Numbers can easily give a wrong impression in farming. The uninitiated may feel that a farmer with just a small acreage of land isn’t a serious player and yet the operation he or she runs may include 20,000 pigs or 100,000 hens.
Up in the North York Moors just out of Goathland is Hunt House, 700ft above sea level where Mark Graham and his family farm across 5,000 acres. You might think this makes them a large-scale operator but you’d be wrong.
If they were farming a similar acreage in the East Riding or Lincolnshire they would be one of the larger cereal crops and oilseed rape farms with a significant income from high yielding land, but up here in the Moors it is somewhat different.
Their acreage is made up of grass, heather and bracken where they have no more than 400 acres of in-bye land. It is moorland that is not highly productive and their income is from sheep and subsidies. Mark doesn’t believe in dressing things up and shoots from the hip.
“We wouldn’t have a cat in hell’s chance without the Single Farm Payment and being in the higher level of the Countryside Stewardship scheme. We have to jump through quite a few hoops in order to qualify for the payments but if we weren’t getting them we wouldn’t be here, simple as that.
“The public may get a little uptight about money being seen to be given to farmers as a hand-out, using that now nasty word called ‘subsidy’ but if we weren’t getting it then food prices would be a hell of a lot higher. I know it’s awkward with the country being in the state it’s in but the public wants food at a price it can afford and that’s one of the reasons why the subsidies are there.
“Hill farms like ours will not survive without the monies we receive in order to keep it that way. What I am against is there are some who may be pulling stewardship money that haven’t even got a pair of wellies let alone sheep! If people are to be given monies for protecting and maintaining the countryside it should really go to those who have sheep and cattle out there and are being productive.”
The Grahams have 1,500 breeding ewes, nearly all of which are Swaledales, two-thirds being pure bred and the other third crossed to a Cheviot tup. The Cheviot influence was added in more recent times as Mark found that a male Cheviot wether lamb is worth more than a Swaledale wether lamb at the stores sales.
Mark is relatively happy with the current state of market prices but he is also presently involved in the launch of a new programme of sheep sales that will be run at Ruswarp Mart in September aimed at bringing North York Moors sheep to greater prominence.
“Prices are where they need to be. Our fat lambs, born last year, averaged around £70-£80. Confidence is pretty good at the moment and we’ve just come off the back of a good summer last year and a mild winter.
“I’ve got to say our ewes have never looked as fit at lambing time, which we’ve just completed having started on April 10. Even I could have lived out there this past winter.
“We sell most of our fat lambs deadweight through the Seven Hill Farmers co-operative that supplies North York Moors sheep to Tesco. Over 11,000 sheep were sold to them last year. That’s a real success story.
“Our store lambs and females are largely sold through Ruswarp in the autumn apart from 50 or so Swaledale gimmer lambs that we take to the annual Fadmoor sale.
“We’re now trying to reshape the Ruswarp sales on the back of how well the suckler sales have gone in recent years. The suckler sales are now some of the best in England and we see no reason why that can’t be replicated for sheep. I’m one of a committee of about ten farmers that is acting as a think-tank to set it up for the first time this September.
“It’s all about creating that bit more enthusiasm amongst those bringing stock and those attending to buy. If we attract better quality sheep it stands to reason that we will attract buyers from further away.
“Of course, the biggest problem with Ruswarp is that if you go east you get wet as you’re in the sea! But that’s only a slight disadvantage because the suckler sales have proved that you can certainly attract buyers regardless.”
Mark believes it is the lesser number of sheep on the Moors and a dearth of young people coming into moors farming that are areas that need addressing and that creating excitement in new sales can help both situations.
“Moors flocks have reduced dramatically in the past 20 years and we now only have half the number of sheep. A lot of young kids today don’t want to spend all their working life on a hill farm for little return and I don’t think I’ve ever sold to someone around here who is younger than me.
“We’re trying to rethink everything to bring about renewed enthusiasm. Somehow we need to try and find a way of getting younger people involved and showing them a future in sheep farming up here.
“There are some very good sheep on the North York Moors and one of our main advantages is that our sheep travel well and will adapt to other farms in other areas. That’s not the same for sheep coming say from the other side of the Pennines in this direction.
“ We all have to start promoting the good strong stock that we produce and the new sale season in September is our first step in that direction.”
Max Graham, Mark’s grandfather, came to Hunt House around 60 years ago from Greenlands Farm in Goathland. Mark took over the tenancy on the land owned by the Duchy of Lancaster from his father Jim who passed away four years ago.
“I’m in partnership with my brother-in-law Ian and we have two lads and lasses between the families who may end up farming here in their own right one day, but we won’t force them. If they don’t want to do it then they shouldn’t be doing it.”