Word has it that as a baby Martin Stephenson said ‘tractor’ before ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ and so it seems the die was cast for his life and career.
Born in Seamer near Scarborough and growing up on a 40-acre cereal-growing smallholding tenanted by his father Bernard and uncle Howard the teenage Martin began his vocation early by starting to buy and sell grey Fergies.
Today GM Stephenson Ltd is one of this part of North Yorkshire’s leading used farm machinery dealers and is based at Southfield Farm, Flixton, where Martin and wife Debbie have been adding to their farm acreage that now sees them with 285 acres in and around the village, and at Kilham and Bempton where they grow wheat, barley and oil seed rape and have a herd of 60 cattle. Their current acreage is only part way toward Martin’s goal of a 500-acre farm and is a lesson to all of those who shrug their shoulders in bewilderment at how they can get a foot on the farming ladder.
“Farming was what I always wanted to do. My father used to work for Boulton & Cooper and I had grown up going with him to farm sales and the livestock markets of Seamer and Malton. I went to the Askham Bryan College centre at Pickering to study on day release whilst working at home and undertaking part-time work that included destoning and leading potatoes for James Stockdale. My dad died when I was 23 and I managed to get the tenancy for the parish council land. During my 20s I started up a mill and mix business using a Fastrac tractor and a Theakston machine mixing barley and wheat for farmers in the area.”
Gradually Martin’s used farm machinery business grew and in so doing took up more of his time. He is matter-of-fact about it being something he had mapped out for himself.
“It had never been a conscious decision that one day I would go into running a farm machinery company with the number of tractors and other equipment we buy and sell today. I just recall seeing people buying things and selling them on for a bit more when I was with my father at the various farm sales.
“We had a nice little place in Seamer but with farm machinery getting bigger we were finding it difficult to get machines off the main road and into our yard. We had outgrown where we were and with having as many as 20 machines in stock it was all becoming a bit of a problem. We heard of Southfield coming on to the market. It had been a pig unit but the pig industry had been going through a rough time. We bought the bungalow where we live now, the farm buildings and an initial 43 acres.”
Several further land acquisitions have been made since Martin and Debbie came to Southfield Farm 11 years ago and their arable-cattle enterprise is a source of pride to them both.
The cattle herd includes 20 suckler cows and Martin says it’s an expensive interest, but one that he and Debbie are keen to pursue in the future.
“We’d definitely like to expand the herd. At present we have predominantly Charolais X and a couple of purebred Herefords. We see the offspring from the suckler herd through to finishing and we also buy store cattle from local cattle dealer David Barker. One of the reasons we started with cattle was that in and around Flixton it is very sandy soil and needs the manure.”
The farm machinery enterprise has been the key to Martin’s aspirations and continues to enable he and Debbie to grow their farm although he points out that times have changed in the machinery sector, particularly in the export trade.
“The market is not as good as it was four or five years ago. One of the reasons is currency. Four years ago the pound and Euro were closer to being one-for-one. The export side of our business is still busy just not as busy as it was. I’d estimate that around 40 per cent of our trade is export to over 30 countries.
“One of the sectors that has grown is the hire side. Farm machinery has become so expensive that when farmers need an extra tractor or trailer for a short time they will hire rather than buy. We can buy a tractor, hire it out and then find a market for it abroad when it comes back.
“The difficulty that everyone has when buying a used tractor is in finding low-hour tractors. We specialise in quality tractors that are between five and ten-years-old. That’s what people want and usually they are green, red or blue.”
The one thing you won’t find Martin doing is becoming a main franchise holder and selling new tractors, combines and other farm equipment.
“We’ve been approached once or twice but that’s not for us. What we have here is a great team that knows what it is doing. Ben Manderson from Rillington looks after a lot of the selling; Maurice Sipson does the majority of the farm work and drives the lorry; Robert Baxter and Chris Stroud look after the workshop and prepare the machines; and Debbie and Debbie Scaife look after the office.”
In the past 11 years the couple have also developed a business park that includes storage units and commercial business units.
Martin and Debbie had known each other from school days. Debbie lived nearby at Crossgates. They have two children Harriet, 14, and George, 13.
On Saturday 17 May there will be a charity auction and live bands at Southfield Farm as the Stephensons host a special event. They have booked comedy show band The Wurzels to play their hits such as ‘Combine Harvester’ and ‘Cider Drinker’, plus two more bands. The event gets under way with a charity auction of farm machinery and bygones. There will also be a bar, hog roast and rodeo bull. An auction of promises completes the evening. It all gets underway from 4pm. Proceeds will go to Candlelighters, Yorkshire Air Ambulance and St Catherine’s Hospice.