Farm of the Week: 'Lambing at Spilmans' exciting new venture for family that welcomes visitors to their Yorkshire farm

Lambing Live events have been springtime attractions on farms for a number of years and the February half-term break for schools has become another period to welcome visitors to learn more about lambing and to enjoy produce from farm shops and cafés, and the Spilman family, particularly Farmer Joss, are in full flow right now.

Farmer Joss is Joseph Spilman who, together with his brother Tom and their parents Richard and Sally, grow crops and keep livestock, with the sheep taking centre stage this weekend and next weekend.

The Spilmans know how to put on a show, whether Christmas Shows, pumpkin events or their Lambing at Spilmans and Joss has been leading up to these weekends by using social media and sharing regular updates on their flock of 100 predominantly Mule ewes via his LambCam and referring to the lambing area as the maternity ewe-nit. He makes it fun.

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“It’s our third year,” says Joss. “Our first was really popular, and last year too, but slightly different with school half terms for North Yorkshire and County Durham staggered.

Ziggy Spilman and children Billy and Lara with the new goats on the farmZiggy Spilman and children Billy and Lara with the new goats on the farm
Ziggy Spilman and children Billy and Lara with the new goats on the farm

“We synchronise breeding so the ewes will lamb during the school half term period and this year our opening times are spread over three weekends, having started last weekend allowing visitors to see freshly-born lambs or perhaps catch that magical moment of a lamb being born.

“We have a marquee at the back of the farm, the maternity ewe-nit,” says Joss. “The ewes are in there and once lambed the ewes and lambs go into the barn where there are pens set up. It’s all coordinated so that everyone can have a great experience here.

The Spilmans had a flock of 400 ewes at one time but gradually cut back to what they have now, which are more for their use as a visitor attraction and for people to enjoy the farm shop and café, which are open when events take place.

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The family farming enterprise at Church Farm, Sessay, where the Lambing at Spilman is based, runs to around 100 acres; and the family also has Lodge Farm at Helperby.

Joss Spilman pictured feeding a lambJoss Spilman pictured feeding a lamb
Joss Spilman pictured feeding a lamb

And there’s a lot more to the Spilman enterprise than lambing.

The total farmed acreage is 700 acres, with arable cropping, 150 acres of grass and the rest made up of asparagus, strawberries, pumpkins and various other crops; plus they have cattle, 150 Wagyu-cross-dairy cattle which Tom says they grow on for Warrendale Wagyu.

“The system with Warrendale works well for us because we know what price we’re paying for what’s coming in and for when the stock leaves us. They come to us at four to five months at about 150 kilos and go out at 400 kilos. They go on to a specialist fattener. We’ve been on with Wagyu for two years.

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Farmer Joss is not just the face of Lambing at Spilmans, he’s also the man with the finger on the pulse over the cropping.

Inside the farm shopInside the farm shop
Inside the farm shop

“We are currently growing 50 acres of winter wheat variety Zealum, which is grown for seed; and 50 acres of Zealum and Dawsum winter wheats for feed and biscuit wheat. Our average winter wheat yield last harvest was 3.8 tonnes per acre.

“We have 50 acres of winter barley variety Orwell for feed, and the variety Capitol for seed. We averaged around 3.25 to 3.5 tonnes per acre last year.

“We’re on light land that suffers in dry springs and this year we are growing maize and vining peas instead of spring barley. We are also growing 75 acres of fodder beet grown for stock feed which we sell to livestock farmers locally and as far as Cumbria and Northumberland. We’re also growing spring beans that are fed to our Wagyu cattle.

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“We have cover crops ahead of fodder beet and spring beans. Some of our wheat fields are established with a Claydon drill dependent on soil and weather conditions, but we are still also using the plough and combi drill. Our one crop that is under serious review is oilseed rape. It averaged 1.6 tonnes per acre last year and we lost two-thirds of the crop to flea beetle this year.

Joss says there has been an increase in the use of farmyard manure to promote organic matter in the soil and that the farm is in two concurrent stewardship schemes as well as an SFI involvement, but for all that paperwork and time taken up with this there is less coming back to the farm.

“All of these amount to 50 per cent of what we would have received through the BPS.

Tom tells of three other crops, two of which draw visitors to the farm and one that has developed a marketplace among top chefs and hotels.

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“We grow 35 acres of asparagus, 25 acres of pumpkins and 12 acres of strawberries. We have really good markets for our asparagus and strawberries. We’ve been growing strawberries over 50 years and the PYO market remains strong, accounting for 20 per cent of what we sell, the rest going to shops all over Yorkshire.

“We use varieties that produce a good firm strawberry. The different varieties, eight in all, make sure we start the season in early June and finish by the end July. We need a good hard skin that keeps the strawberry well once picked. The two most important considerations when choosing varieties are disease resistance and taste.

Tom says their asparagus story sees produce sold throughout the UK.

“We have a couple of big hotel suppliers, sell to lot of shops around Yorkshire and one of the best wholesalers in London, where we deliver three times a week in season. We grow what top chefs want, which is a good thick spear and tastes good. We’ve had great feedback about ours being the best, which is perhaps because of the soil quality we have here and that we grade it very well.

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“We grow it in good, free draining, sandy soil. Dad started with the crop 17 years ago.

“We started off with Gijnlim, a Dutch-bred variety, and also have Aspalim and Javelim. Javelim is the thicker one, and Aspalim an early variety. Our season starts from the beginning of April and ends in mid-June.

Recently another market has developed with the Spilmans’ now growing wildflower turf on contract for The Wildflower Turf Company.

Tom says this came about after he read an article by the person who had started the company and he had contacted him.

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“We’ve been doing it now for the past five years and it goes all over the UK for use in people’s gardens to the roofs of service stations. I just rang the owner of the company and our land suited the crop, plus we had irrigation facilities and we had the labour.

“We don’t do any sales ourselves. We grow the turf, make sure it’s right and have it ready for when it is wanted. We lift it ourselves, it gets put on a pallet and off it goes out to the customer.

Lambing at Spilmans will be well under way today and tomorrow (Saturday 17, Sunday 18 February and from Thursday 22 to Sunday 25 February. Check for full details.

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