Farm of the Week: Back to school for visitors to major farm attraction

Robert Copley (left) the owner of Farmer Copley, Pontefract, with Jonathan Timm the Farm Manager, in a field of corn.
Robert Copley (left) the owner of Farmer Copley, Pontefract, with Jonathan Timm the Farm Manager, in a field of corn.
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X Factor-style interviews for staff, Disney-style children’s stories, a café called Moo, thousands of pumpkins, acres of soft fruit, asparagus, potatoes, rhubarb and tomatoes. If you’d asked anyone where this was 20 years ago, probably nobody would have said Pontefract.

Robert Copley returned to Ravensknowle Farm just a mile west of the town best known for its licorice and coal mining with his wife Heather in 2002. Today Farmer Copley’s has become one of Welcome to Yorkshire’s favourite listed family venues.

By 10am when I visited ‘Moo’ was packed, the shop bustling, the maize maze was becoming crowded and fruit was being picked by hundreds. It’s hard to believe this was once a small arable farm with a 50-strong dairy herd at nearby North Featherstone.

“I’d worked here straight from school when I was 15 but realised there wasn’t enough work to go around so I told dad I was off to get an education.”

Robert studied agriculture for three years at Bishop Burton College. On completing his studies he was offered a position on a 300-cow dairy farm in Dorset where he’d worked for his middle year. Further roles included becoming an AI inseminator and head salesman for a major breeding company during which time he met Heather. He then moved north to work for an animal feed company in Cheshire. Robert’s never been one to sit back and let life drift by and it was a seminal moment when Heather told him they were expecting their first child.

“It all just clicked in my brain. I knew then that I wanted us to bring up our family on a farm. I also thought the time might be right at home as dad (Ken) was thinking of retirement. I told him I’d like to come back and open a farm shop. Initially I took a job with Thompson Feeds at Murton, near York and Heather did most of the work in setting up the farm shop.

“We opened on 12 December 2013 and within two weeks it was obvious that it was too small,” says Heather who studied agriculture and estate management at Seale Hayne University in Plymouth and was a successful agronomist.

“The shop was inundated and since that time we have extended it and the café and no matter what we do it keeps filling up.”

While the café and farm shop are major draws for fresh farm produce and great meals, it’s a pumpkin called Spookley that probably best exemplifies the farm becoming a family destination.

“We thought that if we keyed in to children by providing an experience including education about agriculture and growing food we could increase visitor numbers. We ran a pumpkin event on a Wednesday afternoon and we bought-in around 170 pumpkins. We sold the lot and ever since we have grown our own. This year we’ve planted 94,000. It’s phenomenal and our Pumpkin Festival is crazily popular.

“Spookley the Square Pumpkin is a children’s character that came about through a book. He’s on the Cartoon Network and is the USA’s No.1 anti-bullying campaign among young children. His story is that having been picked upon for being different to normal pumpkins he becomes a hero. The moral being ‘one day we all will discover, you can’t judge a book by its cover’. During the festival his book is read on the hour every hour by a lovely storyteller and we have a tie-in with West Yorkshire Police over anti-bullying too.

“What we realised is that children and adults enjoy finding out more about food. The lack of knowledge is quite frightening when you sit on our side of the fence. When we put on a hog roast some kids say they can’t eat it because they can see it’s a pig. Then you ask whether they eat sausages and there is absolute mortification on a child’s face when you tell them what they’re eating.

“So our recent years have been all about taking the experience out on the farm and showing visitors our sheep, pigs, cattle and the fruit and vegetables we grow. We were involved in Open Farm Sunday for the first time this year and Robert dug me a hole that I stood in to give an even greater perspective on how land plays a central role in food.

“I showed the soil profile and finally had a captive audience of people listening to me so that I could download my degree to these unsuspecting victims. I also showed them a soil profile on paper and explained why if you go somewhere to buy a type of cheese and find it is salty just why that is. When you explain the salty bedrock, how that comes up into the grass and from there is eaten by cows, which then becomes milk and is churned into cheese it all makes perfect sense. But what I also discovered is that some children have never dug soil, so I’m going to dig a little trench next year and let the children dig themselves and find out more.”

Robert and Heather employ 45 staff in the farm shop and café and have four full-time butchers. Earlier this year they took on farmer’s son and cattle and sheep showman Jonathan Timm who is Farm & Events Manager in charge of their outdoor team that includes a play park and the maize maze with this year’s theme being World of Corn. His expertise with sheep is proving a hit with the couple’s two sons Jacob, 13, and Harry, 10.

“We’re looking at upping the sheep flock to around 150 ewes and next year we hope to show some Blue Texels. Hopefully Jacob will be able to bring back some trophies to show off in the shop.”

Jonathan’s team is made up of those who go through Heather’s X Factor auditions.

“We’re after young people with bags of personality and fun. We want people who can enjoy what they do here and can talk about things positively and enthusiastically.”

With pick your own potatoes starting soon, the maize maze attracting 40,000 visitors a year and this year’s Pumpkin Festival to come, Farmer Copley’s is quite possibly Yorkshire’s busiest farm at the moment – but they’re not sitting back, plans are afoot for a new restaurant to be built called Moo By Day, Beast by Night and a new crop sure to be hugely popular with locals – licorice – is just two years from being harvested.

Robert and Heather now run Farmer Copley’s across 60 acres of the original family farm acreage, with Robert’s cousin Matthew and a neighbouring farmer operating across the farm’s other 60 acres. They have also acquired additional acreage for the maize maze.

“We love it here,” says Robert. “It’s great for our boys. They can go out at night and the animals come out with them, it’s like the film A Night at the Museum.”

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