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Meet the gay men who have spurned city life and turned to farming

Meet the gay men who have spurned city life and turned to farming

Michael and Phil

While many young gay people may dream of leaving their small towns or rural homes moving to the city, some gay people are making the move in the opposite direction.

Two couples who have made the move spoke to Gay Star Business.

Michael and Phil

Michael Butcher and Phil Palmer have been together for 26 years. In 2009, they swapped their lives in London – where Michael was the editor of a celebrity magazine Reveal and Phil was a marketing consultant – for life in the country.

They bought themselves 40 acres of land in Newbury, Berkshire, and set about building their dream home. They even featured on C4’s Grand Designs.

‘We originally just wanted to have a weekend country place,’ says Michael. ‘Somewhere with a bit of land, maybe have a few chickens, and build a small house. But we couldn’t find anywhere. Then we came across this farm, which had 40 acres, but had an agricultural tie.’

In the UK, an agricultural tie is an order stating that whoever buys a property must continue to run it as a farm.

Michael says that he was fed up with his job and wanting a change, so he and Phil decided to take the plunge. They built their 21st century farmhouse and set about buying livestock.

It was, they admit, ‘a steep learning curve’. Neither had any background in farming so had to learn everything from the internet and from asking the advice of others.

Michael devoted himself full-time to the farm at first, but Phil has subsequently given up his marketing consultancy business and now also works full-time at Two Cocks.

‘It used to be a poultry farm – and it’s a bit tongue in cheek as well,’ admits Michael on the name they chose.

They began by buying poultry but have since diversified.

‘We worked out what suited us. We’ve got ten Dexter cows, around 50 Wiltshire horn sheep and around 14 Berkshire pigs, and some geese, so it’s a small livestock farm – all rare breeds.’

This was followed in 2011 by the launch of the Two Cocks Brewery. The idea came about after they had to sink their own bore hole. Michael says when they realized that had their own water supply and wild hops growing in the nearby hedgerows, a light bulb went off in his head.

A selection of Two Cocks Brewery beer
A selection of Two Cocks Brewery beer

He undertook a course in brewing and the couple invested in equipment. They’re now producing 5,000 pints of beer a week; small-scale in the brewing industry, but growing as a business.

Did they have to think long and hard about making such a major life change?

‘I think the way it works, if you have an idea, when you get to about 70% certainty on it, then just do it. If you wait for a 100%, you’d never do anything.

What about the perception of life on a farm being gruelling?

‘Yeah, you get covered in pooh a lot!’ he laughs, ‘And yes, there is early rising. Often I start at 5 or 6am, and you don’t really stop until the sun sets.

‘Yes, physically it can be hard, but there is also a lot of pottering around – giving some animals food here, and looking around and making sure everything’s OK there, so I wouldn’t say gruelling exactly. Also, unlike my previous life, there are not the same pressures – you’re not responsible for 30 people getting paid.’

Michael says that he occasionally misses the anonymity that living in a big city affords. However, ultimately, they’ve been very happy with the move. And the vast majority of locals have been welcoming.

‘I’d say 90% of people are fine, but then 10% of people are right old bastards or homophobes. We had a bit of it here in the village when we changed the name to Two Cocks Brewery. Some old gits started a petition, saying it was disgusting and shouldn’t be allowed.’

Michael and Phil stuck to their guns and the brewery is now earning a name for itself in wider circles.

From a business point of view, would they have done anything differently?

‘I think we could have been braver when we started,’ he says after a moment’s reflection. ‘Because we started with a small brew kit, but after six months, had to put another one in, so I think if we’d been braver at the start, put a bigger brew kit in at the beginning, that would have saved us a lot of mucking about.’

‘Get a business plan. Get proper advice. Make sure your figures stack up. And be a bit braver. You can do better than you might first imagine.’

