History points to the ice age of 18,000 years ago having shaped the world as we know it but for Richard Haigh it was the ‘freezer age’ of the mid-70s that moulded his own life.
Born in Huddersfield, the son of a headmaster, Richard farms 300-owned acres, and a further 200 acres rented, from the family base at New Hall Farm in the village of Hopton. His family also owns Haigh’s Farm Shop at Mirfield and they received this year’s Tye Trophy Award for conservation practice in South and West Yorkshire at the Great Yorkshire Show.
“All of what we have achieved as a family has been like a dream come true,” says Richard. “I was born a landless peasant and always wanted to farm. I’d helped out on John Micklethwaite’s small dairy farm in Lower Hopton since being 10-years-old, but knew that going to work on a farm when I left school at 15 wasn’t for me because I felt I’d get stuck and never get anywhere.
“I wanted to get something behind me and managed it by becoming an apprentice slaughterman at FMC (Fatstock Marketing Corporation) in Bradford in 1960. I started in the meat trade by renting land, buying cattle and fattening them.
“By 1975 everybody had a chest freezer. I opened a butcher’s shop in Mirfield and started selling quarters and sides of beef, half lambs and business boomed. We called it Mirfield Freezer Supplies and within 18 months I needed bigger premises so I rented what had been a grocers shop.
“We opened the farm shop in 1980 on land that I’d bought in 1969. One of the reasons we do so well is our location. Around here there are a lot of chimney pots, which means thousands of customers.”
Haigh’s Farm Shop’s beef is its biggest seller.
“Continental breeds were only just coming over to the UK in the 1960s. I remember Charolais were about in 1965, but the first cattle I had were Herefords. In my opinion they were better then than they are today. I bought them at between 12-15 months. Dairy farms had proper (British) Friesian cows then and if they had enough heifer calves they bulled them with the Hereford, which bred excellent white-faced bullocks and heifers. I had Angus, Welsh Blacks and Shorthorns too.
“We have around 400 beef cattle on our farms at the moment, which are bought in as stores from livestock markets at Leyburn, Lancaster and Longtown. We go up to the border to buy Galloways and Belted Galloways and have about 80 of them. They are all grass fed and stay outside all of the time. The rest are largely Limousin X and Charolais X heifers due to the demand we have for lean meat.
“We buy all of our fat lambs at Holmfirth livestock market and all of our fat pigs from Selby livestock market but we never buy because of the man who is selling, we buy on what best suits our demand.”
Richard’s first substantial land purchase involved 39 acres in Heckmondwike in 1997, but it was the acquisition of New Hall Farm in 2004 and Cockley Hill Farm in 2006 that brought the family into the farming vanguard in Hopton. He’s since purchased other acreages in Kirkheaton and Brighouse.
“When Cockley Hill Farm came up for sale, the farm next to New Hall, we took the opportunity to buy it. You only get one chance in your lifetime to buy the neighbouring farm so it made sense. We also bought the grain dryer and storage bins at Cockley Hill Farm and now grow our own wheat and barley for cattle feed.”
Richard married his wife Catherine in 1975. They lived at the farm shop and built a farmhouse there in 1978. They have two sons George and Charles and eight grandchildren.
“George is based more in the shop and Charles more on the farm but the whole family is involved. They start the day together in the farm shop and we all help each other out.”
Moving back to Hopton 12 years ago was another proud moment for Richard. It has fuelled his passion for the countryside and also allows him to cast back fondly on his youth.
“Coming to live here in 2004 was like being back home. My parents had lived in Lepton until I was two and had then moved to Hopton Lane where I lived until I was 20. It was no more than three-quarters of a mile from where we live today. Hopton is a beautiful rural idyll after coming through the urban jungle that is all around us.
“We have a well-used bridle path that runs right up the middle of the farm, which was a cart track. We’ve fenced it so that walkers and those on horses know exactly where it runs and it’s now like a green lane. We’ve created five ponds, planted miles of new hedgerows, hundreds of trees and have brought about new woodland on rough land. We also have a shoot on the farm and host a meet for the Rockwood Harriers.”
Richard knows none of his achievements would have come without the meat trade. He points to two of the biggest events in livestock farming and how one proved another boon to Haigh’s Farm Shop.
“The ‘freezer age’ certainly helped our business tremendously. Like many we’ve had some tough times too and Foot & Mouth Disease year in 2001 caused us problems when we couldn’t move stock, but a few years before that when BSE was in the news our trade actually saw an increase.
“Traceability became a watchword for everyone. Our customers have always known exactly where our beef has come from and that it was grass fed. So BSE didn’t do us any harm at all and we started getting busier.”
Richard’s grandfather Fred Haigh was a renowned wheelwright in Kirkburton having followed on from Richard’s great grandfather.
“We have a proud history in farming and manufacturing farm carts but my grandfather saw the writing on the wall for wheelwrights and encouraged his five children to get a good education. That’s how dad became a teacher and then a headmaster. My brother and two sisters have all done well in their professions and I’ve taken us back to farming.”