Experts in fodder that makes the farming world tick

The Bulmers of School House Farm, Sharlston.
The Bulmers of School House Farm, Sharlston.
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Do you know what a nine-pinter is? I didn’t either until I met John Bulmer. It’s basically a very long pitchfork with massive tines that was used to manoeuvre and lift bales into place on stacks before the likes of Manitou came along with their ever-extending telescopic handlers.

John and the rest of the Bulmer clan at both School Farm and School House Farm in the former pit village of Sharlston have built their farming reputation on hay, straw and cattle. They own 22 acres, rent around 300 acres of grass and are tenants for another 95 acres of arable that they share farm with a neighbour.

Last year they baled nearly 20,000 big square bales that they then transport to farmer customers in the Yorkshire Dales and Lancashire. The two main drivers are John and his wife Hilary’s two offspring, son Ian and daughter Joanne, who tells of how their business works.

“We buy the wheat straw out of the swath and get in on 4,000 acres within a 20 mile radius. We know where we are going every year and the majority is from around Nostell and other villages, through Metcalfe Farming.

“We use Case tractors and balers from our local farm machinery dealers Farmstar and deliver as far north as Middlesmoor, just out of Pateley Bridge and as far west as Blackpool. I was driving the wagons by the time I was 17 but you can’t do that now. We’ve found in recent times that a smaller wagon with an additional trailer has been the way to go and we’ve just increased our wagon licence to three.”

John’s father Robert began farming whilst he was working with his brother George at Nostell pit.

“George worked on top and my dad worked as an electrician. How they started out in agriculture was with a few hens and pigs on a smallholding. They then took on School Farm and after that School House Farm and they combined their work at the pit with farming.

“After they got the farm cracking they started up with a milk round that myself and my brother David continued up until 2007 when he died of cancer. In the end the business of doorstep delivery faded away.”

Since David passed away the partnership of the farm business has been held between John and David’s son Richard.

The move into hay and straw haulage came via the nine-pinter, a 7ft tall farm worker, a stack that had just been neatly completed and a visit by Halifax haulier Ralph Douglas.

“Ralph was getting straw from us regularly and I thought he was making a killing. We would spend weeks gathering in the bales and getting them right in the barn. That’s where the nine-pinter came in. It got its name from how hard work it was lifting with it so you used to get nine pints of beer for using it. We also had this big feller who must have been about 7ft and he had just got everything straightened up in the barn when Ralph turned up. He was really upset that he’d just got it all sorted and then Ralph was getting him to move his work of art.

“That’s when we decided to borrow a wagon and start hauling it ourselves about 40 years ago and we’ve done it ever since. In those days we would take three or four loads a day to a farm in Hellifield. What I couldn’t get my head around was that we would make a point of keeping the straw dry from harvest, but it was like a lake at the back of his farm and his lad used to just push the bales off straight into water!”

Keeping the straw dry and providing a quality product to their customers is important.

“Of all the different types of combine our preference is the John Deere. It keeps the straw long and that makes it easier to dry.”

The cattle operation is a suckler herd of 120 cows with followers and selling progeny as stores at 12-15 months. That means there are usually upwards of 300 cattle on the farm or at summer grazing. The majority of the stock is sold at Skipton mart and seven were going to this Wednesday’s sale.

The Bulmers use pedigree bulls rather than AI and at present have three, a Limousin, Simmental and a Belgian Blue. John’s favoured bull breed is the Belgian Blue.

“The Blue provides the best cattle. We’ve just sold Snowy, a Belgian Blue we bought from a farmer in Otley. He won at the Wharfedale Livestock Market Christmas Show five years on the trot. We put the Limmie bull on to the Blue cows; and the Blue bull on the Herefords.”

John has a rather typical farmer’s habit that Joanne is only too well aware of when he gets to the market with stock to sell.

“I send our stores to market expecting a cheque to come back but somehow the cheque that comes doesn’t materialise into the amount I might have been expecting because he will come back with another three cows!

“We do buy some new cows but 90 per cent of the suckler herd is what we have reared.”

Joanne would love to show some of their cattle but the summer show season doesn’t fall well with hay and straw gathering. Instead she has turned her attention to vintage tractors. Last year, with her good friend Debra Pickering she launched the first ever Priory Roses Tractor Road Run starting at Nostell Priory and journeying through Sharlston, Featherstone, Ackworth, Darrington, Kirk Smeaton, Thorpe Audlin and many others.

“We only had about 18 tractors last year but about a month ago we held the second run and we had 62.

“Thanks to the generous sponsorship we received from local companies and from donations on the route we raised over £2200 this year for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance that has a base at Nostell.

“I go to vintage rallies at Pickering and Temple Newsam with the grey Fergie that myself and my partner Nick (Campey) bought as a rust bucket and have transformed back to its original 1954 state.”