A NORTH Yorkshire farmer plans radical changes by taking lessons from our ancestors. Michael Hickling reports. Pictures by Mike Cowling and Jonathan Gawthorpe.
He now says that going back in time is the way to take it forward. It sounds a quixotic thing to do and many may take that view. Steve, however, is an energetic young man with imagination and is certain this is the way forward for a small farm of 111 acres.
In essence, the argument runs like this: there’s more money to be made out of people watching him farm than actually doing it. The public may not pay to view a modern agribusiness, but a farm worked by heavy horses with wooden waggons and stooks and scythes, threshing machines and all the other picturesque paraphenalia familiar from sepia photos of long ago add up to a winning attraction.
This is what Steve plans to create.
The first box to tick is location, location. Steve’s is pretty good. He’s minutes from the A1 roundabout on the A59 and about 25 minutes from York, close enough maybe to become a satellite of the city’s tourist industry.
His farmhouse dates from 1780 and stands prominently, almost like a mini stately home, three storeys high and full of character and history. A Roman counting house once occupied this site and there was an Iron Age settlement in a neighbouring field. In the Domesday Book it is recorded as a settlement called Torp. So plenty to go at here then.
Steve is also the chairman of the parish council and is in touch with local opinion and feeling. And what makes his plans so interesting are that the residents of nearby Thorpe Underwood are included in them.
It’s a commuter village now rather than an agricultural one and Steve says locals are keen to come and get their hands dirty. He even talks about them planting potatoes and bringing in the harvest and being paid in fresh eggs.
This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. There’s already a growing interest around the country in a movement called community supported agriculture where this sort of involvement happens on a small scale and it has taken root in West Yorkshire. Steve’s disenchantment with specialist, intensive, modern farming reached a climax five years ago when they had 40,000 pigs going through the farm annually, being bed and breakfasted before ending up at Tesco. The pigs’ owners went bust and things were so dire Steve and his family did not know if they could feed the 700 sows they had been left with.
They were owed £35,000 in management fees and had a long battle to get anything back. Eventually they received £2,000.
Since then, Steve has been working on his plan to turn back the clock. “It means building a farm from scratch again,” says Steve. “But there is a hunger for all this, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of people who live in the village here who don’t understand the countryside.”
His ideas crystalise the big issues surrounding farming – notably sustainability and the use of land in an overcrowded island. Farms, like any business, need to maximise profit but the more efficient they become the more inimical they are to the birds and the bees and other forms of wildlife around them which the non-farming public want to see preserved.
One way round this to pay farmers out of the public purse to be less efficient – by leaving uncultivated margins round the edge of fields where bird can forage for example.
Steve insists he’s not trying to change the world but he’s not short on big ideas. He believes farmers involving the public in the process of taking food from the field to plate must be a good thing.
“We’re calling on the village for help. We want the farm to be part of village life rather than just something to drive past. We’ll be delivering produce by horse and cart to them. We hope to organise a village fete and an outreach programme for schools to help anti-social kids and have them working on the farm.”
He says half the farm will be open by July, which looks a bit ambitious, and he talks about branding it and “making it global”. He insists the farm will be run authentically and he’s hoping farmers who are well-disposed towards it will donate old implements and machines. “We’re not fly-by-night dealers. What comes here will stay here.”
This, he says, will be in contrast to the ‘Victorian’ farms seen on television where the old gear is returned to its owners once the cameras have gone.
He admits there’s been a mixed reaction from neighbouring farms. “Some think we are play farming. But we want to show how a small farm is viable in the modern environment.”
In other words, being old is at the cutting edge of the new.
He has been in touch with Askham Bryan college, where he once studied part-time, to see if they have students interested in a project to build a parkland, suitable for a house of 1780, from scratch.
He also intends to employ seven people who are in sympathy with his ethos and is doing his recruitment by networking with members of the North Yorkshire Smallholders Society.
Steve’s family came here in 1982, initially renting the farm from North Yorkshire County Council. When Steve’s father died, his mother Joan ran it till her children left school. Joan is a farmer’s daughter from East Yorkshire who remembers the days of stooks and leading in.
She may even recall beautiful giants like Camalter Andra and Camalter Ruby plodding through the fields. These are the pedigree Shire horses Steve is buying from Rodney Greenwood of Near Royd Farm near Halifax. His renown as a breeder and handler of Shires is such that he was recently invited with others to Clarence House by Prince Charles to talk about it.
Some years ago, the prospect of doing something similar to what is now planned at Thorpe Hill Farm greatly appealed to Rodney and his wife Linda. They would dearly have loved to have taken over the Northern Heavy Horse centre at North Newbald on the Yorkshire Wolds when the people who ran it retired.
“But maybe it wasn’t to be,” sighs Linda.
In many respects, what Rodney has at Near Royd is a Victorian farm. As well as being a Shire horse expert, he’s a wheelwright and traditional waggon builder and repairer. These are remarkable skills that many people would queue to watch him using.
But this isn’t a public place. Their farm lies deep in a cleft in the hillside, a characterful moorland spot but not a suitable location to develop as a public attraction. They have 12 acres and no room to expand.
Rodney’s main work was the family haulage company he ran with his brother. They recently closed most of it and he now devotes most of his attention to the farm.
Tethered in their stalls, his mares are a little bad tempered on this particular afternoon. They have been denied their usual release into the field above in order to be ready to pose for photographs.
There are six at the moment with one due to foal. Their feathers – the plumes of hair over the hooves – have been washed out and treated with pig oil in the traditional manner and overall they look magnificent. Each mare weighs three-quarters of a ton and in the shafts of sunlight that pierce the barn interior you can see a dapple bloom on their hindquarters and flanks that apparently tells those who know that these horses are in tip-top condition. You could stare at them for hours.
There’s nothing picturesque in this farm’s story. It began in 1917 as coal and haulage business from Homefield Station, agriculture was an add-on. Rodney began as a local joiner’s apprentice but only lasted a month because he already knew too much.
In his barn is the latest job – a late 18th century vehicle he has completely rebuilt, known as a Wolds Waggon. Rodney thinks it was probably from the Broomfleet-Goole area and was used to carry ballast for railway builders. He has sufficient carts and waggons parked here, immaculately finished or wormy wrecks awaiting attention, to furnish a museum.
Rodney has been associated with horses all his life and has bred 30 Shires since 1998. He understands better than most the economics of employing a working horse. Putting aside sentiment, it’s obvious that one horsepower will fall short when matched against a machine with many.
“Ploughing with horses, you can expect to do an acre a day and you will walk 11 miles, he says. “A tractor will do 15-20 acres a day.”
It’s also a fact that a modern 360hp tractor will consume a gallon of diesel every seven to nine miles where a horse requires no more fuel than free grass and some carrots. But trimming their hooves and shoeing every six to eight weeks will set you back £140 per horse. And their capacity for work will vary with age.
“A horse’s life goes in seven year cycles,” says Rodney. “For the first seven they are learning, for the second seven they are at their best and for the last seven they are cooling down.”
He takes Andra and Ruby, both four years old, up to his windswept hillside where they pose obligingly like the professionals they are. “Ploughing, land work – they’ll do anything you want, those two and they don’t flinch in traffic.”
How long will it take Steve Newlove to get them working? “If he’s got knowledge enough, the horses are ready to go straight to work. If not it will take him six months to get himself geared up.”
What does Rodney think of Steve’s scheme? “I think it’s good. We need new ideas.”
Steve Newlove: 07786 731995; Rodney Greenwood: 01422 366688.