WE don’t need a photographer for this job. Being near Leeds, and stocked with free-range geese, turkeys, pigs, hens, cows, sheep and more, Swillington Organic Farm is often photographed. But not much written about.
There are vacancies being found in and around all urban areas for farms which connect with the towns and Swillington puts in a good bid to be the one for its patch, at the junction of Leeds, Wakefield and Castleford.
It is mercifully less glossy than some all-shop and no-gaiters show farms, but owners Jo and Andy Cartwright have a son, Ed, working in marketing, for Deliciouslyorkshire and others, and with his help, they have got themselves on some smart Leeds menus while remaining fondly regarded by alternative Yorkshire.
Thanks to a couple of inspirations and a lot of hard work, they make a living out of 160 acres of which maybe 70 are conventionally “good” – although they also get a bit out of their woodland, marsh and water, tucked away between the Aire and a reclaimed open-cast pit.
You would never guess you were within a spit of two motorways.
This used to be a country seat comparable to Harewood, according to local memory. But the Lowther family abandoned Swillington House to the coal industry and it sank along with the fields around it until it was demolished in 1950.
Jo Cartwright’s parents, a mining engineer and a medical social worker, took over what was left and built a fairly intensive little mixed farm which, at different times, running into Jo’s time in charge, has hosted a serious dairy herd and a mainstream pig business.
A couple of the infamous traps in the old milk quotas did for the dairying and running pigs under contract was worse for a while than it is now. For some years, Jo had to take on another couple of jobs, working with adults with special needs, to keep the farm going.
She is 54 and has been married for 31 years to Andy, 57, who was working in a motorbike shop when they met. He reckons small farming is a mug’s game. But he had an idea or two of his own and the jewel of the farm is his collection of coarse fishing lakes, including two made from an old oxbow of the Aire. We stop for a chat with an angler who has just spent £10,000 on a cruise in the Bahamas and couldn’t wait to get back down here. Andy says: “I started 20 years ago and I am still learning. The first lesson is that any mistake you make in a fishery is a big one. I put three and a half hundredweight of roach in a pond and it only fished well for 12 months. When we drained it down, we took out 200 big pike.
“A lot of farmers think all they have to do is dig a hole. But if you leave a pond, you will end up with one giant predator. I spend £10,000 a year on stocking, just to take care of natural wastage, and drain down every four or five years to check what is happening.”
He also runs a caravan storage site and a Christmas tree wood and his businesses have been the couple’s lifeline. The farming does make a profit but it wouldn’t look like much as an hourly wage, is their summary. However, they have built their ownership up from the 40 acres Jo inherited, although the mortgages are still running.
Higher Level Stewardship has come in handy. It pays a bit for leaving some of the rough ground alone. And from its historic buildings budget, the scheme will cover restoration of an ice house – basically a 12-feet deep chamber in which ice from an adjacent pond would be packed under straw, in the old days, until mined to produce a sorbet for a mid-summer party. It will make an interesting feature for school visits, which are another small source of income.
The Groundwork organisation gets the use of some land in return for work done with alternative education candidates. They are thinning and planting, making charcoal, cutting logs and moving towards some woodwork with the coppicings from trees Jo planted 30 years ago – taking out sycamore and putting in alder and hazel for a better mix.
A bee-keeper runs his hives on the farm and pays commission on his sales through the shop. Fridays and Saturdays are set aside for shoppers and visitors. And once a week or so, with the help of youngest son Ed, 18, somebody goes to one of the Leeds area farmers’ markets.
The farm’s biggest asset is also its biggest problem – a crumbling brick wall, surrounding two acres of garden. Some of it was built hollow to distribute heat from fires into the greenhouses which were once there, growing peaches and pineapples. Somebody once guessed at a million to rebuild it. As it is, they struggle to keep what is left standing. Andy tried to get a building college to take it on as a student project but, well you know the rest.
Still, it is lovely and it works a bit, as windbreak and sun trap. When Jo decided organic was the way to go, 12 years ago, one venture was veg boxes from the walled garden. But delivery was a job too far.
With the help of Kirstin Glendinning, a Soil Association organiser who works half-time for payment in kind, they got into Community Supported Agriculture, which means selling shares in the crop. Members can come down and help themselves to available fruit, herbs and vegetables. About 25 have a full share – £640 a year if pre-paid – and 30 a half share. Some like to do a bit of work when they visit. Students on work experience are another source of help. And they have a regular handyman, Pete Burns, who works as a friend and occasional employee. The only full-time hand is a butcher, Simon Martin, taken on a year ago. The farm kills and prepares its own poultry, trad-style, and M&C at Crossgates slaughters the larger animals and gives the carcases back whole.
In collaboration with Headingley market organisers, they successfully extended the Community Supported Agriculture idea to poultry – buy a share in the flock and pick up one a month at the market.
They tried the same with pigs but that did not go so well. People complained they got too much pork at once. They have been doing much better with Ed’s mixed meat boxes, which might include a pheasant or a pigeon if somebody has been shooting. They take pride in being about local produce above all. Their sausages are flavoured only with what grows on the farm, including wild garlic and nettles.
They had to drop from organic to free-range certification for the Saddleback pigs and half of the hens, because of the cost of organic feed. But they don’t think they lost a customer. They still feed only GM-free and additive-free and the Christmas poultry, sheep, and Angus-n-Hereford beef, are all still fully organic, along with the fruit and veg – and, of course, the chickens for Headingley.
“There is a place for small farms but you have to find it,” Jo sums up. “We have found a way which works for us.”
Next event at the farm is a Scarecrow Festival, with folk music, beer and food in the cowshed, to raise money for the wall restoration, on Friday June 15. See http://sfscarecrow.eventbrite.com/ The farm will also be part of Open Farm Sunday on June 17. For the fishing, see www.ratherbefishing.co.uk/ For the rest, see www.swillingtonorganicfarm. co.uk/ or go to LS26 8QA on a Friday or Saturday.