The Yorkshire farm that has pumped out 30,000 pumpkins for Halloween

Farmer and pumpkin grower Tom Spilman, of Church Farm, Sessay, near Thirsk.
Farmer and pumpkin grower Tom Spilman, of Church Farm, Sessay, near Thirsk.
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Around a decade or so ago the UK began embracing the American commercialism of Halloween like never before.

Today the evening of October 31 and the lead-up to it is another business opportunity for fancy dress agencies, theme nights and special events.

Farmer and pumpkin grower Tom Spilman, of Church Farm, Sessay, near Thirsk.

Farmer and pumpkin grower Tom Spilman, of Church Farm, Sessay, near Thirsk.

No doubt there will be some industry analysts providing figures of how many millions of pounds it adds to the economy, but what cannot be disputed is that in farming’s case it has added an autumnal income to those who have made the decision to grow pumpkins.

Spilmans is fast becoming a popular name in the pumpkin game having for decades been known as a pick your own soft fruit farm and having recently added a farm shop, café and play barn sitting alongside its arable and livestock enterprises.

The Spilman family has grown 30,000 pumpkins at Church Farm in Sessay this year, just to try and keep up with demand.

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“We’ve been growing pumpkins for the past five years,” says Tom Spilman who together with his brother Joss is now responsible for the day-to-day management of the family farm enterprise across 700 acres with their parents, Richard and Sally, very much still involved.

Farmer and pumpkin grower Tom Spilman, of Church Farm, Sessay, near Thirsk.

Farmer and pumpkin grower Tom Spilman, of Church Farm, Sessay, near Thirsk.

“We started by selling them wholesale, but it made no sense. Everyone wants to come here and be a part of the pumpkin experience either picking their own or coming into the carving barn we deck out especially for people to enjoy pumpkin carving. It’s a real family affair and it just keeps growing.”

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This weekend sees the start of the Spilmans Pumpkin Festival that takes place in the coming weekends and then runs continuously from October 23 to 31.

“It was so busy last year. We’ve already had so many requests to come and use the carving barn this year that if people want to make sure they can get in at the right time they should contact us and book.

“You don’t have to book for the pick your own. The more the merrier. We want everyone to come. We run free tractor and trailer rides around the farm here at Sessay, letting people know what we do in summer, which also helps with our soft fruit season. Dad started with pick your own strawberries fifty years ago.”

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The Spilmans opened up their all-new farm shop and café in July last year, which now sells their own produce including asparagus, soft fruit from strawberries to raspberries, gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and blackberries as well as their home reared beef and lamb.

Tom and Joss’s sister-in-law, Olivia, who is married to their brother Mark, runs the café and shop.

“Mark and Olivia were married here and initially we thought of this as a possible wedding venue, but we eventually decided on the café and in April last year we gave ourselves three months to get it open. We haven’t looked back. The café now offers customers an opportunity to come for a cuppa and cake as well making their pumpkin experience more of a day out.”

Tom and Joss share the farming load with Joss in charge of the combinable arable acreage, plus another relatively new line in wildflower turf and the cattle operation, while Tom takes centre stage in the soft fruits, asparagus and pumpkin growing and promotional marketing of the Spilmans name.

Tom also has responsibility for the sheep flock that is set to include being another arm of their ongoing public activity. Mark, who is a vet and partner with Bishopton veterinary practice, is working with Joss on their fledgling Aberdeen Angus herd.

Bearing in mind Tom and Joss’s prior careers that saw them both achieve captain in the army you’re tempted to say this is all being thought through with military precision, but they would be the first to say what they are trying to achieve is simply a long-term solution to the age-old farming conundrum of providing greater income for more family members.

“There are now quite a few of us to support on the farm,” says Tom, who also previously ran a renewable energy business before coming back to the farm eight years ago.

“Dad started the diversifications with strawberries, then other soft fruits and asparagus. We’re now adding others and our customers seem to like what we are doing.”

Church Farm only forms 100 acres of the farming operation with 600 acres tenanted at Lodge Farm in Helperby where Richard and Sally live.

“We grow a lot of corn for seed,” says Joss. “This year half of our winter wheat was grown for seed, as well as the majority of our winter barley and all of our spring barley.

“We have grown 50 acres each of wheat varieties Graham and Bassett which hopefully will have averaged around 4 tonnes per acre. Our winter barley variety Surge averaged 3.6 tonnes.”

The latest land use is wildflower turf grown on contract for The Wildflower Turf company.

“It is completely soilless. The turf is laid on plastic across 30 acres and we grow it from there laying the first flower beds around April 1 that is ready for lifting at the beginning of June, allowing us to start again and take a second crop in the same year from the same bed.”

Asparagus is grown across 12 acres at Helperby and while some is sold in the farm shop the majority is destined for supplying restaurants throughout the county and beyond.

The farm shop and café, plus a play barn and other attractions such as a bale mountain, maize maze and tractor and trailer rides are, you get the feeling, just the tip of the iceberg in the Spilman plan to attract people young and old to Sessay.

“We held our first sheep show last week that included how sheepdogs work,” says Tom. “We had great interest, so much so that next year we will hopefully run a regular show during summer.”

For now though, Tom, Joss and the rest of the family are all very much looking forward to a fantastic pumpkin season.