Farm of the Week: Retail overhaul is the start of something special at Mainsgill

Everyone has bad days. When that happens to Andrew and Maria Henshaw they open up a drawer in their office that holds past records to remind them of what they have been through. They regain perspective, realise they're doing all right and shut it back up. That's how they deal with life at Mainsgill Farm and Farm Shop on the A66 just four miles from Scotch Corner.

Andrew and Maria Henshaw with children Jack and Rachel at their Mainsgill Farm & Farm Shop, East Layton, Richmond. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

The car park is always busy and coach parties turn up regularly to decant visitors to their food hall, which comprises a massive butchery counter and magnificent bakery showcasing their produce; extensive and currently very Christmas-oriented gift shop on the upper floor, and expansive tea rooms. Their recently increased farming acreage of 700 acres either owned or rented has beef cattle, sheep and pigs all providing stock destined for their customers.

As far as the outside world is concerned Mainsgill today is viewed as a veritable gold mine. Additional farm acreage and 20,000 sq ft of retail that really does scream success and adds the ‘wow’ factor that Andrew was always looking for seemingly adds credence to that opinion. But the couple who made their move from Lancashire 21 years ago know their achievements didn’t come about overnight nor are they enough as yet to set matters straight for years to come. They feel much work is still to be done as they seek to provide the level of income that will maintain the business for themselves, their three children and the families they may have eventually.

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“We are passionate about farming but we couldn’t have got to where we are simply by running cattle and pigs,” says Andrew. “We’ve a lot of goals yet to hit. We have a nice big farm shop and the farmland we own or rent is growing but split that four ways and there’s not a lot left. I’ve seen many a farming family having to make do with a similar income while more family members took from the same pot.

“You can only cut a cake so many times so what Maria and I are doing is running around at 100mph so that when we come to cut this cake we can all have a damned good share.”

Son Jack, 19, and daughter Rachel, 16, already work in the family business and the couple’s other son Matthew, 14, is plotting his farming career. They all look set to benefit from their parents’ desire to succeed no matter what’s thrown in their way.

“Neither of us went to college and that seemed to go against us when we were applying for farm tenancies, but I always felt confident we could find ways to make things profitable. We walked away from a possible tenancy in Tadcaster, we suffered at the hands of when BSE took a hold in the mid-1990s after we’d only been here a year and Foot and Mouth disease came along just as we were starting to build our first main farm shop premises in 2001.

“BSE was the time that hit us hardest. We were breeding dairy replacements that had been worth £1,200 per animal and suddenly they were at £300. In addition, the pig job had got so bad that we couldn’t pay our bills and we had 1,200 fatteners.”

BSE proved a seminal moment for the couple that had been so proud to afford the move from the red rose county to Mainsgill’s 57 acres. It was at that time they came up with an idea, which was to be the catalyst for all that has happened since.

“Maria and I did the deal to buy Mainsgill in March 1995. We married June 21 that year, went on honeymoon to the Royal Highland Show on June 22 and moved in here on June 23. Twelve months later farming took that turn for the worse with BSE. That’s when we decided to take our own produce to local markets. These were the regular weekday markets because the farmers’ market scene hadn’t started then.

“We attended Barnard Castle and Richmond markets with the aim of getting the Mainsgill name and brand out there and then getting customers to come here. We just felt that bringing them here would help us more in the long term and now Maria has created this monster that we run and enjoy even though it takes some managing.”

Maria, who ran bed and breakfast accommodation and went out milk recording to ensure they made ends meet in their early days at Mainsgill, tells of their introduction to the farm shop world.

“We had our initial plans passed in 1999 and to get us going we converted a garage at the side of the house into a little farm shop. That was how Mainsgill was born with a second hand counter. We had a butcher who came to us on a night and we would have everything cut and packed as the sun came up on the wood opposite us in the morning. We finally opened our all-new premises in June 2001 and took £300 on the first day.

“We both come from farming backgrounds. Andrew’s mum and dad had pigs and beef cattle at Burscough near Ormskirk and I come from a mixed farm that included 100 dairy cows as well as growing wheat, barley and potatoes at Stalmine near the coast. All we still want to do is farm and we’re adding acreage but we couldn’t now farm without the farm shop because that’s where we get the added premium that allows us to make a living.”

The Henshaws have added to their acreage by renting 300 acres nearby at Sedbury Home Farm and 125 acres next door to Mainsgill. Three weeks ago they purchased another 210 acres.

Their livestock operation, run by son Jack and Greg Bull who moved up from Sussex two years ago includes 500 cattle, 400-plus breeding ewes and 240 pigs bought as stores and taken to finishing. Corn is grown for feed.

Farmers visiting Mainsgill often approach Andrew having been impressed by what they have seen.

“Some look around and start thinking they would like a slice of it saying they could supply us with beef. I say to them I bet you could. What they don’t see is the blood, sweat and tears that’s gone behind it and sill goes on today, but that’s also what drives us on.”