How Farm Adventures, hen parties, and a beef contract with Tesco keep Hill Top Farm in Masham afloat

When a North Yorkshire farmer’s son moved 'up the hill' to Ilton, high above Masham, 20 years ago, he knew he had his hands full turning his farm it into a viable concern.

Rob Middleton with some of his Hereford cattle

Rob Middleton was 21 and had studied agriculture at Harper Adams. He was eager to farm, following his first love of cattle but very soon realised he would have to look at other forms of income if he was to remain.

It has been his father’s phrase “get what you can from what you’ve got” that Rob said has guided him in the development of Hill Top Farm where he has 180 acres and which is now home to 200 cattle, 100 ewes and a weekly influx of schoolchildren for educational visits and hen parties through his now 10-year-old Farm Adventure enterprise.

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“Dad’s saying is so true. It was only by looking properly at the farm, the land and the opportunities they provide that we have been able to make things work. My partner Laura and I now have a good business, and an even better farm operation.

Rob married Laura after she accepted the job running his Farm Adventures business

“I now supply Tesco with Angus beef on a premium contract and we are currently working on finding the right breed of sheep for the lamb market, presently trying the Lleyn.”

Rob said he had started with cattle when he came to Hill Top, but had soon realised he would need to find additional income if he was to make a go of it as a farmer.

“When I came here this farm was in need of investment. Dad had taken the tenancy on because he had three sons and he realised the benefit of adding it to expand his dairy business at Roomer Farm where he [Philip] and my brothers James and Oliver still farm today.

“This had been a dairy farm previously. Dad was progressive and had seen this as somewhere to grow more forage. Some of the grass grown here for silage would go to Roomer and young heifers would come up here.

“Straight away I looked at rearing calves. It’s something I’ve always leaned to as my way of keeping in with farming and livestock. Cattle are my passion. I started with 30-40 calves bought from dairy farms and got up to finishing 100 beef cattle. It was the time when headage payments were on, which made around £100 on top for each beast and made it worthwhile.

“I also took jobs with the local feed company Jamesons and with Biotal, selling silage additives and innoculants. It all helped with the income to maintain and bring the farm back to life, but it had already become clear we would need to diversify and do things differently.”

Rob’s first realisation of earning alternative incomes through people visiting the farm had come when teenage schoolchildren had visited to experience life on the farm.

“I worked with the schoolchildren. We had some great kids and giving them jobs like gathering a flock of sheep or herding pigs and then seeing the fun they had doing it set my mind thinking about adults and how we could make this a fun place.

“Laura joined me here in 2011. I’d had a bit of a transition juggling everything and had advertised for someone who fancied a career change. I was looking for someone who could help me get my Farm Adventure concept off the ground.

“All of our success has been largely down to Laura who is just amazing at everything and as well as a fabulous business we also now have a fantastic young family with our children William, George and Maggie. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything like this or be able to farm the way we now do without her constant support, love and talent. She’s one special lady.”

Farm Adventure was launched in September 2011. Rob said it has continued growing, albeit stymied more recently by the pandemic, but with a very different clientele from what he had imagined.

“I’d originally looked at it working for corporate events, businesses wanting to give their staff a good day out and offering team-building experiences. We had 90 people here as our opening event, which went really well.

“But we have hit on a fantastic market for hen parties. Ladies want a big communal area, all to sleep in a same area, hot tubs, wine, food and fun farm activities.

“They compete in teams at gathering sheep, herding pigs, racing tractors, wanging wellies and tug o’ war. We’re very strict on animal welfare and safety, and everyone respects the livestock.

The success of Farm Adventure has allowed Rob to build on the farm’s infrastructure and to increase his farming interests.

“We’ve slowly improved and rebuilt what was here, doing up some of the traditional stone barns where the hen parties stay, the courtyard, putting up steel-framed buildings, knocking down some and patching up others.

“We also love having the schoolchildren visit and we have a great team that includes a local farmer, Brian Gregg, who now runs our new Farm Experience days; Jess Thurlow who works with the animals, the schoolchildren and with the hen parties; and Jane Burgess who is in charge of accommodation.

“I’ve realised that having a good team is massively important and my catchphrase is ‘teamwork makes the dream work’.

“Jess is very much part of the reason for our success and has been with us nearly nine years. She’s from Ryedale and has a degree in land management from Askham Bryan College.

“I really enjoy running businesses with a strong farming connection because that’s what is in my blood and in an ideal world I’d have a good, substantial, wholly farming business.

“I can now get my teeth into the farming side through my cattle. We bring in 200 calves every spring. I love Herefords. Dad used to have them and we have around 20, but the rest are all Angus.

“I like hitting the targets that Tesco are looking for in getting the cattle to their grading classifications at just below 24 months old. There is also now a tie-up with Tesco’s dairy farmers’ calves coming here. I’m farming and getting what I can from what I’ve got, just like Dad has always said. Farming has kept us afloat during the pandemic.”