A farm by the side of the A1 offers a nursery, business centre and a community broadband service. Ben Barnett reports.
For many of the region’s remote rural areas, the long-heralded roll out of high speed broadband is not a revolution that’s happening on their doorsteps and it’s an issue that’s getting in the way of a thriving rural economy.
Without efficient connection to the global digital highway in this modern age businesses are being handicapped and so farming couple Stephanie, 36, and Mark Pybus, 37, have taken matters into their own hands at Crabtree Hall Farm.
Diversification is something they have embraced in a big way. As well as arable crops grown over 450 acres, a business centre and now a nursery all operate from their farms on either side of the A1 near Northallerton – the other being Broad Close Farm.
With the nursery proving a big hit with former London-based freelance textile designer Stephanie at the helm, Mark is hoping for similar success with a community broadband service to nearby, isolated local villages by way of 4G wireless technology.
“We have a wireless network system so we can send a signal out to the local community, to outlying farms and small villages that otherwise are relying on receiving broadband over traditional copper lines that are increasingly becoming too slow to provide internet based services,” says Mark.
“If you get a dish on the side of your house you can receive our signal. We cover most of the villages between the edge of the Dales and the edge of the Moors.
“With the services over the internet now, people feel they are being left behind, especially over the last few years, and it’s fundamental to business – from cattle registration to Single Farm Payment applications. They are all moving online, or that’s the way the Government wants it.
“We put our bandwidth on wireless and recharge on a monthly basis for the service. We have around 20 customers at the moment but it is starting to pick up and I have it in a few villages now. There is a lot of interest in it.”
The Government is attempting to address a lack of effective broadband in rural parts of the country but it is behind schedule. Under the Rural Broadband Programme, it aims to rollout ‘superfast’ broadband to 90 per cent of rural areas and 2Mbps broadband to the remaining ten per cent. But the programme, due to be completed by 2015, is almost two years behind schedule, with the hardest to reach ten per cent most affected.
A lack of transparency over coverage has left rural communities unable to determine when, or even if, their area will be included in the programme, a report published this month by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee stated.
It was hard work enough for Mark and Stephanie to get a broadband connection to the business centre. “The broadband has been the hardest thing for us,” says Mark.
“Not only could we not get a significant quality on site we just couldn’t buy it in. BT couldn’t get someone to dig it in because it was too expensive.”
Having eventually overcome the problems, the site now benefits from a fibre optic internet connection. The couple’s diversification is not a well-worn path. Few farming family’s take on the running of a business centre and a nursery, not least with six children of their own – Lauren, 14, Max, 13, Abbey, 11, Wilfred, nine, Martha, five, and Penny, two.
The business centre opened in 2007 and the nursery followed in November last year. Eleven staff help run the nursery, with four more set to join shortly. “It is quite a big space and it just seemed the right thing to do while we had the opportunity,” says Mark.
Opening the nursery was the result of Stephanie re-evaluating her priorities.
“I got offered a full-time job in London so I started to look for nursery care for our youngest,” says Stephanie.
“I was a textile designer in London at the time and Mark had to worry about the children but on this occasion I felt that wasn’t what I wanted so I started looking around for some nursery care and I just thought it was hard going.
“Penny was one at the time and I tried all the recommended places and when I was travelling about 35 miles to visit the next one I thought actually, this isn’t going to work.
“I passed on the job and was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I asked friends to see what they did covering child care costs and I found that most mums preferred to work part-time and rely on their families to help out.
“It’s been a rollercoaster journey doing it. It’s an awesome responsibility taking another parent’s child at 7am and looking after them all day but I think what we offer here is so different.”
While the nursery operates out of lovingly converted former agricultural buildings, the children benefit from the rural setting by getting out and about to play in a sandpit and to learn about food in a vegetable patch.
Stephanie says: “The idea of children being here is they are involved in the vegetable garden and what Mark does on the farm everyday.
“Boys are a little bit more difficult to get their attention if you are talking about sounds and counting things but if they are counting tractors and how many times Mark drives it up and down the field or how many times the arm comes out on the combine then their attention is pretty phenomenal. Over the summer they watched the oilseed rape grow and we brought in an oil press to harvest it with the children. We made strawberry jam out of rows of plants we’d grown on the patch.”
The business centre site was originally home to a Georgian model farm built in the 18th century by the renowned Yorkshire architect John Carr. The couple run the centre together and invested their own money to realise the project, with the exception of a £5,000 grant from the Yorkshire Agricultural Society to kit out a meeting room.
Rural Solutions, based at Broughton Hall, Skipton, guided through the year-long planning process.
Among the centre’s tenants are Western Union Money Transfer, which has a sales office here, services firm May Gurney and North Yorkshire-based charity, Independent Domestic Abuse Services.
Mark vows to return to livestock farming one day, but says: “Originally this was a family farm. We have a farm on both sides of the A1 and on this one the buildings are all listed and not all that practical for modern agriculture.
“They are too small for getting machinery in and out so we looked around for something to do with them and we ended up buildings a business centre as a way of spreading the risk so we are not dependent on the agriculture side.”