Farm of the Week: The family who turned to free-range eggs in the Howardian Hills after sugar beet factory closure

When the York sugar beet factory closed and a potato contract with a major local processor was not as sweet, a North Yorkshire farm cracked on with an investment in a free-range poultry unit that became its main income.

Paul supplies eggs from his farm in the Howardian Hills
Paul supplies eggs from his farm in the Howardian Hills

An expanded beef cattle enterprise now sits alongside what has developed into an egg retail business and combined with contracting work undertaken in spring and autumn, farmer Paul Johnson and his family have their hands full.

Paul farms at Flat Top Farm, Terrington with his wife Julie and son Robert. They farm across 320 acres of owned and rented land with other farmland at Whitwell where Paul grew up with his parents, Richard and Sheila.

Paul said life is very different to when he was a lad and more particularly to when the sugar beet factory was still open in the mid-noughties.

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    Paul Johnson stocking his free-range egg collection point

    “My dad passed away in 2008, the factory had closed just prior to then and we invested in the free-range poultry unit.

    “Up until that time it had been a very mixed farm with a few sheep, cattle, potatoes, sugar beet and other crops but we then did away with all except the cattle.

    “We put all of our efforts into the poultry and, as time has gone on, we have developed other areas of our business around it. After four years we introduced our egg retail business that is now Johnson’s Fresh Farm Eggs.

    “We now have 16,000 hens all on RSPCA Freedom Foods and Lion code welfare schemes that come in at point of lay and thanks to a home mix undertaken by Harbro, the hens produce eggs for us until around 86-88 weeks."

    Daughter Jess tends the cattle

    Paul said the egg business has been an eye opener for him in talking with the general public.

    “We sell quite a lot of our eggs direct to our own customers including restaurants, hotels, cafés, tearooms and bed and breakfast establishments.

    “We do all the deliveries ourselves and I’ve found that people are increasingly interested in where their food is coming from.”

    Paul said he and daughter Jess show the cattle during the summer agricultural show season and topped off their year with success at the North East British Blue Club Show at Newark showground in October when they won with a Blue-cross heifer as supreme calf, followed by achieving the Christmas Primestock supreme championship at York Auction Centre two weeks ago with a fat Limousin-Belgian Blue cross heifer.

    “She won the lightweight heifer class, then took overall heifer champion and from there she was pulled out as supreme champion. It’s the first time for about 15 years that we have won and last year’s winner Pip Dale was first to congratulate me.

    “We enjoy showing during the summer and regularly show at the Great Yorkshire where we have had best homebred commercial and at Malton, Ryedale, Thornton-le-Dale and sometimes Wensleydale. Jess, who has her own JRJ Therapies business, prepares them at the showground with final touches and leads them in the ring.

    “Our selection policy for showing is that if the steers or heifers we produce in the herd aren’t good enough to show they go fat, or the Blue-cross Limousin heifers will be retained and run with the Limmie bull at two years old.”

    Paul said they have grown the numbers in the herd at Flat Top to around 400-head of stock.

    “We’ve grown it quite a bit from where we started. We now run a suckler herd of around 80 cows. We started breeding our own Belgian Blues five years ago. We haven’t sold any in their entirety yet and currently run them with the Limousin bull. If I breed a good enough bull he will go to Carlisle for the spring sales.

    “We have eight pedigree Belgian Blue cows currently and the rest of the suckler herd is made up of Blue-cross cows and pure Limousin cows run with either a Blue bull or Limousin bull.

    “We buy 150 black and white Friesian bull calves every year from a collection centre at Wrexham fatten them and they go into McDonald’s. The aim is for them to leave at around 12-13 months up to 500 kilos liveweight.

    “In addition we also buy around 35 Blue-cross-Friesian heifer calves from Leyburn Mart that we take through to 24 months before selling fat.”

    Paul said that the addition of a modern weighing system in recent years has proved a very useful piece of equipment in monitoring weight gain.

    “When we weigh a beast it automatically records and when you weigh the same beast again, no matter what the time gap, it tells you how many kilos per day the beast has been putting on. It’s invaluable as the black and whites can hit their target and from then on their growth rate can reduce markedly and can prove counterproductive.”

    Paul said that the start of calving has been at the beginning of February but that he is looking to tighten it up over the next two years.

    “Our later born calves have not generally done as well as the rest, so we are moving to starting calving in mid-January and finishing calving around the end of May.”

    Paul said that contracting work and growing crops for the cattle and hens make up the rest of the Johnson enterprise.

    “Our contracting work is mainly with potatoes and tillage in the spring and potato lifting and cultivation work in autumn. On the farm here in Terrington and on our land eight miles away in Whitwell we grow wheat that feed the hens, barley that we feed back to the cattle and fodder beet and silage.”

    Paul said that prior to introducing the poultry unit it was just himself and Julie involved in the farm enterprise.

    “Now we have myself, Julie, Robert, who is full-time and a local man Kev who is self-employed. We also have three full-time packers and graders.”