Starting out in farming is always a challenge but when your family has no history in agriculture even the will to succeed sometimes isn’t enough. Next week the Yorkshire Rural Support Network hosts a conference The Farming Ladder – Getting On and Going to share experiences of how to get a career under way.
One man who won’t be there is Lester Peel of Greystone Farm, Over Silton, near Thirsk, although his experience is as useful an insight as any. He’s now one of the north of England’s most respected Suffolk sheep breeders, on the western boundary of the North York Moors, but he had to leave farming before finding it again on account of earning more elsewhere.
Born in Horsforth, near Leeds he moved to Pateley Bridge when he was a toddler. His father was a master plumber who relocated to the Dales.
“Farming was definitely in my blood from being very young and I was always a country boy. I went to school in Pateley and Harrogate before becoming a farm worker at Riggs Farm between Bewerley and Greenhow. My mother used to rear orphan lambs.
“I left the farm for a job as a machinist in a timber firm. Money was the reason. At the time I was on about £11 per week, but by moving away from the farm work I moved up to £80 per week. I ended up with the joinery business for around six to seven years, by which time I was in my mid-20s, then I went to work at Morrell’s animal feeds business in Nidd as a wagon driver.”
Lester met his future wife Sue whilst working with Morrell’s. She was a manageress at one of the pet shops they owned. Her parents farmed at Greystone and Lester would help out on the farm at weekends. They married and rented a property in the village of Over Silton.
“I had always farmed sheep at Pateley and eventually I bought some of my own when we married. We took charge of the farm about 27 years ago and when the property we were living in became available to purchase Sue’s mother and father bought it and we moved here.”
Greystone Farm only runs to some 67 acres and most of it is situated 800ft above sea level. There’s little room for error in any area of farming they conduct and even then they still need to provide income from elsewhere. Their concentration is on producing quality pedigree livestock in both Suffolk sheep and Hereford cattle.
“What I’ve found is that to achieve the kind of quality I am looking for we have to cull very hard. Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001 took us out so we had to start again and we’re still building up since re-stocking. We had pedigree Suffolks and Herefords at the time and presently we have around 35 breeding ewes. We now have 27 cattle, all mainly Hereford pedigrees but we are also crossing with Simmentals and Limousins. It’s a long process achieving the quality we’re after.
“There has been a major swing back to Suffolks in the past two years and that’s down to good skins and carcase. I’ve sold more Suffolks to Texel men than we’ve ever done before and there just haven’t been enough Suffolk rams to meet demand. They are gaining weight and finishing quicker.
“The only sheep we buy-in are stock rams. Our most recent purchases were a Beaufort tup and a Rookerly tup from the National Suffolk Sale at Shrewsbury. We also particularly like tups from the Waltons’ Roseden flock in Northumberland and had some success with an Irish tup.
“We like our Suffolks to conform to the breed standard and have real character, with their heads up and perky. Once we’ve selected the tups we like then we look at their pedigree and if it fits we buy.”
It’s a system that has worked well for the Peels in the show ring for a number of years and has recently also brought about national recognition for the flock.
“We’ve had a supreme breed champion at the Great Yorkshire Show and a couple of years ago we were particularly pleased to win the supreme interbreed championship at Masham Sheep Fair. This year we won seven Suffolk championships at Ryedale, Borrowby, Nidderdale, Kilnsey, Egton, Stokesley and Masham.
“We also took the supreme title at Nidder-dale and one of the ewes won four of the cups. But our proudest moments lately have been in the Suffolk Society flock competitions, where you are judged by your peers on the whole of your breed enterprise.” Lester, Sue and their 26-year-old son James took the title of Northern Counties Overall Champions in 2010, which also saw them awarded Reserve Champion Medium Flock in the UK.
This year they have achieved second place in both the ewe and gimmer lamb classes. On the strength of their increasing reputation all their rams and females are now sold privately to regular customers looking to maintain and improve their own flocks. Private sales are also commonplace for their Hereford herd and Lester is proud that everything is bred naturally.
“We don’t finish anything here. We usually sell everything at around 17-18 months as stores and have no problem selling. I think people have started realising what they have been missing taste-wise from beef when they taste Hereford or Hereford X. We keep any good females as replacements as we don’t buy-in any stock. We hire a bull. It isn’t commercially viable for us to run our own bull.”
Whilst Lester hasn’t entered the cattle show rings just yet James is reasonably keen on the idea. Lester feels that they would be more likely to enter the commercial classes than pedigree.
Sue works as a full-time field officer for the Rural Payments Agency in Northallerton, whilst Lester works part-time on cattle handling systems and as a landscape gardener. And still that isn’t all they do to make sure they can still farm the way they want to. They set up a bed and breakfast business seven years ago. It amounts to two double bedrooms but it contributes to their income and has fast become a popular destination.
“It was just a sideline to begin with but it has taken off. We now have regular visitors from as far as Scandinavia, America, New Zealand and Canada. We’re now rated as a 4-star establishment open all year round apart from Christmas week. As soon as our guests know that James Herriot (Alf Wight) was our vet they are over the moon to think they’ve stayed somewhere he came to regularly.”
The Farming Ladder – Getting On and Going is taking place at the Great Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate on Thursday, November 29. It is being organised by the Yorkshire Rural Support Network. Tickets £10. Contact: Kate Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07912 495604.