Speaking at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference, Jan McCourt described how as an investment banker with a dream of farming, he had once envisioned building a retail targeted business which would extend well beyond the farm gate right up to ‘the breakfast, lunch and dining tables of my end consumers’. That ambition has been realised at Northfield Farm, a family-run farm and butchery which he  describes as the epitome of a small diversified family farm.

What Jan envisioned was the antithesis of the approach to food production that sees produce leaving the farm to disappear into the commodity food industry, what has become known as Big Food, where what we eat is controlled by multi-national corporations. The OFC session that he took part in was labelled “Food and drink: bringing people together” and what he and his family have built at Northfield Farm is a food business that forges a direct link to bring producer and consumer together.

Jan says: “For a long time, farming hasn’t seen the need to take its products to the end consumer and has handed it over to Big Food. Food has become a commodity and we need to de-commoditise it. For all the horrors of the Covid years, they made a big difference in the understanding of good food. The politicians don’t understand it, but people in the street do, and there has been a shift in the consumer’s understanding of the value of food.”

Explaining what led to the dream of farming, Jan describes a family background that harks back generations to rural Ireland. He says: “I was brought up in an environment that valued eating properly, simply and well – where meat came from was ingrained. I studied law and went into banking, but food remained important, and the natural way to buy meat was to go to the butcher.”

During his 14 years of “running around the world”, Jan needed a weekend antidote and bought a smallholding in the Fens. He kept horses for many years and had added cattle “as a grazing management tool”. He shopped for food “the natural way” and enjoyed the experience of cooking and sharing it. In the meantime, he was reading Farmers’ Weekly alongside the Financial Times and planning for the future.

While Jan continued his career in the City he thought about a farming future. He says: “I was researching and planning what I would do when I had my own farm. What swiftly became evident to me was that the accepted definition of farming only covered the activity that went up to the proverbial farm gate and no further. Back then, I saw immediately that my definition of farming would extend well beyond the farm gate, right up to the breakfast, lunch and dining tables of my end consumers. 

“I would focus on two things: story and people. Key to my plan was that mine would be a retail targeted business, with little or no ambition for sales into restaurants, hotels or – heaven forbid – supermarkets. Then, a few days after formulating this grand dream, I was made redundant. On the train back to Leicestershire, I came to the decision that I would make a go of the farming business and I 
stepped off the train planning to open a farm shop and butchery.”

By this time, Jan’s family had moved from the smallholding to Northfield Farm on the Leicestershire/Rutland border where they had built a sizeable herd of Dexters, Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs and Greyface Dartmoor sheep. In October 1997 the small farm shop opened. By the following February, the business was on the verge of bankruptcy. Back then, customers weren’t much interested in things like food provenance, buying largely on price. Jan says: “We just couldn’t get people interested in the meat we were selling. We were pricing it properly, which people thought was too expensive, and carcase balance was a massive problem – no-one wanted the less popular cuts. To try to get over this, we started producing burgers and ready meals, but we simply weren’t getting the footfall to sustain the business.”

With a very real threat looming of losing not only the business, but also the family home, Jan took a call from the BBC Radio 4 programme On Your Farm who wanted to talk to the banker-turned-farmer. He was to be interviewed by Oliver Walston, a very outspoken and powerful personality in the farming world. Jan says: “When he arrived, Oliver was very sceptical – I think he expected to see the red braces, pinstripe suit and Porsche. Instead he found a youngish couple with two babies, living a chaotic life and trying to make a go of doing things properly. It wasn’t until we shared a meal and he tasted what we were talking about that the tone changed. He really sat up and went from critic to champion. The programme went out that Sunday and two minutes after it ended at 7.30am, the phone started ringing and barely stopped for the next year.”

Still with just a tiny on-farm shop where “three is definitely a crowd”, word spread and media interest grew. A grant and some free help from a young web development business helped Northfield Farm launch online sales and then Jan took a stall at a small farmers’ market in Shepshed. He says: “This signalled a massive change. Coming home from that market with cash in my pocket was very galvanising. It was an affirmation of the dream.”

The real turning point came in 1999 with an invitation to take part in what was to become the revival of Borough Market in London, an old wholesale market in decline where plans had been made to hold a regular retail market on the third Saturday of each month.

Jan explains: “At that time, we were still struggling to shift the cheaper cuts of meat, so for our first time at Borough Market, we hand pressed 1,000 burgers and I bought a cheap gas barbecue to cook them. We were the only people cooking at the market and we were swamped. We sold everything, with the raw meat selling off the back of the success of our burgers.”

Today, Northfield Farm has a permanent presence at Borough Market, which in 2023 saw over 30 million people walking through or nearby. Jan says: “Borough Market helped us weave together a team of extraordinary people, both at the farm and in London. 

We became part of a small group of producers who were engaging with customers and we slowly began to make sales and create relationships with customers which continue to this day. In fact, the children of those original customers have gone on to become  customers themselves.” 

There are also weekly stalls at Uppingham and Oakham markets – as well as the still-tiny on-farm shop. Pre-Covid, Northfield Farm 
had built up a significant street food trade, working festivals around the country. Jan says: “Street food gave us a £1 million a year  turnover, but that died overnight and initially it seemed unlikely that the business would survive. However, during lockdown, food took on a new identity and buying, cooking and sharing food provided a degree of salvation to people.”

Before investing in his first cattle, Jan had read up about native breeds in Stephens’ Book of the Farm, written in the 1800s. Starting with a few Dexters as grazing management tools and building up to around 250 head, Northfield Farm continued to base its business on native breeds. In 1997, it was accredited by RBST’s meat marketing scheme and Jan says that he has always been drawn to rare breeds. When his son Leo joined the farm, they came out of Dexters and now keep White Parks – a particular passion of Jan’s – Angus, Angus-White Park cross and Beef Shorthorn. Jan says: “Through our involvement with rare breeds we have met some incredibly kind people who have a real understanding of the connection between the breed and the product.”

From the earliest days, Northfield has worked with other like-minded producers to supplement the produce from their own cattle and sheep, encouraging others to breed, rear and finish rare and traditional breeds. It has what it describes as an ‘informal co-operative’ with suppliers around the country, enabling them to offer a full range of meat and poultry. Meat is butchered on farm and many of the products, including dry-cured bacons, sausages, black pudding and charcuterie are made on farm. The farming side of the business is now in the hands of Leo, while Jan remains very much involved, and Dominic, his second son, is responsible for the Borough Market butchery.

Asked to describe his business, Jan says: “When I first bought my smallholding, I came across the term butcher/grazier, which I had never heard before, and that is essentially what we are. We are a small diversified family farm that has built a much larger meat business on a vision to take farm produce direct to the end consumer.”