By Karen Carruth

Photographs: Emma Cheape

Farming is a tough gig. Highs and lows are a daily issue. Everyone has to deal with machinery breakdowns, and unexpected hurdles, but how do you deal with knowing that you’ve made a decision that could put your business at risk?

Steve Mitchell of the Buffalo Farm, in Kirkcaldy, and well-kent face from This Farming Life, had to face up to a tough time last year when he realised that the successful business he had built up could be in jeopardy, and he had to deal with it in the public eye, under the scrutiny of the BBC’s cameras.

If you watched the programme, you’ll know that Steve was delighted to import a herd of milking buffalo ready for his new venture, which was to begin producing his own buffalo mozzarella.

The parlour was going to be built, the business plan looked good and things were ready to take off. Then, the project had collapsed, and the buffalo were being sent back to Holland where he bought them from.

What happened?

I meet Steve at his Bothy restaurant which opened next to his existing farm shop at the end of last year, near Kirkaldy. Steve’s a talker, a natural in front of the camera and passionate about his produce, and he didn’t have a problem sharing what he, and the business, went through.

“Last year was a tough time, no question. I was approached almost two years ago from a gent who was keen on setting up a mozzarella site in Scotland, a plan that I had talked about for the past decade really, it was one of the goals of getting buffalo in the first place.

“He had a business plan already and it seemed crazy to set up in competition when we had similar goals, so we investigated setting up together.

“I got into the beef side of the business first as it didn’t need such a big investment, and we didn’t want the beef to be considered a by-product of the mozzarella.

“I knew that if we established the meat first, we could develop a market which would give us a good foundation to then launch the milking side of things, I’ve worked on this for almost 15 years. It has been the backbone of the business from day one.”

You can’t run a business on buffalo alone, and Steve explained the other diversifications he has set up in order to make the business viable.

“In order to make that work we’ve had to diversify, and that’s not been easy. We do events catering, where we sell our meat at music festivals, at Murrayfield, we do more than 50 events a year, including private corporate events and weddings. The catering side is significant, and the most profitable part of our business.

“In order to provide enough product for our catering business, we have ended up with three butcher’s shops. One here, just outside Auchtertool, one at Craigies Farm Shop and one at Blacketyside Farm in Leven.

“What people don’t realise is that through these shops, buffalo meat makes up only 10% of what we sell. We sell more online to be fair, and we have a wholesale business too where we sell to restaurants, schools, hotels, and in that sector buffalo makes up 20% of the total.

“The other 80% is our beef, lamb, pork, and chicken, but without the unique selling point of buffalo, we wouldn’t have gotten through the door.

“Part of the success is that we are producing meat that has a provenance and a story, which is important to consumers these days that they know where their food comes from.”

Mozarella plan

“We made a lot of plans with the guy I had gone into partnership with. He was well connected, experienced in this business, and we finalised the business plan together. He was going to develop the wholesale business with his contacts.

“We won a Food Processing Marketing and Co-operation Grant Scheme from Scottish Government, which was a terrific boost. We agreed a certain amount of money would be put forward by this individual and we would have a 50/50 partnership. I was quite happy.

“My main objective was to get cows organised for milking, and it was important to get ones with a good milk yield, so I travelled across most of Europe to learn about buffalo, which really inspired me.”

As an aside, Steve talks about the numbers of buffalo being milked in the world. There’s more than a million being milked in Italy, a significant population in Holland now and there’s two or three herds in the UK, as well as one in Cork, which is Macroom Mozzarella.

Steve has become good friends with the owner, Johnny Lynch, who has been a huge help with the business plan, and helping to predict future figures.

All was going well. He sourced his herd from Holland, and with the grant money ready to go, it looked like they were ready to throw the switch and start building the parlour.

“At this point, we had stretched the business with the knowledge that this investment was coming in, we had fast-forwarded our plans for The Bothy restaurant and got it up and running. And that’s when the bombshell hit – he didn’t have the money to back the plan.

“I was gutted. It turns out that he was relying on his previous employers putting up the money, but they came back not with the agreed 50/50 plan, they wanted 75/25. I was backed into a corner, but I knew that I wasn’t going to go for that deal.”

Steve knew that he had compromised the business, they had stretched themselves massively, and he freely admits he spent many a sleepless night worrying about what would happen if the business went under, when he had in the region of 40 staff relying on him.

“It was really the lowest point that I’ve ever experienced. I had to dig really deep to get out there and put a smile on my face. It was in the middle of filming This Farming Life, which made things even more difficult. Inside I was concerned I might not be in business any more. Putting on a brave face was really challenging.”

At that point Steve found himself in deep water financially with a herd of milking buffalo that was of no use to him.

By chance, the chap he bought the buffalo from had phoned him to see how he was getting on.

He laughs when he says it, as it was such an understatement. “No very well actually, Walter,” was the answer.

Walter said: “Let me see what I can do,” as buffalo are in huge demand in Holland and he quickly found a buyer.

The buffalo went back to Holland and at this point it was about saving the business.

Steve continues: “Miraculously, and it was miraculous in my mind, our sales went up and up. In hindsight I can see what happened, but at that time, my glass was half empty and I was struggling to see any positives.

“We stretched ourselves to get The Bothy built and open and it started to bring in a whole new range of customers who came for the restaurant, but then went into the farm shop and started buying.

“People loved what they bought here, and they came back for more. It gathered momentum, even though the farm shop has been open for five years, this (The Bothy) gave it a real boost in sales.”

The Bothy has got busier and busier, so much so that people are already asking when they are expanding as it is often full.

