Farm of the Week: From working in the City to field to fork farming and butchery in Richmondshire

Native heritage breeds are the driving force behind John and Helen Bell’s North Yorkshire farming and butchery enterprise.

John and Helen Bell farm heritage breeds

Working over three sites, Tunstall Road Farm in Catterick, Manor Farm in Newton-le-Willows and Tunstall Meat Company (TMC) butcher’s shop in Richmond, the business has been a return to agriculture for Weardale-born farmer’s son, John.

Following a career in the City and overseas which took him away from agriculture for many years, John said he always wanted to return to farming.

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“One of the things I had missed most was farming and the countryside. I grew up around native breeds. My dad had Mules that were put to a Suffolk tup on his mixed farm. I had always been interested in heritage breeds and had a hankering to get back to them when the time was right.”

Helen with former Newcastle United FC head chef Robert Hendrix, who now runs the butchery

Manor Farm was bought in 2009 with Tunstall Road Farm added in 2013, running to 550 acres across the two farms. John said buying the second farm was a decisive move to grow their livestock enterprise the way he and Helen wanted.

“We bought Tunstall Road Farm by auction from North Yorkshire County Council and that allowed us to house the animals, expand our numbers and drive our livestock farming interests.”

John and Helen said they found making a success of native breeds was by a ‘field to fork’ approach rather than selling through livestock markets.

“We found that 90 per cent of the beef cattle being sold through livestock markets was Limousin cross cattle and we realised we could never compete on that level, so we decided to major on grass-reared native breeds, fantastic animal welfare, traceability and local.

The couple have three sites for sheep and cattle

“We also realised that if we were ever going to make a business model that worked, we had to go direct to the customer.”

John said a friend, Robert Hendrix, steered them in the direction of opening the Richmond butcher’s shop in 2018, where they now trade as TMC.

“Robert was executive head chef with Newcastle United Football Club for ten years and had been looking for a new challenge.

“Helen and I hadn’t known how to take our plans to the next level and he did, utilising the quality of the meat and its traceability. Robert set up the shop and is now director of our butchery side of the business, which has grown steadily through local trade but also online sales as customers have realised the better taste offered by heritage breeds.”

John said the prospects for the future of the farm and the butchery business go hand in hand.

“When customers try our beef, lamb or pork they tell us the taste is amazing and keep coming back.

“Everything is dictated by how fast we can grow, as we always want to be supplied by our own livestock.

“There is such a demand for local produce, local delivery and provenance right now and we are really passionate about supporting people who want to shop local.”

John oversees the farming operation with farm manager, Sam Lumb, a farmer’s son from Keighley and assistant farm manager Megan Mulholland from South Africa.

John said the farm’s focus is all about supplying the right stock, bred in the most natural way for the butchery.

“We started out small scale and we are still a relatively small livestock farm.

“It’s all about doing everything right on the farm including improving our soil structure, using clover to fix nitrogen and increase protein, growing kale as winter forage for the cattle and the use of cover crops including spring barley to cut our feed costs.”

Pedigree Belted Galloways and Herefords along with Hereford cross Friesians make up the suckler herd that runs to around 50 breeding cows and followers. John said that their aim is always to keep them out on grass as long as it is possible.

“It’s Sam’s decision when stock is ready and his judgement is based on ensuring we maintain the same level of consistency throughout.

“Our aim is to have the Herefords finished between 22-28 months and the Belties at around 30 months. The correct ageing assures that marbling and flavour.”

In keeping with the Bells' farming ethos, John said they bull naturally rather than using AI.

“We buy bulls privately and produce all of our own pedigree replacements for the suckler herd. We are not aiming to produce pedigree bulls to sell to other breeders, our focus is supplying TMC.”

Hampshire Down ewes are the preferred breed for lamb production with both a pedigree flock and a terminal flock where the Hampshire Downs are put to a Texel cross North Country Cheviot tup.

Sam said the breed performs well off the farm’s 260 acres of grassland and fit well with the farm’s lambing programme.

“We lamb 35-40 of the pedigree ewes in December for the spring lamb market through the shop. The Hampshire Down lamb is renowned for being quick to suckle,” he said.

John said the outdoor reared pedigree Berkshire pork is proving popular in the shop and Megan said she is particularly proud of the sow herd and the progress made at Tunstall Road Farm.

“We had four sows and a boar when I started. We now have 14 sows of which nine are pedigree Berkshires and as with the cattle and sheep, anything that is good enough for breeding is kept, otherwise it’s all destined for the shop.

“We are very conscious of maintaining bloodlines in what is a rare breed and we have been partly responsible for the Freight Train bloodline rising from only four boars in the country to the 11 there are now.

“We’re now one of the biggest pedigree Berkshire breeders in the country.”