Farm Of The Week: Farm that’s at cutting edge of industry

Stephen Knox with  some of his  Aberdeen Cross cattle at  Mill Close Farm, Patrick Brompton.
Stephen Knox with some of his Aberdeen Cross cattle at Mill Close Farm, Patrick Brompton.
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A proud Yorkshire farming family looks set to keep their successful farm business going for further generations, as Mark Holdstock discovered.

Stephen Knox’s farm near Bedale has been in his family for three generations, and he’s determined to make that four.

“My grandfather farmed here in 1914, my father was born here in 1920. I actually bought the farm in 1991, up until then it was a rented farm.”

Mill Close Farm isn’t huge, 230 acres of arable, with 80 suckler cows, growing 200 acres of milling wheat for Warburtons, the rest of it is in grass.

The cattle are predominately Aberdeen Angus and Limousin crosses.

What makes Mill Close different is much of what is produced goes direct to the final consumer through a definable local brand, Yorkshire Dales Meat, set up by Mr Knox in the late 1990s.

“We started off in 1999, we were involved in one of the first farmers markets in the North of England, which was held at Northallerton, we then started selling through shops, post offices and outlets like that.” Amongst the high profile clients who buy the meat he produces are The Royal Armouries in Leeds, Leeds United football club, and several local branches of the upmarket Hotel Du Vin chain.

“In 2002/2003 we got planning permission to develop the old farm buildings for houses, we raised capital and we built the new site down here.”

The new site Mr Knox is talking about is a large green building, put up nine years ago, at the heart of an operation which allows him to add value to the meat he produces, and has helped secure the future of the farm for his family.

“It’s about 52,000 square feet of which 9,000 square feet is the cutting plant and the rest of it’s the farm buildings, grain storage, cattle housing etc.”

Although there is a herd of suckler cows on the farm itself, much of the meat going through the cutting plant comes from across Yorkshire.

“We now have to buy the majority of our cattle elsewhere because we haven’t got enough cattle on my own holding.

“With the Yorkshire Dales Meat Company we’ve tried to concentrate on buying meat from Yorkshire.

“We have certain ‘quality criteria’ we adhere to, but we have a designated farm we buy our pork from (Wilsons of Helmsley), we buy lamb from out of the Dales and we buy cattle out of Leyburn, Thirsk, Northallerton, Skip- ton.

“I have got two people who go in and buy cattle and sheep and pigs from those markets. We tend to go for the more traditional breeds, the Aberdeen Angus and the Hereford, cattle that have a lot of marbling.

“Then they take them back to the slaughterhouse, slaughter them and send the carcasses to us.”

Mr Knox is passionate about the fact that he buys from local farmers.

“I think it’s important as a Yorkshireman to support your local farming community and this is one way that we’re doing it and I think that Yorkshire is a very strong brand which I’m very proud to be part of.”

As well as supporting other local farmers, Stephen Knox sees the cutting plant, and the creation of the brand as crucial to his family.

“My long-term aspiration of the business is to develop it so my son has a meaningful business that he is involved in, and one day it will be his,” he said.

He says that with many farmers the options for passing the farm on to future generations can be limited.

“Unless you’ve got a big farming operation it’s very difficult to bring your family back into the business and provide a living for two or three family members, i.e. the sons and daughters.

“I knew from the outset that unless I went out and spent a lot of money on buying land or I rented land which was very, very difficult to get hold of, I knew that my business (the original farm) wasn’t big enough to sustain my son, James, coming back into the business.

“He went away to university, he had a grounding in commodity trading after he left university, he joined this business three years ago, came in and very successfully runs the factory.

“Eventually he’ll take over and I’ll take a back seat.”

Mr Knox said that at the core of his meat business are the staff he employs – sixteen of them – a mixture of butchers, drivers office staff and a couple of people who help out on the farm itself

“It’s about getting the right people, we’ve got a great team of lads in the factory,” he said.

“We’ve got Polish guys that work in the factory and they’re fantastic.

“They work seriously long hours and they’re very dedicated to what they do. We’ve got a good team, good drivers. You’ve got to have good people around you, people you can trust to do a good job.”

In particular he said that anybody whose life has revolved around farming in the past needs to get the right people, with the right knowledge in if they are going to enter the meat-cutting industry.

“A meat cutting plant is not for the faint-hearted,” he admitted.

“Anybody who wants to jump into the meat business, you’ve got to be very determined to make it work.

“We’ve got a very good general manager, Jonathan Carter, who has been in the meat industry all his life, and he’s brought a lot to the table.”

Mr Knox said that since building the cutting plant business has grown by 30 per cent year on year, and as well as learning important new skills in the meat industry, he said it has also shown him the importance of dealing with people.

“It’s a people business, we’re dealing with chefs, we’re dealing with hotels. There’s always some little thing to sort out, some little problem and you’ve got to get on with people, and when you’ve been farming all your life it’s been quite a steep learning curve.”