The farmer who went back to his roots after being a ski instructor and remote controlled helicopter salesman

With a curriculum vitae that includes ski instructor, remote controlled helicopter salesman, van driver of propane cylinders and expert at riding misbehaving horses, Fraser Aitken made the decision around four years ago to return to his roots, where he had always, it appears now, been destined to go.
Fraser Aitken with his pigs on his farmFraser Aitken with his pigs on his farm
Fraser Aitken with his pigs on his farm

Fraser is now, rather like Alastair Trickett featured as this week’s Farm of the Week story, one of the new breed of farmers who is not just talking the talk but walking the walk in creating produce that benefits the soil and tastes terrific.

He has set up his own brand, Grassfruits, that now sees his pigs roaming in the woodland on Escrick Park Estate and his chickens on neighbouring grassland all farmed on a holistic system of moving the stock regularly to provide fresh nutrients and allowing regeneration.

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What is most evident through the farming operations run by both Fraser and Alastair is their business approach. They are motivated by similar concerns for the environment and farming practices but recognise the necessity for profit to provide the long-term sustainability they want to see.

“We have incredibly high welfare standards but in general around the world we’re seeing some quite abominable (farming) systems in rearing livestock. I wanted to turn that on its head and do something completely different.

It's time for farmers to speak out about mental health issues - and these are the people who will listenStunt riders who provide horses for Poldark and Peaky Blinders to be main attraction at Great Yorkshire Show“My parents ran a stud farm breeding Highland and Fell ponies at Acklam and ran a riding school at Langton. Being in the countryside farming was always in the back of my mind as a career.

“I have 10 Gloucester Old Spot and Saddleback sows with another six following on that I cross with a Duroc boar and also have some purebreds. I also have around 500 Hubbards most of the year except now when I run them down for the winter months. The hubbard is a table bird that is far better suited to being outside.

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“It’s all about producing a great food product whether pork or chicken through an ecologically sustainable business, but also being financially stable. It has to be based around selling the meat. You’re not going to be around very long if that’s not the case.

“The whole business is built around people being more aware of where their meat comes from and how it is reared. It is the ecological and ethical sides that attract.

“Free range pigs in woodland is a great selling point for consumers and their ability to help the eco system in forestry areas is also helping Escrick Park Estate organically with its problems with Himalayan Balsam.”

The move of Fraser’s pigs and chicken to the estate came after he and his partner Alice, who worked in Leeds, had been looking for a property somewhere between Leeds and Acklam, where Fraser had started his fledgling Grassfruits business on his parents’ smallholding.

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Being sat in miles of traffic has made me realise farmers are being made scapegoats over the environment crisis - Jill ThorpThe Yorkshire farm shop where you can swap your home grown fruit and veg for their produce“I had been getting frustrated travelling backwards and forwards from here to Acklam every day and rang the estate office. I explained I had a small poultry and pigs enterprise that I wanted to grow and ideally I could do with woodland for the pigs and grassland for the chicken.

“Helen Pentwith rang me back in less than 24 hours and the estate has gone out of its way for me, for which I’m most grateful. I now have six acres for the Hubbards and use a small proportion of the 200-acre woodland. My stock is now all within a mile from where we live and from being loaded up in the woodland to going for meat the whole process takes just 20 minutes as we have a local abattoir. It is really amazing animal welfare, which means a great deal to me.

“I just wanted as natural a home for my pigs as possible. When the estate asked whether the pigs would be able to assist with eating the seeds and root of the Himalayan Balsam I was able to tell them that’s what they had already done at Acklam.

“The idea is they rip it out and eat it, and as it is an annual in theory it won’t come back again, although it depends what time of year and how much you can knock it back as it is a very invasive weed.

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“When the estate found out my pigs had already been responsible for reducing it at Acklam it was like the cherry on top of the cake in having them here.”

Holistic farming is sometimes also referred to as mob grazing whereby the livestock grazes one area or field and is then moved on regularly to the next area or field allowing the soil and grass to recover and to provide fresh nutrients.

“We move the chicken every single day to a fresh spot of grass. The principle is you’re moving them to a clean environment.

“I move the pigs around too, putting them on around an acre at a time. In the same way the pigs are benefitting the woodland so too are the chicken on grassland.

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“I undertook a holistic management course when I started with livestock that gave me my ecological focus.

“We have had incredible feedback on our chicken and pork which we sell nationwide through our website, into high-end restaurants, quality butchers and at farmers’ markets, as well as into the wholesale trade.

“I just want to learn and grow at a rate I can sustain. I have no ambition of huge scale. I’d like to stick with the people I already deal with and retain a niche with Grassfruits.

“I’d like to get the business to where the chicken is sustaining a couple of incomes and the pigs business is responsible for perhaps two or three.

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“All I have to do is take on two of three more butchers similar to the ones I have already. I also see it developing as an educational hub because it’s not a conventional system.

“It has created a lot of interest from people who feel the same way as when I started.”

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