum thought I was crazy- I don’t think she saw the business at all! I didn’t want to take on people’s opinions too much because you can lose faith if you’re surrounded by people that are constantly questioning whether it will work so I just thought, ‘I’m just going to show everyone it will work’ and kept it to myself for ages.
It’s two sides because I didn’t have the support as I was building it but I do now. None of my friends are from farming backgrounds either so if I want a weekend away it’s great because they always offer to look after the farm- they see it as a fun weekend trip! My Mum brings all her friends down from London to visit the animals! But I do think a lot of people thought I was crazy and just wanted animals but it spurred me on. I did want animals but I also wanted to make this work.
SC.SD. Naturally, if someone says “you won’t be able to do that”…
KA. I’d say, “watch me!” My parents are very risk averse, they’d never want to work for themselves and I’ve always thought life is worth more than money and to this day I stick by that. I think a lot of people get caught up in the London rat race and so many people I know think it’s normal to hate your job and it’s so not the case. You’re always going to have down days but you should never be in a job that you hate.
Sometimes I worry that people think I don’t work hard because I still work part time as a Business Manager and that’s a huge hurdle I still need to get over. I was so used to saying, “I work sixty hours a week” in London and using that as justification that I was doing well in life whereas now I’m like, “well I work three days a week there and I run my own farm” and then I worry, ‘does that sound like I’m working hard enough?’
SC.SD. I can relate to that so much. I often find myself falling back on my old career to justify that I work hard when in reality I’m working harder than I ever have before!
KA. I’m glad I’m not the only one! I wish you could justify it on how much happier you are! Because I close over winter, people often assume that I must have loads of free time and it’s just not the case. Just because I don’t run sessions with the kids, I still have to look after the animals. I’ve got sheep in lamb, I’ve got piglets I wasn’t expecting but this time of year I feel myself justifying that I do work hard more!
SC.SD. Has your social life taken a big hit then?
KA. Absolutely. The social side is hard. Leading up to the opening, I didn’t have a social life at all. I’d say to people, “you can come and see me but you’ll be on the farm too” and this was before I’d explained what I was doing so I think a lot of people thought, ‘what’s going on with Katie? She’s just disappeared’. I’ve always seen my family religiously but now the farm is here and they’re not nearby, I have to be here twice a day to feed the animals 365 days a year so I really struggle with that.
I also think when you run your own business, people think you can just cancel something because you’re in control of your diary…
SC.SD. And it’s so not the case!
KA. Exactly. They think, ‘you run the business, just go home early’ but you can’t. I think relationship wise, you need a very understanding partner because you’re always working or thinking about work- it becomes a 24/7 aspect of your life and you have to adapt.
SC.SD. Favourite quote?
KA. “You can do anything but you can’t do everything” I’ve always wanted to do loads and loads of things in my life because I think variety is the spice of life – there’s another one for you!- but when you put pressure on yourself to do everything, it goes wrong. I’d rather do a couple of things really well.
SC.SD. Absolutely. How would you describe yourself as a business woman?
KA. Oh no! Erm… I’d say I’m driven, passionate and I’m quite organised but I’m probably not the best at making financial decisions. I want everyone to enjoy themselves and that’s my downfall.
SC.SD. Do you think that will come with time?
KA. I think so. I’m getting better and I’m making decisions where I stick to what I enjoy but what still makes money but because my whole income isn’t relying solely on the farm yet, I don’t have to rely too heavily on finance. Also, I don’t want it to become so money driven that it all becomes about that.
SC.SD. It would defeat the point of leaving London…
SC.SD. Can you see yourself taking on staff soon?
KA. This is the thing. I’m a bit of a control freak and I’ve got all my qualifications so to get someone in, train them up and pay them a wage is a huge responsibility. Last summer I had a few girls that I called on that were doing their GCSEs and it was so great to have a helping hand. They’re not relying on me for an income, they were just on their summer holidays so that’s probably how I’d arrange it going forward. It would be nice to have a day off every now and then though…! It would be beneficial for the business but it’s that next jump and I’m just not ready for it yet.
SC.SD. Last question then, where do you see Muddy Boots going and can you see yourself here until you’re old and grey?
KA. Hmmm, I don’t know. The thing that I struggle with is that I don’t own the land so there are a lot of restrictions which means I can never do fully what I want to do. My plan is to eventually buy somewhere on my own. I love my job here. I love the area and the people but long term I want to buy my own place and build my own farm!
I also really want to do some educational videos in the summer with the kids because I know a lot of kids can’t come down here whether it’s due to finances or where they’re from – say they lived in Central London – but I still want them to learn. I’d love to vlog a day on the farm!
SC.SD. Never mind the kids, I’d want to watch that! I genuinely think what you’ve done here is so incredible. Given that you didn’t grow up on a farm and didn’t inherit this place, it’s so inspiring to hear what you’ve done to make this happen.
KA. Thank you! That’s the thing about farming… when I first went into it I thought you had to be born into a farm but do you remember the program ‘Jimmy’s Farm’?
SC.SD. I loved that program!
KA. I remember watching that and he wasn’t born into farming and I’ve watched the series back now and read his books and read a few other books about first-generation farmers and it gave me the confidence to think ‘if they can do it, I can do it.’
Having been an avid Countryfile fan for as long as I can remember, I made a mental note about the kind of stories I’d want to feature when I launched She can. She did. and finding a young, first generation, female farmer was near enough at the top of my list.
Suffice to say, in no way did Katie Anderson’s story disappoint.
Even if launching a farm isn’t on the top of your wish list (!) there are so many valuable lessons to take from Katie’s open-minded attitude to business; her ability to pivot in the direction of what works; and her determination to prioritise her own happiness over the flash job that made her miserable; that make her a woman that deserves every bit of praise that comes her way.
It’s so easy to think, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have a farm?’ but the complexities of what needs to be done to put that statement into practice – let alone when you add educating young children into the mix – are overwhelming to just think about, let alone do and are enough, let’s be honest, to put a lot of people off.
But Katie’s final words are ones that I swear by and can be applied to whatever idea is bubbling away as you read this now. “If they can do it, so can I.”
Katie did and the results speak for themselves.