Short cuts to success: how Joel has always had designs on farming

Sinton Kerr and son Joel on their farm at Tyghan, Co Tyrone. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Sinton Kerr and son Joel on their farm at Tyghan, Co Tyrone. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
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From Law student to graphic designer, Dungannon man Joel Kerr has certainly enjoyed a varied career. He tells LAURA MCMULLAN why he’s delighted that he made the decision to return to his roots

‘The Curious Farmer’ is a phrase that does precisely what its creator intended it to - but Joel Kerr reveals it wasn’t the first name that came to mind when he was christening his new enterprise.

He had initially conjured up something altogether more mainstream - but for anyone who knows the 37-year-old father-of-one (he and wife Sophia became parents to little Rudy back in August), they’ll agree there’s nothing uninspired about him.

And I can say this with conviction as a former fellow student of his; he was a couple of years behind me at the Royal School Dungannon, and he also went on to study Law at Queen’s University after leaving.

So our interview at his newly renovated farmhouse in rural Co Tyrone ( he lives near Greystone, which is just a few miles outside Dungannon) begins most definitely as a welcome reunion of sorts.

And I’m every bit as curious as he wants his customers to be about what he does, what he’s been doing since we last met, and the journey he’s come on since those student days, which has apparently taken him full circle right back to the farm he was reared on.

“Sitting here now, I don’t really feel like a farmer, but in half an hour I could be putting on my wellies and going out to throw silage to the cows,” the former graphic designer and business development consultant says.

“I suppose it’s what I always wanted from a job - doing something that’s not the same every day.”

Indeed, Joel’s a master at perfecting something a little bit alternative, leading the way into territory unknown.

Just five years ago he set up his business, The Curious Farmer, based at the Kerr’s family farm in Tyghan, in deepest rural Tyrone, where he sells cuts of meat from their stock in the form of recipe boxes, together with other ingredients and local produce and instructions on how to create a meal out of them.

The Kerrs have been farming on this hilly patch of land for three generations; indeed, it’s where Joel spent his childhood years together with his three sisters.

“The thing about growing up on a farm is that you’re always involved in it, even if you don’t actually realise it,” says Joel, whose father Sinton started off with crops and cows before moving to free range organic chickens.

Today, they produce 30,000 organic birds along with a small herd of pedigree cattle and sheep across their 32-hectare enterprise.

“At the time, as a career choice, farming never really entered my head. You were just helping out, but I suppose you were getting experience without even realising it.

“Even when I went to university I was always coming back to help on the farm.”

Far from putting any kind of pressure on him to leave his schooling, Joel’s dad encouraged him to stick at it, and after sitting his A levels in Maths, Chemistry and Biology, he set out for the heady lights of Belfast.

But a career in law wasn’t for him, and he decided to pursue his passion for art, undertaking a degree in Graphic design in Leeds.

He then spent a couple of years as a graphic designer for Charles Hurst on the Boucher Road, before moving to a company in Holywood where he worked in marketing and business development.

“I wasn’t unhappy or anything, but you do get to that stage in your life where you ask yourself, what do I actually want to do, as opposed to just floating through life?” he says.

“I thought, I need to start making a few decisions here - I was never a five year plan sort of person. I always just went with how I was feeling at the time.

“But I had done this for a certain length of time and it wasn’t what I wanted. And my answer was the most obvious thing in the world - I wanted to farm.”

But he was realistic about the path that lay before him, and the fact it wouldn’t always be smooth.

“Farming is tough, both financially, and as a job in itself - but it’s not all about money.

“You have to find something that makes you feel fulfilled.”

With his decision made, Joel went about what his boss described as “the most unconventional handing in of notice” he’d ever experienced.

“I basically gave him about nine months,” he laughs. “We worked to financial targets, so a certain amount of that was on me. So I said, ‘I don’t want to leave you in the lurch, I’ll leave in September to give you enough time to find somebody else.’”

Nine months later, he was true to his word, and arrived back on his parents’ doorstep, with money saved up to live on, and a determination to make a new kind of living.

