Farm of the Week: Pig fatteners whose new glamping pods have opened up a market for peaceful winter breaks

The big skies of East Yorkshire, brought into greater prominence through the works of artist David Hockney, can now be enjoyed by visitors to a farm in the sleepy village of Burshill where livestock farming couple Mark and Sally Conner farm in partnership with their son Sam.

Their three new luxury glamping pods at Weatherhill Farm are all part of their vision for the future as Sam is getting married in December and additional incomes are always important when more than one family is involved than was the case previously.

Sally said that the pods, built in Estonia, are already proving a hit and because they are manufactured to keep visitors warm during the winter months, and each have hot tubs, the bookings are already looking good after just a few weeks of starting with them

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“It was Sam’s suggestion, the pods. We had this field that we were paying for and getting no income from whatsoever. We went to a Farm Business Innovation Show in Birmingham and saw these pods and Sam said this would be a really good idea.

Mark and Sally Conner at Weatherhill Farm, Burshill, Brandesburton.Mark and Sally Conner at Weatherhill Farm, Burshill, Brandesburton.
Mark and Sally Conner at Weatherhill Farm, Burshill, Brandesburton.

“Originally, we were going to go down the line of shepherd’s huts but we decided to go for these pods because they are a lot different.

“They are very well insulated and that should bring a really good winter trade that we hope will see us busy all year round, and they are really well made so that in the summer you don’t melt inside them when it is hot either. I think winter in them here will be as nice as summer, because they are so warm. They all have hot tubs and we have invested in air source heat pumps to ensure they are heated properly.

Sally said their target market is couples looking to enjoy a really chilled out but warm break in a quiet location.

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“We love living in our little hamlet of Burshill and we didn’t want to change it. We have been very mindful that we didn’t want to encourage noise or be too touristy. That’s why we only applied for three pods and it is adults only, no children and no dogs. We promote it as a peaceful place.

Sally with son Sam and one of the Iglu glamping pods.Sally with son Sam and one of the Iglu glamping pods.
Sally with son Sam and one of the Iglu glamping pods.

“The feedback we are getting is lovely. They’re all loving the views, that we take for granted. They can gaze at the stars, there’s no light pollution, just the quietness. We landscaped Mayflower Meadow where they are situated because we didn’t want to intrude on anybody else’s lifestyle and privacy, with earthbanks around the pods, thanks to our good friend and local farmer Chris Foreman.

The core business at Weatherhill Farm is pigs, as it has been throughout Mark’s farming life. The Conners contract fatten, but it wasn’t always that way. Like many pig farmers Mark once ran a sow herd, that at one time saw him with sows on several holdings around North Frodingham where he grew up, running the business with his father Charlie and Mark’s two brothers Geoff and Patrick.

Mark said that those days of boom and bust in the pig breeding world, that saw he and his father and brothers lose a fortune, are fortunately behind him now.

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“We are really lucky today, because we’re on a contract with Wold Farms and are very happy with them. It’s the best thing we ever did. At the time when we were keeping our own pigs, I didn’t want to do it, even though people were saying why don’t you bed and breakfast? Eventually, I had to because we had pretty much lost everything.

Mark and Sally Conner at Weatherhill Farm, Burshill, BrandesburtonMark and Sally Conner at Weatherhill Farm, Burshill, Brandesburton
Mark and Sally Conner at Weatherhill Farm, Burshill, Brandesburton

“We started again, from scratch, just Sally and I, about 15 years ago. We have contract finished for a few different companies but we have been with Wold Farms for the past four years.

Mark said they now have pigs on four separate units and that pigs were all he ever wanted to do.

“All our pigs are on straw and everything is under the Freedom Foods standards. I never wanted to do anything but farm. I left school and went straight on to helping my dad who always liked his pigs. We still trade under the name my dad set up, CC Conner & Sons, even though it’s just the three of us now.

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“Animal husbandry is really important. Welfare of any animal is vital and we spend a lot of time with our pigs making sure they are receiving the best attention. We have invested heavily in state-of-the-art buildings and feeding equipment for them.

“When the pig industry was good back in the early 1990s we were flying. We milled our own feed, had two balers, handled all our own baling for our straw-based units and had a pretty good setup with nine men employed, but when we hit two or three bad times and the pig industry went bang, we had to do something. We couldn’t go on as we were.

Mark said the livestock enterprise at Weatherhill also includes cattle.

“The pigs make up about 90 per cent of our income. We generally run about 100 beef cattle, which are all bought-in for fattening by a chap called Dave Albert who usually buys them for me out of Leyburn Mart. They are largely Holstein-cross-Aberdeen Angus.

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“We were buying them as calves, but milk powder is now very expensive so we have been buying good, strong weaned calves. We have 50 on at the moment and can house between 100-150.

“We trade our muck for straw, with local farmers, and have a small amount of arable land. We still tenant 100 acres over at Low Farm, where I grew up in North Frodingham, and we have 18 acres that we now own here in Burshill.

When they were married Mark and Sally bought the then 7-acre Villa Farm in Burshill, in 1981, which included a house, farm buildings and a paddock. They now live in the new house they had built on that paddock and the farm is now Weatherhill Farm.

Sally said the latest moves afoot on the farm also include the building of a house for Sam and his new wife Megan, and that the family farm’s varied incomes should hopefully provide a steadier base than when they were beholden to just the pig market.

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“We had an opportunity to buy another field of between five to six acres, in addition to an earlier acquisition and that is where the pods are situated.

“Sam has his own popular videography and photography business and I have my role as regional manager with the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI).

“So, my job and Sam’s sideline, combined with the pods, the cattle and our main income from the pigs gives us a varied income.

Sally and Mark have two daughters, Hollie and Charlotte, who are both married and they have a fast-expanding wider family with seven grandchildren that Mark describes as ‘a workforce ready to farm.’

Mark is now feeling more positive over the farm’s future.

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“It was my brother-in-law Phil Cherry who really supported us when things were bad and I finally saw the light over contract fattening. Now we are letting others see different lights, from the stars in our big skies.