Karen Halton is the Prada-wearing high-flyer turned wellie-booted country girl who is the Dairy Industry’s Woman of the Year.
Rebecca Wood is the country girl turned BBC reporter who has watched at first hand how Karen works the growing business that is Halton Farms, and she’s here to tell the tale...
It’s a grey and drizzly afternoon at Chance Hall Farm near Congleton. As usual, the office is the busiest room and the main topic of conversation today is boss Karen Halton. She runs the farm with her husband Tom and for her hard work has been named Woman of the Year, at the Women in Dairy Industry awards. I’ve known Karen for more than a decade, I’m a BBC reporter and presenter but we became friends through a shared love of horses, and as ever in Cheshire social circles it turns I’m related to her husband, Tom. Ever since that first meeting, I’ve been a regular at the farm. In fact since the first lockdown last March, I’ve been living here. In that time I’ve learned so much about the world of farming, but now I’m trying to get to the bottom of what makes Karen so successful. “It’s simple Woody,” she tells me. “I’m not afraid of getting it wrong.” Karen is one of my closest friends, but I hate to tell her this, it’s not just that; there are loads of reasons why she’s taking this industry by storm. So, let me tell you about my friend Karen Halton.
She’s fearless, hardworking, incredibly smart, and second best just doesn’t cut it for her. What first hits you when you meet Kaz is her passion. Every single living thing on the farm is treated with respect, from the chickens to the oldest cows. She’s meticulous with her working practices, developing new ways of doing things to ensure that nothing gets overlooked. Signs adorn the walls of barns reminding staff to look after all the stock. Over the years I’ve seen her go to all kinds of lengths to keep poorly calves going through the night – even bringing them into the conservatory to lie on the heated floor. These calves now healthily make up part of the 500-strong dairy herd. There’s a saying at Halton Farms: “Where there is a will, there is a way.” Nothing is even given up on, be it animals or people. But I think what makes Karen really good at this job is that she hasn’t always done it. She’s come into the industry from a completely different background, swapping Mulberry handbags, power suits and Prada shoes, for a Halton Farms fleece, waterproof trousers and wellies – albeit posh ones.
Karen’s story is a love story, not just for the job she now finds herself in, but for the true love of her life – Tom. They’d been together briefly as teenagers, but it didn’t last. Karen went on to succeed in her chosen world of work, eventually becoming director of a legal recruitment consultancy working in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. She spent her days wining and dining clients, travelling the country, and able to buy whatever designer brand she wanted. But everything changed when she bumped into Tom one Christmas. For five years she lived a dual life, living on the farm but leaving early every morning to work in the city. But before long, marriage came calling and Karen and Tom decided to go into another partnership together – running the farm. She swapped the keys for her brand-new Audi A5 for a Warrior pick-up that smelt of cow poo, and never looked back.
The first job she took on was the job she’s still so passionate about – the calves. Day one consisted of cleaning everything from top to bottom. Before long she was bringing in huge changes, creating a legacy in the herd. Then came what she calls her defining moment in the industry. She won the Easter Spring Calf Show and Sale at Chelford Market in 2011 with her calf Boo. She’d grown attached to this little beef bullock, dancing round the calf pens to Lady Gaga, grooming him and watching him grow. She’d never entered a show with a cow before, and couldn’t believe it when she brought home a cup –the start of her success. But it was also where she encountered her first real challenges. When I ask Karen what she’s most proud of during her time in farming, she tells me it’s the fact she’s been able to change the way people see her. As an outsider there were times it was difficult to get others on board with her ways of thinking and working. She’s managed to get long-standing members of staff to embrace change and formed a really strong team. It wasn’t easy, but it looks as if it’s stretching beyond the team here and out into the wider industry too.
The Women in Dairy Awards at the Women in Dairy (WID) conference, like many things in this Covid year, was virtual, so to attend, like everyone else, I had to watch via Zoom and through social media updates. Throughout the day tweets about Karen’s “Inspirational work with calves” were notifying me of my friend’s success. It’s the part of the farm she’s most passionate about, “it’s the beginning of our business, the rest of what happens here depends on how well that calf does, so it needs bringing on right,” she says. Most of the cows now making up the herd at the farm were raised by Karen. She can pick out some of her first just by strolling through the yard. She’s become so good at it that she’s invited to conferences throughout the industry to talk about it. Her trainee calf rearer here, Grace Pedley describes her as a “truly inspirational role model”. The awards this year were all about inspiring, sharing and connecting – and that’s exactly what she does.
So what’s next for Karen and the team at Halton Farms? Well, first she wants a holiday with Tom to the Maldives. But what she really covets is the crème de la crème in the farming world – to win the Gold Cup. The farm has already been runners up but Karen is more determined than ever to clinch the title. I have no doubt she will. Chance Hall Farm already has the accolade of Cheshire County Farms Competition Supreme Farm, but Karen says there’s still so much to work on. She wants to keep getting better. Halton Farms has recently set up a new business delivering milk directly to the customer through a doorstep delivery – Cow to Cup. For the whole team, it’s been a steep learning curve, but Karen’s skills and ambitions shine through there too. Everything carries the same precise branding, and staff members are being trained in new skills. It doesn’t stop there –product lists are updated constantly as new partnerships are developed with other local businesses and the team works late into the night while still getting up at 4am to milk the cows, and feed the calves of course.
When I ask Karen how she feels about winning the Dairy Industry Woman of the Year award she says she’s “completely overwhelmed.” She was nominated by several people but never expected to win as she was up against tough competition. To be honest, I was pretty sure she’d scoop it. In my line of work, I’ve interviewed a few farmers – none like Karen. She’s honest; she tells you when things aren’t going well and she’s so passionate about getting recognition for the hard work the team does 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She’s also brought her professionalism onto the yard: staff wear branded clothing even if they’re mucking out. It’s a small thing, but it helps to create that sense of camaraderie while keeping everything looking smart. They all respect her and share her vision for making sure everything that happens here is a success. But this is a love story remember – so I’ll leave the last word to Tom. “I’m the luckiest man in the world. It’s not often you find brains and beauty, but I did.”