With his brand settled on (the original name, by the way, for those of you ‘curious’ about what he was initially going to name his business, was ‘Seasoned Meals’) and a plan in place, he set about making his recipe boxes and building his customer base.

“I get my ideas from everywhere,” says Joel, who obviously tries out all the recipes himself, thereby literally seeing every stage of the food production process, from ‘field to fork’.

“Am I a good cook? I cook simple stuff, I don’t like anything really complicated, and I’m not the sort of person who would have 20 ingredients in a cupboard and be able to just whip up a meal.

“When I started I would have followed a recipe and assumed that because it was a recipe, it must be nice, but over time I began getting confident enough to tweak it to something I did like.”

For Joel - who has even started growing his own mushrooms - it’s that element of creativity that keeps his passion for farming burning.

“Farming has changed. People have more respect for the fact that this is where your food actually does come from, and they’re interested in that.

“They want new flavours, and they like to cook.”

From a personal point of view, he has no regrets whatsoever about leaving behind the shackles of office life and rush hour traffic for the freedom and countryside life that farming affords him.

From working in the open air, to seeing the animals he has reared from birth flourish and have young of their own, the intense satisfaction he gets from it overrides any financial benefits of a ‘better paid’ job.

“It’s definitely the best decision I could have made,” he smiles.

“I mean, yes, running your own business means you don’t have the security of a monthly wage - but I’m still much happier.

“And at the end of the day, if you have a better wage, what do you do with it? Spend it on a nice holiday a few weeks every year ?

“Your job is every day, and there are very few days where I’m unhappy. I’m never bored, and that counts for a lot.”

Curious and curiouser...

It’s five years now since Joel Kerr started selling his small batch beef packs and recipe kits, aimed at those of us who genuinely want to eat better produced and more delicious meat, but often don’t have the time to devote to deciphering the easiest way of doing that.

And that’s why The Curious Farmer does it all for you.

Joel only keeps breeds renowned for their great flavour, and they make up the major part of his recipe boxes, which also incorporate a wealth of other top notch local produce and instructions on how to turn them into tasty meals.

The Kerr family’s Shorthorn cows are reared using the traditional techniques they have always carried out.

As a native breed, they can be allowed to grow naturally and at their own pace.

Says Joel: “As a family farm we can’t compete with supermarket’s big beef supplies, but what we can do is offer small batches of top tasting beef direct from the person that reared it. A great meal starts in the field and goes through rain, gale and sunshine before reaching our plates. The good times and bad times our food goes through during it’s lifetime is what gives it flavour way before we even think of putting it in a pan. As a farmer I spend a lot of time with my animals, so it is only natural that I want the best for them. I’ve chosen to keep breeds that are famed for their great flavour and for that reason I want to be sure their meat goes to a good home. We’re always being told about the impact cows have on the environment, and if we’re going to eat meat we should know how it was reared and we should eat less of it.

“Given how busy we all are, it isn’t always easy to do this, so our recipe kits are here to help!

“Our Curious Farmer Recipe Kits are a collection of delicious, simple to follow meat and meat-free recipes designed for conscious consumers with busy lives.

“We have beef recipe kits for every cut of the cow which can be teamed up with rare-breed meat from our farm. “For those looking to eat more vegetarian or vegan meals we also have a selection of equally delicious meat-free recipe kits to get you started.”

Cow’s about that...

It was a chance relationship with a “really nice” little restaurant in the North Down suburb of Holywood that actually inspired Joel to start thinking about the concept behind The Curious Farmer.

“The Bay Tree in Holywood used to do really interesting menus and cook nice stuff using local produce,” he says. “So I approached them and said, ‘if I had a whole cow, what would you do with it?’

“And together, we came up with the idea that Instagram followers could track the progress of the animal on social media, and we would provide a five course meal using only cuts from that animal, so diners would know exactly what they were eating.

“It was really popular and successful, so we did another seven events over a year, and I focused only on native breed animals. I would have leftover cuts and sell them as meat packs to the public.”

From there, Joel started to do wedding catering, again using produce from his farm, and the seed was sown in his mind that he wanted to focus on this specific area - the use of “really good quality meat.”