It’s said that it’s how you react to life’s low points that are important. Ben Barnett met a family who refuse to be defeated.
Defiance in adversity comes in the form of cheerful smiles at Central House Farm in Harrogate.
The Ryders have had their fair share of body blows over the years but they are bouncing back through hard graft.
Jeff Ryder’s father, Hugh, a proud sheep showman, brought the family here in 1948 where he farmed for 40 years before handing over to Jeff and his brother David.
In the 15 years since, Jeff, his wife Jayne, their children Josh and Abigail and Jeff’s son, Richard, have bounced back from the collapse of their dairy operations, financial devastation as a result of the bluetongue virus, the theft of 90 sheep in one fell swoop, foxes wiping out their hens and earlier this year, cases of Schmallenberg.
“It’s been a rough old road,” Jeff says before laying the past bare.
“My dad retired in 1988 when he was 65 and me and my brother David, we split, we had two farms. He took the milking farm. I used to do the milking but the dairy cows were moved. It was too much here.
“The other farm was at Beckwithshaw, Moor Park. Both farms were tenanted. We ran them together. We had replacement heifers here and sheep running at both places. When my dad said he was handing over he came here every day so I stopped here and my brother stayed at Moor Park.”
Things didn’t go to plan at Moor Park, Jeff says.
“They finished up. The landlord got the idea that he wanted a golf course but they converted the big hall and the buildings into houses and flats. My brother bought a farm at Lindley near Otley and he has a second farm up here.”
Jeff took none of the milk herd from Moor Park when the partnership with his brother dissolved but the family did go on to milk cows at Central House under a leased in quota for a few years before being priced out by the rising cost per litre on the lease.
It was then that the family went into milking goats instead and it would be a move that Jeff would regret.
“We converted the cow sheds into a goat parlour which wasn’t ideal,” he said.
“We should have gone out of goats with Foot and Mouth. We didn’t get Foot and Mouth but we lost money because we couldn’t sell.
“We had a lot of problems but we went out in the bluetongue outbreak. We decided to sell out of goats because it was either that or spend a lot of money and get bigger and we were already up to 700 goats. I was spending too much time going milking as it was.
“We decided to sell the goats and they would have been sold to Ireland but the bluetongue came so we couldn’t move them. We were stuck with them with no milk contract. We were milking the goats that had to be milked and throwing it into the slurry store. We finished up having to sell them by breaking them up and lost a lot of money. We needed rid of them for their own welfare and we were moving on into something else.”
That something else was dairy cattle once again, but with the deal to take the goats to Ireland no more and with money already invested in the transition to cattle, more soul searching was in order.
“We had committed to going back into dairy cows because we were expecting to have the money from the goats but the money didn’t come so we couldn’t. We had to make a decision that we couldn’t keep financing the dairy because the milk price dropped as well at that time. That’s when Richard and Josh said they would work at the farm but do whatever else and that’s where we are, making up the loss of money.”
To reinvent their business, the family has turned to building up its 650-strong flock of sheep, mainly Swaledales and Dalesbred, which they trade at auctions in Otley and Skipton, as well as their suckler cattle.
“We’re now lambing at 1,000 but the two lads are having to go and get something to fetch in because sheep are a very seasonal income,” says Jeff.
Richard, 32, works part-time on two other farms and does concreting and digging contract work while Josh earns his corn helping out on other sheep farms, taking shearing jobs and working at Craven Cattle Marts in Skipton. Abigail, 27, meanwhile, is an assistant accountant.
Jeff says: “We are looking for more land so we can expand. That’s the thing with suckler cows and sheep, we need a lot of land for three of us to make enough out of it.”
What has been a boost to the farm’s viability is the opening of the farmhouse as a three-room bed and breakfast in 2002 which Jayne leads. She says she enjoys meeting guests from around the world.
“We had to diversify and it’s a big house,” she says.
“Some of the rooms have never been used. I like meeting people. It’s nice to get to talk to people from different places.”
Indeed, there’s much more to farming than thankless toil, and the Ryders have a long tradition of showing livestock, started by Hugh in 1949.
Josh, who was recently crowned the National Sheep Association’s Young Shepherd of the Year, shows Dalesbreds at 12 events each year. He is the current Dalesbred Show Season Points Trophy holder for accumulating the highest points total across last year’s show season – the fourth successive year he has won the award.
Richard is also keen when it comes to showing and he can usually be found displaying the pick of the farm’s Swaledales.
Last year the family also became champions in the fleece class at the Great Yorkshire Show.
One day the family hopes to clinch The Hugh Ryder Memorial Trophy, named after Jeff’s father, for the show’s Champion Dalesbred. They came close last year, being named as Reserve Champion.
The bad weather and pressures on quality feed have taken their toll on all livestock this year, says Jeff.
“It’s a hard year. You have to take your hat off to anyone who’s showing.”
As for bouncing back from setbacks on the farm, Jeff smiles and says simply: “You dust yourself off and get on with it.”