For three generations Joel Kerr’s family have farmed a hilly patch of land in Tyghan in Co Tyrone. Now Joel – also known as The Curious Farmer – has revolutionised his family’s farming by introducing effective ways to produce great tasting food that is also good for the environment.
However, despite his success farming was not initially part of Joel’s plan.
“I wouldn’t say I took the traditional farming route of going straight from school into the farm. I went to university and worked in Belfast and Holywood,” Joel explains.
“And then I suppose I got to a stage where I had to decide whether to really invest a lot of time into the job that I was in or come home and farm.
“It was always in the back of my mind that I would come home and farm so whenever I was faced with that decision, I thought that was the right time - that was about 10 years ago.”
Joel started managing the farm with his father in 2014, with his responsibilities gradually increasing over time.
“When you grow up on a farm you just get used to working with your parents. I’ve been going out and picking spuds with my dad and helping with the cows since I young and even when I was working in Belfast, I was always home at the weekends helping him out so working with him feels really normal.
“There’s always going to be a wee bit of a power struggle, but we get on well,” he laughs.
Since coming home and working on the farm full time Joel has worked hard to reintroduce native breeds, successfully transitioning their cattle from a mix of continental breeds to a predominantly Shorthorn heard which are famed for their flavoursome and marbled meat.
“When I started looking at beef from a more culinary point of view the focus was always on the native breeds because they were slow growing, they had better marbling, and they were better for our landscape they thrived better on native fodder so that’s really where my interest in them came from.
“So, I started trying out different native breeds like Longhorn, Irish Moiled and Dexter and we ended up settling on Shorthorn because they suited our system and they were a bit more developed than a lot of the other breeds.”
To ensure his produce is to the highest possible standard Joel uses the same traditional techniques his family have been using for generations which also benefits the environment - something he is equally passionate about.
“I think the farm was always heading in an environmentally friendly direction but since we’ve gone down the native breed route that’s really helped because those breeds really suit our environment, they do well on rougher grass, you don’t need to be feeding them full of meal, you don’t need to be using loads of fertilisers and it was that which initially sparked my interest in looking into farming from the regenerative point of view.”
Over the past few years Joel and his family have started selling their beef to home cooks in small batches and have built a loyal customer base. They’ve also developed a range of spice blends as well as a smoked ketchup so customers can easily add in different flavours to their beef-based dishes.
“It all got a bit out of control,” admits Joel.
“Whenever I started doing the beef boxes, what I found was that people didn’t really know how to cook different cuts of beef so we came up with spice blends to give people ideas.
“We have the Mexican spice blend which you could use with mince to make the likes of burritos or we have the deep south blend that you could use as a nice rub on brisket or for sloppy joes and there’s loads of others that you could use for the likes of curry or stew.
“Farming isn’t always the most creative outlet, so it was also a way of me being creative as well.”
However, it is Joel’s Christmas pies that are quickly becoming many people’s favourite festive treat.
“The beef boxes and spice blends were really successful during lockdown because people had time to cook and wanted to cook but I found once lockdown stopped that people didn’t have the time anymore and I was selling less and less which is where the pies and the scotch eggs came in.
Between festive food fairs and Christmas markets Joel makes and sells thousands of pies over the Christmas period. Making hundreds every week in an old byre that he has converted into a production facility.
“It has been really busy, the first week of November we were selling pies at five different markets and for me that’s more than I’ve ever done, so it was big shift in comparison to doing a market or two a month like we have in previous years.
“This is really the first year we’ve done the pies at the markets properly. We go with hundreds of pies to each market and usually sell most of them so you’re constantly having to top up.”
However, with the demand being so high it is clear Joel could not do it without the help and support of his family: “My wife hasn’t really ever been involved but this past couple of months she’s definitely been vital in helping me get everything sorted out and the boys have helped as well.”
You would think, Joel would be getting to a stage now where the last thing he would want to eat is a pie. However, that is not the case.
“I’ve actually got one in the oven right now,” he tells me.
“They are that handy - you just literally stick them in and you’re good to go.
“I eat too many of them though, particularly the breakfast pie, and I’ve had to stop because I’d be going to a market and I’d have my frozen pies for the cook at home and I’d realise I’m a bit short because I’ve eaten that many myself,” he laughs.
When asked about his plans after the Christmas pie production subsides Joel says he would love to invest in a food truck so keep your eyes peeled for pies - particularly in the Lisburn and Castlereagh area (www.visitlisburncastlereagh.com or @VisitLisburnCastlereagh on Instagram) as Joel is a familiar face at their food markets.