Farm of the Week: Supplying Warburtons, holiday cottages and breeding horses in the chalk Wolds

Chalk Wold land has provided an East Yorkshire farming family with quality cropping since they first arrived in the hamlet of Thornholme over a century ago.

Jo Milnes and her sister Rachel are the fourth generation to be involved at West End Farm, alongside their parents Rod and Margaret Ashton, which has concentrated on arable farming for its main income for several decades.

Jo said that the original 300-acre tenanted farm, that her grandfather Bernard Wood, on her mum Margaret’s side, came to when he was just six years old in 1918, was a very different enterprise.

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“My grandad’s parents had dairy cows, beef animals, sheep, pigs and hens providing eggs for the family. It was a typical mixed farm.

Several generations of Ashtons farm at West End

“I remember as a little girl we had dairy cows. We had a beef herd until the time of BSE. Sheep and pigs had gone much earlier. By the mid-80s we were out of livestock completely.

“The farm is now 500 acres that the family has owned since buying it from Burton Agnes estate in the 1950s, and it is wholly down to crops. We still trade under my grandad’s name of BR Wood & Co.

“Mum married and our family name became Ashton, but it was still the Wood name that farmed here as mum’s brother John farmed with grandad until my uncle emigrated to Canada with his wife Ann.”

Jo said that her parents came back north from Surrey and a year in Lincolnshire to help her grandad.

They also have a yarf for breeding and training eventing horses

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“Grandad was still fit and well, but mum had always been interested in farming. Dad is an accountant and has handled the planning, bookwork and business side of the farm for years. He’s never jumped on a tractor but runs the farm with our farm manager Peter Bradley who has been with us getting on towards 25 years.

“Peter is excellent and is a real do-it-all farm manager who plans everything, meets with our agronomist and ensures everything is planted properly, grows correctly and harvests well. I have a little input to the farm business beneath dad and Peter. Dad calls the shots overall.”

Jo said the chalk Wold land is a major asset to their cropping and one of the main reasons why West End Farm is wholly arable.

Sisters Jo and Rachel outside holiday let Granny's Cottage

“We are on the edge of the Wolds and have some very good chalk Wold land. We do have some clay land too as you come down the Wolds. It is all good land that grows excellent quality milling wheat as well as producing a strong yield.

“We average around 4.25 to 4.5 tonnes per acre and this year we have 170 acres of winter wheat varieties Crusoe and Illustrious. We’ve had good contracts with Warburtons and continue to supply milling wheat to major millers. When supplying Warburtons you have to have grow it more naturally using less fertiliser.

“All of our winter and spring barley is for malting, going into Muntons at Flamborough only a handful of miles away. This year we have 115 acres of Craft winter barley and in the next fortnight we will be ploughing and ready to drill 100 acres of spring barley variety Laureate in early March.”

Jo said this year’s oilseed rape crop of just short of 100 acres has been established well and hopefully flea beetle problems have been avoided.

“It’s a contentious issue now over whether you sow early or late to try to avoid it. Last year (autumn 2020) we lost half a field. This year’s crop (autumn 2021) went in to a really good, dry seed bed and touch wood we might get away with it.”

There are now two other businesses on the farm as Jo, who lives on the farm with her car showroom and garage-owning husband Richard, whose garage is in Bridlington, has run her equine business of breeding horses and training eventers for the past 20 years; her sister Rachel runs the much newer addition of holiday accommodation called Granny’s Cottage.

Jo said the cottage, part of the family’s history, came about as a joint venture between both sisters into holidaying just before the pandemic.

“At the start of 2020, Granny’s Cottage, which forms one-third of the farmhouse where our mum and dad live, was empty and Rachel and I decided to offer it for holiday accommodation.

“We’ve always known it as Granny’s Cottage. It’s where my great granny lived when I first knew it. It used to have a greenhouse that grew grapes and I remember an old twintub. Neither the greenhouse nor the twintub are there now.

“After a tricky start due to what happened in March 2020 we opened in the July and since then we have been inundated. Our visitors love it because although cottage gives the impression it might be small the rooms are the traditional big farmhouse rooms.

“We are dog-friendly and horse-friendly and our visitors can bring both with them and walk and ride the area without worrying about livestock because there isn’t any!

“One set of guests came for a bird watching weekend at Bempton which is just eight miles away and were absolutely thrilled when they saw swallows nesting in the barn. We are attracting all ages. Rachel is great with design in things like soft furnishings.”

Jo said her love of horses was definitely her grandad’s influence.

“Grandad bought me a pony as a child and I’ve never been without a horse since. We have 16 horses at the moment, two that are just mine to ride. The rest are for breeding and training for others to event with.

“We have four brood mares of which two are currently in-foal; and five youngsters we’ve bred ranging from one to four years old. I have two lovely stallions. A big warmblood Hanoverian eventer called Forinth who I’ve had eight years and is now 23 years old; and a dun Connemara called Barrowby Thunder Rebel who came from the Barrowby stud in Harrogate.

“Rebel is going to start eventing and we are expecting his first foal this year. My daughter Charlotte is an eventer and has a five-year-old called Reggie who she is looking to take to intermediate level if not further.”