Sometimes stories come from unlikely sources. I met Gary Kay while playing a guitar set at The Greyhound pub in Dunnington. He’s impossible to miss with a quiff straight out of the Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll era.
At the end of the night we talked about farming, his feelings about agriculture, particularly the state of the UK beef market and his rodeo bull machine. I found him again at Escrick earlier this week where he was mowing grass for English Nature on Escrick Park Estate. His window had just been blown out so we talked through what is currently his newly air-conditioned but aged Ford tractor.
“I’ve always been brought up to buy what I can pay for so if I can’t then I won’t have it. I’d rather fasten something together with a bit of band and make do. We make a living here but if you want to go into farming with the acreage I have you’ve got to want to get up in a morning and think yes this is a good day.
“We have around 157 acres and own about half. My family has farmed in and around Dunnington since 1740. We’ve also been wheelwrights and at some point owned The Greyhound. I moved here to Undergate Farm on the edge of the village in 1993. Before then we were in the centre of the village where the fish and chip shop is now.”
Gary’s farming operation is a traditional small mixed farm with half a dozen pigs, 40 suckler cows and followers, 120 breeding ewes and a mix of arable and grassland.
“Farms have gone bigger and bigger. If you went back 40 years there were loads of farms here of around 100 acres. We had seven pig farms in the village at one time and there are none now. All I have are a few pigs to sell to the hog roast people. You’ve got to either be up to 100 sows or not in at all these days.”
It’s he state of the beef market that has Gary perplexed at present.
“We’re all just ants ferreting about looking after the supermarkets. They dictate the price and when you should sell your beasts. If a bull hasn’t got fat before 16 months they now don’t want it.
“Prices were around £1.80 to £2 per kg but they’ve dropped by 40p per kg because the supermarkets have just turned around and said we don’t want these. We need to get a voice across for agriculture. If what is happening here was taking place in France they’d be stuck together like glue, but we don’t.
“My suckler herd is made up of Hereford, Angus and Limousin X cows. I started with the herd about 17 years ago and we breed all our own replacements so I very rarely buy in a cow. I sell most as stores and others as fat looking for a weight of over 500 kg. We sell at York livestock market because it’s only two miles away with a few going to Malton or Selby.
“A good bull can still make £2.15 - £2.20 per kg but the rest are down to £1.40 to £1.50. The thing that sickens you off is you go into a supermarket and see beef being sold at £8 per kg.
“It’s crazy really. You breed a calf and look after it the best you can, then you put it out there to find out what someone will give you. If you were a brickie you wouldn’t build a wall expertly and then turn around and say how much will you give me?
“In January store cattle were making around £750 per beast and a lot of finishers saw that the market would allow them to sell at £1,000 but the way the supermarkets have shifted has meant the whole job has gone pear-shaped.”
Gary is happier with the sheep trade. His eldest son William, 17, is the shepherd on the farm.
“They’ve been a hell of a trade although they’re just slipping a bit now. Ours are mainly Mule X to the Texel or Suffolk ram and we sell at York and Malton. William does everything with them and I assist when it’s clipping time.”
Barley, oats and potatoes are the main crops on what Gary describes as light, sandy land.
“Everything we grow goes back into four legs whether that’s cattle or sheep except for the potatoes that we generally sell to fish and chip shops and local buyers like Wolds Produce.”
As well as selling potatoes Gary has also sold hay bales for many years. It’s another area where he finds it difficult equating today’s costs with his returns.
“These are the little conventional bales. Thirty years ago we would sell them for £2.50 per bale and a litre of fuel would have cost you 12-15 pence. That price is now 68p per litre and we’re still getting £2.50 per bale! We weren’t making any money on it in those days so what we’re doing now, I just don’t know.”
Providing the right environment for the next generation is also in Gary’s thoughts. Contracting is one idea.
“The little bit of contracting work I do is mowing and baling. It’s one of the very few things in agriculture where you can set the price you want. I have three sons – William, Robert, 16, and Charlie, 12, and they all want to farm. Contracting may be one way to make it work, plus Robert fancies going into building work as well as farming so on slack times on the farm his brothers could perhaps help him. He’s going to Askham Bryan College soon.”
The rodeo bull provides another diversification interest.
“A pal of mine bought it from a shed at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. It was made in Florida and was the standby bull at Blackpool. I bought it as a novelty for taking around to friends’ parties but it now sees me going out most weekends with it. We’ve had some great times.”
Gary is also very much involved with the village. He owns the properties that have the fish and chip shop, hairdressers and florists. He’s also a member of the Dunnington Fayre committee.
“Dunnington Fayre was always a great event as I was growing up and we’ve reinstated it. It’s next weekend and we’re hoping loads of people turn up. I’m not making a plea for helpers, we just want people to turn up and support their local event.”
Dunnington Fayre takes place next Saturday, July 26.