NEXT year is the real test for Steve Newlove’s big idea. Meanwhile, after the practice run of 2011, he has some costs to count and lessons to digest.
But so far, he and his menagerie look happy and well.
Chief among the animals, in value and importance, are two young Shire mares which were supposed to replace tractor power on Thorpe Hill Farm, Thorpe Underwood, between Harrogate and York, after Steve and his mother, Joan, gambled all they have on a decision to turn it into a working museum and day-out destination.
The horses came from near Halifax and were relaxed, from the start, about urban distractions like traffic and screaming children. They were easily spooked, however, by cows, sheep, or pheasants, and neither of them liked being left alone while the other one was out for training, so they now share their paddock with a little gypsy pony.
They were due to pay back this September, by pulling a Victorian reaper-binder through Steve’s wheat and barley.
But just as the crops were coming ready – and looking surprisingly healthy, despite the sudden withdrawal of all artificial fertilisers and sprays – thieves broke into the tack room and stole two sets of harness, worth about £10,000, one for farm work and one, chrome-decorated, for ceremonial use. Steve was reduced to driving a £300,000 combine loaned by a friend.
It did mean he could cover his 20 arable acres in a day. But he was looking forward to the week it would have taken with the horses ... although the raininess of the harvest season gave him pause for thought.
“With old machinery, you need to cut the corn a bit green and leave it to dry out in stooks for three weeks,” he says. “But summers used to be longer. I am beginning to wonder if you can find the window nowadays.”
He is considering a vintage tractor. Meanwhile, he is still planning to use the horses for ploughing next spring. But he is reluctant to buy replacement harness until he has completed a new security system. He got burgled three times this summer and lost oil and a utility vehicle, as well as the harnesses. He guesses it is one of the penalties of opening up to visitors, that any villain scouting for opportunities only has to buy a ticket.
So, one way and another, the horses have done no work yet. And quite a lot of other livestock pays for its keep only in charm – rheas, reindeer, donkeys, rabbits, wallabies, lovebirds, flying squirrels ...
Steve admits he might have taken up a few too many offers. The reindeer, for example, are very time-consuming. Because their natural habitat is too cold for bugs, their quarters, food and water, have to be super-immaculate and they need worming every six weeks. On the other hand, open-mindedness has taken him into markets he would never have guessed at. His cattle include some African Zebu – a hardy pygmy breed you would normally only ever see in a zoo. They are so easy-going they have become his favourites and he can get £1,000 for a calf from a hobby farmer. Pygmy goats and Mangalitza pigs and Ouessant sheep will also earn a bit from the pets market.
And some of the rest of his eclectic mix of cattle (British White, Dexter and Jersey), sheep (Hampshire Down, Jacob, Welsh Mountain, Herdwick, Ouessant) and pigs (Kune Kune, Berkshire, Mangalitza) will earn a few pounds from pedigree breeders or the rare breeds meat market. The farm does not yet have a full shop but there is a produce shed where visitors can pick up whatever is going in the way of meat, vegetables from Joan’s garden, proper free-range eggs, at £1 for six, and pet-size portions of grain, hay and straw.
The main over-wintering shed makes a picture-book scene – goats and pigs and cattle all at peace in adjoining pens, on straw bedding kept fresh enough for visitors at any time, while a cockerel wanders the fencing.
The variety of animals means they must all be manually fed, watered and mucked out, and their environments are a credit to Steve and Richard White, a former Radio York reporter who was studying part-time at Askham Bryan when he heard about the back-to-the-future project and became Steve’s only full-time hand. One of Steve’s married sisters, Julia, and her daughters, help out as required, in the tea room and on the visitor trail.
The farm, consisting of house and 111 acres, used to be a council tenancy. Steve’s dad, an agricultural contractor, took it on in 1982 but died soon after, when Steve was two and his two sisters and one brother were still at school. Joan Newlove sold off her husband’s machinery and kept the farm going, with help from the children as they became old enough, growing crops and running a few pigs.
When Steve left school, in 1996, and started work, aged 16, they expanded the pigs business into outdoor breeding, for a contractor, from a herd which grew to 750 sows. But the contractor went bust and Joan and Steve and his brother went through “an awful, awful Christmas” five years ago, trying to keep the sows alive until they could be sold, but barely able to afford the food and medicines. They were owed more than £30,000 as it was and ended up with about 7p in the pound.
The brother moved off to farm on his own, near Wetherby, and Joan and Steve agreed to buy the farm and try taking it backwards. They ticked over on crops and a few sheep while ploughing through the purchasing and planning process. One way and another, including the mortgage, they have gambled a million on the idea. Re-equipping and re-stocking for the relaunch cost about £200,000, they guess. A lot of half-promises of grant aid evaporated at the last minute.
Joan, 74, is just old enough to remember harvesting potatoes with her father and a horse and cart. But it was Steve, 32, who drove the project. He always wanted to be a farmer. But he did not like the farm the way it was.
He says: “It was essentially factory farming and it never felt right to me. I didn’t even like driving a modern tractor, with GPS and all that. There was no connection with the land.”
His latest project is a community forum, made up of people who wish the idea well, to advise on future directions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. See website at www.thorpehillfarm.co.uk/ or call by at YO26 8AZ.