Farm of the Week: Oats and beef keep the land sweet on the Wolds

Richard Morrell checking on the oats on his farm at Towthorpe Manor Farm near Fimber.
Richard Morrell checking on the oats on his farm at Towthorpe Manor Farm near Fimber.
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Weetabix was my favourite breakfast cereal for years, but in more recent times Jordans Country Crisp has snared me with their oat clusters and juicy flame raisins. It wasn’t the packaging nor the countryside commitment on each packet, it was simply the taste and oddly enough I first tried them while with friends in the south of France.

Closer to home Richard Morrell of Towthorpe Manor Farm in Fimber on the Yorkshire Wolds is another breakfast-eating convert and he was attracted to the pledge stating that since 1985 Jordans has worked with farmers who set aside 10 per cent of their land for wildlife. He felt that fitted well with the direction he was taking his farm and he now grows 100 acres of oats for them.

Growing oats is just one part of Richard’s involvement with an organisation called Fair to Nature that promotes ‘Conservation Grade’ farming. By being a part of it he’s flying the flag for rebuilding biodiversity and his produce qualifies to carry the Fair to Nature branding. It’s a two-way street that hasn’t perhaps been as well publicised as the likes of the Red Tractor logo but it can help farmers achieve premium prices while also promoting wildlife conservation. Richard has also recently added cattle to his Fair to Nature produce with a herd of Belted Galloways.

“I contacted Jordans through Twitter as I already had my farm in a stewardship scheme and felt that their ethos wasn’t a million miles away from what I was doing. Jordans put me on to the Conservation Grade people who state that a minimum of 10 per cent of your farmed area must be down to wildlife habitat.

“When I came here 10 years ago I took over a countryside stewardship scheme. I found it gave me even more of an interest on the farm and when new schemes came in I went for Higher Level Stewardship.

“For my farm produce to be classed as Fair to Nature and qualified as Conservation Grade, auditors come round to ensure that wildlife habitat rules are being adhered to. Hedgerows only being trimmed once every three years is one of the stipulations, other directives include the maintenance and increase of pollen and nectar regions on the farm; along with wild grass and wildflower meadows.

“Since we became a Conservation Grade farm about five years ago we’ve had a significant increase in birdlife on the farm with skylarks, tree sparrows, song thrushes, yellowhammers and barn owls all flourishing. But we can’t afford to do anything just for the fun of it. Whatever I do has to pay. That’s where the Fair to Nature branding helps.

“Growing oats is a higher risk and trickier crop to grow. Where it scores for us is that it achieves a good premium on contract with Jordans. The trouble with oats is that if it’s a brutally cold winter there’s a chance part of your crop can be killed off and then if you try to push it there is a tendency for the oats to go flat. If you don’t combine in time they also shed the crop and they can be a nightmare going through the dryer. On the whole though it is proving successful for us.”

Richard started with cattle five years ago. His experience with livestock goes back to when he farmed with his father, Ayrshire cow showman Stuart Lewis ‘Lew’ Morrell on their previous farm in Hoyland, near Barnsley.

“The farm was originally tenanted but we purchased it when the Fitzwilliam Estate sold their farms at the millennium. Our dairy herd ran to 140 but we sold them in 2001. They were bought by a farmer further north who was restocking after losing his herd during Foot and Mouth year.

“We bought Towthorpe Manor Farm in 2004. It had been previously owned by the Cunliffe-Lister family and then John Weatherill. When I first came here I didn’t have the money to put into livestock. We’d purchased the farmhouse, buildings and 600 acres of which 480 are arable, 110 down to grass and 10 acres of woodland. I came here on my own and it was a challenge getting to grips with what was largely an arable concern but the way I look at it the change wouldn’t have been as challenging as going from arable to dairy.

“We grow oats, wheat and beans. The best yield we’ve had since I’ve been here was wheat at 5.75 tonnes per acre. Our best average has been 5 tonnes. We grow the varieties Skyfall and Crusoe milling wheat for Warburtons; Mascani oats for Jordans; and Fuego beans that are sold to Frontier and go for human consumption too.

“I didn’t miss milking cows twice a day but I thought it would be good to have a few animals on the farm. I originally started with a few black and white bulls, which could actually come back into their own with wheat prices as they are. Then I started with Aberdeen Angus cattle for Blade Farming supplying a Tesco’s Finest contract.”

Richard now finishes 200-250 head of stock a year. He has taken on Belted Galloways and Highland cattle and his ‘Belties’ are building up rapidly with the beef being sold at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s award-winning Fodder farm shop under his latest moniker of Morrell’s Fair to Nature Beef.

“I’ve been supplying Fodder for a couple of years and Paul the head butcher regularly comes here to take a look at what we have.

“One thing I didn’t realise was the greater organic matter I would also be getting from the cattle to go back into the land. It all helps and I’m aiming to build up my numbers of Belted Galloways even further with 40 going to the bull next time.”

Richard has another string to his bow. While at college he discovered a knack for designing computer software and he has designed and written programmes and systems for dairy farmers to manage their herds, grain stores and companies in all kinds of businesses.

Richard is married to Nicky and they have a son Freddie who was born just 12 weeks ago.