Farm of the Week: Vegetarian farmer's diverse approach to farming

Adorned in pink Hunter wellies, huge earrings and more lipstick than possibly ever seen at Ruswarp Mart near Whitby, Ruth Penty made her entrance into the world of bidding for livestock three years ago.

Rob and Ruth Penty have found that diversification is the key  from bed and breakfast to livestock  on Oliver Farm. Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe

She’d been sent on a mission by husband Rob to travel to the coast from their 200-acre mixed arable and livestock farm in Bolton Percy near Tadcaster to purchase four Shorthorn X cows.

“I went up with a girl friend and the first thing we did was go into the market the wrong way. The second thing that happened was my pristine boots were suddenly no longer the colour they had been beforehand as I slid on something that doesn’t take too much explaining.

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“Rob had asked me to go because he was in London and he knew there were some good animals being sold by a friend of ours called John Wesson of Saltburn. He runs the Ricey Park herd of registered Beef Shorthorns. When we walked in to the sale ring there were a few bemused looks at us in all our colourful gear.

Ruth Penty's pink wellies caused raised eyebrows round the auction ring.

“There was a noticeable element of shock all around the ring when I started bidding. I’m sure that up until then we had just been taken as a couple of inquisitive ‘townie’ tourists. The auctioneer looked across and checked that I was for real and that I hadn’t got confused or carried away.

“Afterwards everyone was very welcoming and friendly. I was pleased too because I hadn’t had to go as high as the top price we’d set for each animal. The thing I’d not accounted for was how I was going to get them home. When this suddenly dawned on me I rang Rob. He said that I needed a haulier and there would be someone there who would help. A very kind lady pointed me in the direction of someone called Foxy – and that I’d find him in the mart café. Sure enough that’s what I did.”

Ruth’s tale may give an impression that farming is new to the couple but Rob is the fourth generation of the Penty family to farm in the village since his great grandfather Robert first moved to the then tenanted Glebe Farm from Acaster Malbis in 1880.

Grandfather Bob and father Richard then took up the reins. The original farmhouse they occupied, with the name Glebe Farm, was within Bolton Percy but Rob and Ruth moved to the house they occupy today on the edge of the village that a Mrs Oliver built in 1894 for the church. It was sold to the family as part of the overall farm acquisition when they bought it from the Rector of Bolton Percy in 1927 and had been rented out for many years until the couple moved in. That’s why the farm is now known as Oliver Farm.

Ruth Penty's pink wellies caused raised eyebrows round the auction ring.

Its acreage was reduced from 220 to 200 acres in the 1980s when the East Coast railway line was straightened and compulsory purchase took away a huge strip of their land.

Rob and Ruth, who previously earned a living from IT, took on Oliver Farm following Richard’s sudden passing nine years ago. Richard’s wife Joan decided to call time on the farm not long afterwards and now lives in Scarborough, which left the young couple and their young family with the chance to farm in their own right. Although Rob and his brother David had always helped their father in their youth, Richard had not encouraged them to go into farming.

“Dad always recommended that we shouldn’t pursue it and neither of us did. I moved into IT, which is how Ruth and I got together. We bought a property in the village that we completely renovated and then sold before we came here.

“Our farming operation runs to 110 acres of arable crops and 90 acres of grassland. Like most farms last year’s harvest was exceptional and we averaged over 4.5 tonne per acre for our barley and wheat. We also grew heritage potatoes, but this year half of our arable acreage is down to wheat, growing the variety JB Diego; and the other half will be spring barley. Direct drilling has proved a major cost saving.”

Rob’s livestock enterprise, running Shorthorn X Blonde cattle, is relatively new and last year saw the first calf to be born on the farm in 30 years.

“Dad used to have sheep and beef cattle. He would buy calves in and fatten them taking them through to finishing. I enjoy rearing contented cows that have a good life. We’re building up the herd at present and I’d like to see it reach around 20 cows. We share a Blonde bull with a neighbouring farmer James Walmsley. As we get to the right numbers the plan is to sell the calves as stores at just under a year old.”

Rob is a vegetarian, which might appear odd for a livestock farmer.

“It was quite shocking seeing how cattle were slaughtered when I was young. I want my cattle to have a good life, be well tended and ideally I would like to have a slaughterman come to the farm when the time comes.”

With the herd still growing and a small arable cropping acreage Rob and Ruth are well aware of the need to provide other income for their family of six.

Rob keeps his hand in with freelance IT consultancy work and they have also moved in the holiday accommodation market.

They opened The Annex at Oliver Farm in 2013 which offers two-bedroomed self catering accommodation for up to four adults and three children; and they have also acquired and refurbished The Staymor in the City a seven-bedroomed guest house situated in the Bishopthorpe Road area of York.

Rather than having breakfast in a separate room they supply their own ‘In Room Breakfast Experience’. Finding something different is their way forward on the farm too.

“We know that with the size of the farm we won’t ever be traditional farmers and will always have to branch out, so the accommodation, heritage potatoes and bugs for food are where we are looking to come up with unique sectors that offer premium returns,” says Ruth.