Last weekend Mark Smith of Kirkbank Farm in Gilling West near Richmond was out both Saturday and Sunday evenings, but he wasn’t living the high life even though he may have been up a few hills.
Instead, he was snow clearing on Teesside and in County Durham. The second quick and fortunately brief cold snap of winter had brought about the customary plethora of calls to his Shire Country Services enterprise run with equal partner and long-time friend Edward Gibbon.
It’s a time when it seems the world and his wife starts panicking but Mark seemingly takes it all in his stride.
“We have a couple of snow-ploughs and a couple of gritters. We try to respond as best we can. We don’t have the regular highways work but we do clear access lanes and particularly try to help those who live up or down steep hills and who worry about not being able to get in and out.
“We also look after the snow clearance for the Help For Heroes centre at Catterick and when the weather gets really bad we station a tractor there.
“The first snow this winter came on December 12 and went from being quite gentle to utter chaos in the space of a few hours. We received numerous calls. That’s how it goes with those who suffer. One minute there’s no real problem, next minute it’s the ultimate nightmare that needs resolving quickly.”
Snow clearing is obviously not an all-year-round operation but Mark and Edward are able to add their help during the winter months due to the way they positioned the business, which started in 2011. After having gone their separate ways from studying at Newcastle University they came back together having found what they felt might be a niche market in offering agricultural contracting services to those who have land but may not have either the experience of maintaining it or haven’t the necessary equipment.
“We felt that there was an opportunity to provide a professional service to customers with anything between say half an acre to 30 acres. There are a lot of people in our area who have horses or have simply bought an acreage that could do to be managed. These are largely paddocks and to the layman there is the obvious problem of getting the grass cut. In years gone by this would have perhaps been looked after by a local farmer who fitted it in with their own farm when they could, but the way agriculture has changed that kind of help isn’t there as readily anymore.
“The landowners we work for understand the value of looking after their grassland and how they can benefit from growing wildflower meadows or making haylage. We’re not consultants, but we are contractors who offer professional advice. That’s where we make a difference by guiding the landowner in making the most of their paddocks or larger fields and make them fit for purpose.
“We’ve invested in appropriate machinery, running compact tractors of 44hp rather than the 150-250hp that you’ll find on most farms. We’re able to carry the smaller tractors on a trailer, with any attachments necessary, behind our 4WD vehicles and that means we ‘re able to service a much larger area. We’ve built up the business to nearly 400 customers and work as far north as Newcastle and as far south as Leeds.”
Winter is a completely different story for Mark and Edward. Their work on grassland starts in February with soil sampling and gets under way properly by mid-March, finishing usually by November. Snow clearance work isn’t the most predictable business to be in but cold weather is a given so they also started The Log Company.
“If you look at a business like a seesaw, when it’s good weather the grass is growing and in the poorer weather the land shuts down. From mid-October onwards our ability to get on the land diminishes as by going on we would do more harm than good.
“We needed something else to keep us going in the winter and selling logs for fires is certainly a more reliable trade than snow clearing. We supply hardwood logs. Ed has some woodland that we’re currently thinning, but we also buy from local estates and timber merchants.”
This December was one of the mildest in living memory and Mark said: “You’d certainly say that it doesn’t look like we’re going to break any records on log sales or snow clearance this winter. On a sales point of view that isn’t very helpful but things are a little easier if we’re not constantly battling the weather.”
It has been quite a change for Mark who spent the early part of his working career in fresh produce.
Mark has worked in Kenya, Sainsbury’s in London and latterly managed the northern sales operation for Devon-based veg box specialists Riverford.
Ed’s career shift hasn’t been quite so dramatic. He has worked as an agricultural contractor since leaving university both in Yorkshire and on the south coast.
“What we’re doing now is a different mindset but it’s principally the same. It’s just the size of what I’m dealing with that’s changed.
“We’re not using GPS or yield mapping for the acreages we’re looking after now.”
Mark comes from a farming family based near East Witton, Leyburn where the primary business is making haylage for horses.
He’s married to the noted dressage horse trainer Nicola Naprstek who has previously competed on the GB national team.
His parents are Martin and Gillian, and his brother Ian is involved with the farm. His other brother, Paul, is a land agent at Barnard Castle.
Ed’s family farms arable, pigs, cattle and sheep at Aireyholme on the banks of the River Tees.
The pair have another fledgling business designed to keep us warm whether it’s snowing or not, having branched out into also offering wood-fired hot tubs for hire or for sale.