Steve continues: “The Bothy saved us, there’s no question. The bank was putting pressure on us to come up with something.

“My grandfather had a saying that came to mind. “The banks are great at giving umbrellas when the sun is out, but delighted to take it away when it starts to rain”, I thought of that often, because it was certainly raining.

“It was the first time I wasn’t sleeping. My mates were great to be honest, they reminded me how hard we had worked to get where we were, and how we had a good business and not to lose confidence and to believe in what we were trying to do. It was hard to think about future plans at that point, as we were concentrating on keeping the place afloat.”

The customers coming to The Bothy and buying produce at the farm shop got the fire going again in Steve.

He shakes his head: “Who knew that goat cuddles would be so successful. It filled the place during the summer. One day we had 600 kids here cuddling goats, and come rain or shine they came. We had to put on shuttle buses from Kirkcaldy as the car park couldn’t cope.”

What now?

The plan was down but it wasn’t out. The grant authority was sympathetic to Steve’s situation, and despite the pressures on the project, they gave him some slack to find a way of funding the mozzarella plan.

The business had to come up with another plan to fund the build of the mozzarella plant.

“The grant authority has given me until the end of October to make this happen. We are working to an incredibly tight build time, so we have to have it built by March 31 next year, to meet the demands of the grant. It’s do-able but it’s tight.”

Having just met Steve, I can already see that he’s not one for shirking a challenge.

They took advice and came up with an ingenious plan to launch a crowdfunding scheme to raise the £800k needed to get the plant up and going.

“We do genuinely feel that we have come up with a formula that is unique. It’s a really good deal for customers and it’s good for the business.”

What’s the deal?

The Buffalo Farm launched their crowdfunding scheme with the intention of raising £800k, to top up the grant and the bank loan that it has organised to get into business.

Briefly, as there is quite a lot of options to invest, customers, and so far, 450 plus have got on board, agree to pay the company a certain amount of money depending on how much they want to invest.

There are three tiers of investment, the Buffalo Farm Supporters Club, the Buffalo Farm Founders Club and the Buffalo Farm Founders Executive Club.

You can come in at £100, £1000 or £10,000 (of course, you can invest multiple hundreds or thousands too). There is a strict four-year plan, during which time investors would receive returns on their membership card.

Returns work out at a 10% (can be 12% for larger investors) return annually. To clarify, if you invest £100, you will get access to a whole host of offers and discounts plus other benefits.

If you invest £1000, you receive £100 etc. Some investors have already decided what they want to spend their money on – their weekly shop, lunches at The Bothy, or hiring a BBQ for their wedding.

There are many options, and you also get various special membership privileges, like farm tours, discounts on services etc.

After four years of the business running successfully, the founders and executive founders will receive their money back. It’s a little like a loan.

Steve says: “Without our founders we wouldn’t be able to make this happen. I am aiming to exceed their expectations to be honest, as they have exceeded mine. It is important to me that over the next four years that they get a sense of being part of something unique, special and interesting.”

Crowdfunding doesn’t have to be so complicated, why this way?

“I didn’t have the time to deal with the bureaucracy of the other crowdfunding routes and they often take a big percentage.

“I recognise it’s a big commitment for people, but after four years we will be paying them back, that’s the important part, so for the next four years it is vitally important that the business plan delivers so that we can pay these people back.

“We took advice from lawyers and thought, let’s see what we can do ourselves. They have advised us on how to keep this agreement watertight for both sides and so far, it looks like we are very close to reaching our target.

“Being in This Farming Life has helped springboard us into people’s living rooms, I will say to any farmers thinking of taking part in the programme, it was nothing but a massive positive for us. I am very proud to have been part of it.”

What’s the plan?

There’s no standing still when time is tight, a cheesemaker has already been employed.

“The site is ready to go at Bankhead Farm, adjacent to my family farm, which is really important to me. Bankhead was a dairy farm so it is well laid out already for what we need.”

The great thing about mozzarella is that you can milk the buffalo in the morning and the cheese is ready in the afternoon. The sooner people eat it the more they will be blown away by it. At the moment, the UK spends £80m a year importing mozzarella.

The business model will follow that of the other mozzarella farms he has visited, with the farm milking around 100 of their own buffalo females, while taking on milk from other producers. The farm in Holland where Steve got his females from, has around 20 farms supplying the business, and that is what Steve hopes will happen here.

“Our own herd will be the flagship where people can come and see what we are doing, but our processing plant is designed to process ten times the milk we can produce on our own. I would love to encourage other farmers to start milking buffalo as a partnership or on contract.

“We currently can’t produce enough buffalo meat to meet demand. Under our business plan we are proposing to pay £1.20 a litre for buffalo milk, that’s a massive increase on what dairy farmers get now.”

Not one for sitting still, apart from a massive life changing mozzarella plan, Steve has just bought in a flock of 150 Jacob sheep, that will be marketed as Juicy Jacobs, again going for that unique selling point.

“The meat is really tasty, I cross them with Texels tups and Dutch Spotted sheep, and we will see how it goes. We are going to lamb them down here at the Bothy, so that the public can see what is going on, and it is good for our grassland here to have it grazed.

He can’t have time to take on any more projects surely. He continues: “My wife does say: “No more, you’ve got enough.” But I think it’s just my personality, it’s just what I’m like, always thinking what we could do more of. We’ve got turkeys, rabbits, chickens, quail, ducks, goats, you can adopt a donkey and Shetland ponies, so I’ve got plenty to get up for in the morning.”