Ray and Daniel Stazzone with sons Cody and Jacob
Ray and Daniel Stazzone with sons Cody and Jacob

The Stazzone family

Daniel and Raymond Stazzone don’t believe in doing things by halves; together since 2006, in 2013 they not only swapped life in the city of Syracuse for a farm in Hastings (New York state), but also became adoptive dads to half-siblings Jacob (now aged 11) and Cody (10).

They had already decided to look for a property in the country and to ‘live off the land’ when, in 2013, they learned that Ray’s ailing grandfather, Karl, affectionately known as ‘Whimp’, would not be allowed back to his house unless there was someone to look after him full-time.

That’s when they decided to move in to the elder man’s home to care for him, at the same time as their adoption of Jacob and Cody became final in November of that year.

Sadly, Karl’s health deteriorated quickly and he passed away soon after their arrival. The property had deteriorated in recent years as his health had failed, and Daniel and Ray became determined to return the house to its former glory. Mighty Whimp Farm – named in honor of grandpa – was born.

Like Michael and Phil, Daniel says that running a farm has been a sharp learning curve. Currently, their ambitions are modest. They have goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, sheep, a couple of llamas and honeybees.

Mighty Whimp goats milk soap
Mighty Whimp goats milk soap

Besides selling poultry (most of their turkeys have all been pre-sold for Thanksgiving this year) they use milk from the goats to produce soaps and moisturizing lotions. They also sell coffee beans and brand clothing.

Daniel says they are exploring further ways to boost their farm profits, including selling farm-produced honey and their sheep’s wool. He continues to maintain a side line selling real estate, while Ray works full-time as a teacher.

‘It was something we’d always talked about,’ says Daniel when asked about their decision to move to live a more sustainable lifestyle in the country. ‘At first maybe as something in retirement, but I guess, over the years as we got more interested. Eventually, we decided, “You know what, let’s give it a try”.’

‘Neither of us were raised on a working farm. Ray growing up here was used to being around horses, but nothing like the chickens and goats and sheep. We really were picking it up from scratch using the internet and books.

‘After we got into this, we got introduced to the local farming community and they’ve just been amazing! They’ve been very welcoming to us and there have been surprisingly few negative experiences considering we’re a same-sex couple farming.’

Does he think he entered into farm life with realistic expectations?

‘It was a little overwhelming in the first year, having to learn everything from scratch and also create the facilities for all these animals, because we really had nothing. The first year was really tough. But we knew it would be and we didn’t expect to make a profit in our first year. I think overall we’ve been pretty realistic.’

Like Michael, Daniel says he works long days.

‘It’s a lot of hard work. But I think it really pays off and what we get out of the farming is worth every moment of our time and energy. I go get up at a quarter after 5 in the morning to get the barn chores done, and I have to do barn chores every 12 hours, so 5.15am and 5.15pm, so yes, it’s a lot of work.’

Despite this, and occasionally missing New York’s restaurant scene, ‘we’re in such an amazing place right now; we’re here for the long term.’

Would he offer advice to others considering a similar move?

‘If it’s where your heart is, and you feel very drawn to it, you should just go for it; it’s been so rewarding for us.’

He also has no regrets about taking on the farm and becoming parents at the same time.

‘The kids love it. They love being outside. They love working with the animals, and they also have their own chores to do. Being out here is great for them; they’re learning a lot about responsibility.’

Business-wise, he advises anyone interested to carry out plenty of research, to speak to – and support – local farmers. Also, when it comes to farming, newbies shouldn’t try and re-invent the wheel.

‘It’s great to identify a niche that you think needs to be filled, but also think about whether there’s a reason why that niche is not being filled. It could not make business sense or be too expensive – that’s an issue for many small farmers.’

‘We wanted a commercial dairy. After researching it we realized that our barn is not set up for a commercial dairy and there is a lot that we need to do right now to be a certified dairy, so it depends on exactly what type of farming someone wants to do.

‘Business wise, we’ve taken it very slowly, which I think it smart for us and our situation right now.

‘We just really love it up here and don’t see us moving for a very long time.’