Farmer Fraser Hugill is putting the environment at top of his agenda

An uncertain future probably sums up where we all stand right now.

Fraser has countryside management at the forefront of his future plans.

A triple whammy of a new agriculture bill, has left many farmers feeling let down; extremes in weather, that will impact on the harvest; and lockdown regulations, which will inevitably have an effect on all farm businesses are all reasons why Fraser Hugill of Throstle Nest Farm in Sproxton, near Helmsley, is ill at ease right now.

Fraser is not a doom-and-gloom man. He’s a positive thinking individual whose talent at communication sees him as the northern co-ordinator for the agricultural initiative, Championing the Farmed Environment (CFE), where farming and nature is spoken of together.

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But the past eight months have been some of his most challenging since taking over from his father, Edgar, around a decade ago.

His farmed enterprise runs in the region of 350 acres, of either grass or combinable crops. He has over 170 acres at Sproxton, a further 140 acres that he has use of on his father’s farm at Great Broughton, and he contract farms the remaining acreage on a neighbour’s farm at Sproxton.

It’s a constantly evolving picture as Fraser reshapes his farming operation, having moved the farm at Great Broughton from being purely arable cropping back to being a mixed farm, and as he changes his crop establishment to zero till with direct drilling as part of his attempts at regenerative agriculture. He has introduced two-year grass leys, which have replaced his oilseed rape crop.

“My partner Rosy and I run the farm as an arable and livestock enterprise with our pedigree Beef Shorthorn herd. We have 50 breeding cows and have just signed up to Morrisons’ dedicated scheme to supply them. Our first steers go to them this coming week.”

While it will begin to provide Fraser with a new income strand that will see 20 to 24-month-old cattle being supplied, his cropping for this year is a real cause for concern.

“The weather since the end of September has been so extreme. We would normally have been growing 100 acres of winter wheat and 45 acres of winter barley, but it started raining on September 24 and hardly stopped. It has been the wettest period I’ve ever known.

“It was game over for getting a crop established here at Throstle Nest, as this is a very wet farm anyway, but I have never known a time when we haven’t been able to drill up in autumn or winter at Great Broughton.

“Over there we have ended up with 40 acres of winter wheat, of which I drilled 30 acres in February and some of which I wish I hadn’t bothered; 17 acres of winter barley, and 23 acres of spring beans. Here at Throstle Nest we have put in 60 acres of spring barley and 28 acres of naked oats this spring.

“With the exceptionally sunny dry period we have had, the crops now really need rain as the soil needs the moisture. There are cracks in the ground where you can put your hand down. Our spring beans were looking good until about a week ago, but they are starting to suffer. It’s now a case of damage limitation and we can only really do that by minimising spend. We didn’t put on any fungicide last week.

Fortunately, the crops are not looking like they are showing signs of disease, but we will have to keep that under review.

“I’m getting to that stage where I would love to get harvest over, forget 2020 and start picking up the financial pieces. Higher prices, if they do happen because of possible shortages this year, will not make up for the loss of yield.”

Fraser and Rosy arrived at Throstle Nest in September 2012 after selling their previous farm at Chopgate, where Fraser was born and raised. They have completely rebuilt the farmhouse since they moved in, causing them to live in a caravan initially.

The Beef Shorthorn herd was started when Fraser’s father purchased four heifers while on a day out to Beamish Museum and a further seven at another sale.

“We don’t push the cows who enjoy a grass-based diet. We like to have cows in the herd for many years. I also rate the Beef Shorthorn very highly for their temperament, which is particularly important as I usually deal with them on my own.

“We block calve them over around nine weeks and we currently have 31 calves on the ground this year. Our heifers calve at three years. The Morrisons’ scheme is a new venture.

“Up until now we have sold steers as stores, and heavy bulls at Darlington livestock market, which has worked well. We had more heifers born than bull calves last year. When that happens, we sell some of the surplus as breeding heifers. We always sell stock in May, but we have been scuppered by Covid-19 regulations this year. ”

Countryside stewardship including hedgerow management and wildflower meadows are high on Fraser’s agenda wearing both his farmer’s and his CFE hats.

“I try to practice what I preach. We are in the process of renewing our stewardship scheme involvements, optimising our wildlife value. I’m looking at 75 per cent of my hedges being in berry production which will enhance the bee population and provide winter feed for birds. We have fieldfares that stayed late last year and yellowhammers amongst many more.

“We are also increasing our meadow enhancements and now have 20 acres of species rich wildflower meadows.”

Fraser is happy with what he and Rosy are attempting with their farming operation, but he is concerned about what happens next for farming given the recent passing of the agriculture bill.

“I’m not confident enough to say it is going to be a bright future. The bill has created massive uncertainty.

“It’s about surviving at the moment and enjoying, like seeing the cowslips we have on the farm. We’ve not had those before. You can still get that kind of enjoyment regardless of whatever else is going on.”