Farm of the Week: From static caravan to Georgian farmhouse after losing father in a combine harvester accident

Four years ago a North Yorkshire farmer swapped living in a static caravan with his wife Lezah and young family for a lifetime opportunity that now sees them living in a grand old Georgian farmhouse with a courtyard.

John and Lazeh with sons Seth and Zane and John's mother Glennis

John Dunwell can’t hide his smile at Low Farm in Fylingthorpe where he now tenants the 150-acre farm that he said is a dream come true.

“I was on such an edge when I knew it was coming up to rent. I’d worked here for Laurence ‘Lol’ Hodgson, the previous tenant, and Lezah’s dad farms close by in Boggle Hole. It is great for us and our boys, Zane and Seth, but the outlay we have made and continue to make certainly makes me sweat.”

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John said that making it work as a business is now his aim.

The family have to work full-time jobs in order to keep their tenanted farm going

“It would not be possible at all without my day job as an artificial inseminator with Genus ABS or Lezah’s job in a local shop and her Dotty Dough Factory business selling playdough and crafting tools.”

John’s farming passion is cows. He has steadily built up a suckler herd, producing cattle sold as stores at Ruswarp livestock market, and is currently also building a pedigree herd of British Blondes.

Since the move to Fylingthorpe he has added sheep to his farming business that he admits to being his steepest learning curve and is also growing 50 acres of spring barley rotating around the farm’s acreage.

Having gone into the mid-tier stewardship scheme John is looking after 12 kilometres of hedgerows and is beginning to renew grass leys. He also rents a further 60 acres on short-term lets and his mother Glennis still owns a further 80 acres at Ruswarp where he grew up with his sisters, Carol and Jane.

Busy doesn’t begin to describe John’s life at present. He said one of his main discoveries has been just how wet a farm he has taken on.

“You’ve just to manage it and work it properly with the conditions. Winter-sown crops would be fantastic if we had a good back end but winter barley doesn’t like its feet wet so we went for growing spring barley and this year we are growing the varieties Diablo and Planet.

“We are trying to be as self-sufficient as possible with the barley being grown for feed for the cattle. Last year the weather was so wet that we couldn’t harvest the crop. The previous year we couldn’t get it established, so we’re hoping we are able to harvest it this September. I’d like to achieve two and a half to three tonnes per acre.

“Cows have always been my thing. We had dairy cows at Ruswarp until I was in my twenties, milking 40 black and whites.”

John studied at the Guisborough centre of Askham Bryan College for five years on day release for his national diploma in agriculture.

When Buskey House, where Glennis farmed in Ruswarp, went out of dairying John started out as self-employed and worked for several farms in a variety of roles, but generally as a relief milker. John said that was how he became known as an AI man.

“I became AI trained through working on dairy farms. I’ve been working for Genus ABS for 14 years. I’ve been to Idaho in USA and seen farms with over 20,000 dairy cows. That was an eye opener.”

John said he credits Edwin Pearson of Thistlegrove Blondes in Aislaby with his move into the pedigree beef breeding world.

“Edwin got me into Blondes. We bought our first pedigree heifer from him and the foundation cows for the herd came through Neil and Jess Barrett of Everingham and Ian and Sue Archer’s prestigious Marston Mill herd in Warwickshire.

“My aim is to produce bulls to sell to other breeders of commercial and pedigree herds and I have sold some stock bulls so far. I am currently concentrating on getting my cow numbers up using sexed semen. We use French and Irish bloodlines across the Blondes and the commercials.

“I’d like to get to 75 suckler cows, with the Blondes making up 30 of them. We are just shy of 20 at the moment. I prefer French bloodlines because they bring about the maternal qualities and produce good milk for the calves.”

Ruswarp Mart is John’s local livestock market and most stock goes that way.

“You can’t get past Ruswarp for the selling of store cattle. It has a well-earned reputation. All of our commercial bulls go at nine months and heifers go at a year. Their monthly sales of store cattle and suckler sales through the year are very well respected. We also go to Malton and Darlington. We have some good regular buyers at all marts.”

Sheep are John’s newest venture. Being a cattle man first and foremost, he is currently feeling his way with them.

“We have 120 Mules and now have 50 of our homebred Texel-cross-Mules and 30 Swaledales. All of our lambs go to Ruswarp as stores and our first draft have gone this week. It’s a new environment for me. We lamb in March. This has been our third lambing season. Everybody helps out including my sisters and their families.”

John’s mother Glennis tragically lost her husband and John’s father David in a combine harvester accident when John was just eight years old. John said his mother held everything together.

“Without mother I wouldn’t be where I am today. She carried on farming when Dad passed away and raised us. She had family help but I will always be grateful for how she taught us to get on.”

John’s three passions are cows, motorbikes and rock music. He manages to combine all three at Low Farm.

“Our homebred cattle are all named after rock stars. Our five-year old homebred Blonde bull is Lars, after the drummer from Metallica; Slash from Guns ’n’ Roses is one of our calves; even our sheepdog pup is called Bon after Bon Scott of AC/DC.

“I have a Honda CR250 and the boys have pit bikes. We all love riding off-road and we’ve plenty of that here.”