Farm of the Week: Pigs in beds proves a saviour by the sea

Andrew Dickinson with some of his pigs at Sawdon Heights Farm.
Andrew Dickinson with some of his pigs at Sawdon Heights Farm.
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Bed and breakfast for both pigs and people has played its part in ensuring that Andrew and Sue Dickinson remain at Sawdon Heights Farm where they enjoy stunning views of the Yorkshire Wolds, the Vale of Pickering, Bempton Cliffs and the North Sea.

Twenty years ago their situation was very different. Wheat was £70 per tonne and the smiles on their faces now may have been hard to see. Andrew’s family had farmed at Sawdon for three generations, but he and Sue faced the prospect of the end of that dynasty.

Andrew’s grandparents Herbert and Maud had arrived as tenants in 1946. His parents Len and Heather, who now live in the village, had bought the farm outright in 1967 but in the mid 90s the Andrew and Sue were close to the toughest decision in their lives.

“We were seriously considering whether we could stay here,” says Andrew. “We needed more income than we were getting and were close to quitting the farm, but we enlisted the help of farm consultants and other organisations and started finding a way forward.”

Fortunately cereal prices have never been as low again, but it was the initial addition of pigs that set their farm enterprise on the right track. They took on pigs on a bed and breakfast basis - an arrangement which means feeding and providing a home and welfare for other people’s pigs.

“We started with them around 20 years ago and look after them for Pockmor based in Kilham near Driffield. We have 1,500 pigs at any one time. They come to us at 24-days-old and we take them through to finishing, so they start here at around 7kg and leave at around 105kg. We have two batches a year and the way it works is that we have a month in between one lot leaving and the next batch coming in. It’s worked really well.”

The farm runs to 197 acres and is mainly arable with 100 acres of wheat, 40 acres oil seed rape and the rest barley.

“Our wheat varieties for this year are JB Diego and a new one called Gator, a biscuit wheat. It will be our fifth year with JB Diego but we’ve dropped Solo that we had last year. We like to go with what’s on the recommended list. It’s good arable land here and we’ve averaged 3.5 tonnes per acre since 1982.

“The other agricultural operation we have is contract spraying and combining for a neighbour. The combination of pigs and contracting, along with our own arable acreage justifies our farm equipment which includes two tractors, forklift, combine, sprayer and fertiliser spreader. We do all our own work on the farm except for baling and muck spreading. We run New Holland tractors and combine.”

While it’s pigs that have become the farm’s main agricultural enterprise the Dickinsons are also making the most of the reason why they wanted to continue farming here. Their location now means a good deal to others. Having started with a five-van certified caravan site in 2003 they began running bed and breakfast accommodation in 2007.

“It’s the loveliest thing we’ve done,” says Sue. “We’ve met so many fabulous people who have become really good friends and I really enjoy the interaction. Our visitors come here for the peace and quiet and the homeliness as we try to run this as a family farm and holiday accommodation. Our major attraction is the view and we get a lot of bird watchers, walkers and cyclists as well as those who may have come to the area for a wedding at the Downe arms in Wykeham just down the hill.

“We have three double rooms, with one that can be a twin room. One is on the ground floor so it’s ideal for disabled visitors and we have made all the rooms different. There’s also a lounge and dining area for all the guests. We had taken a look around and where we are, roughly eight miles from the coast there are not a lot of B&B places.”

Andrew and Sue have a son, Chris, and a daughter, Beth. They are both aiming to carry on their working lives in the rural world. Chris completed his studies at Harper Adams University and is now a field trials officer with Oxford Agricultural Trials. Beth is training to become a chartered surveyor, also at Harper Adams.

“Chris and Beth have always contributed to what we have done here and are a great help. Beth bakes better cakes than me and when she’s home at harvest, helps with the bed and breakfast guests in a morning and then leads corn from the combine in an afternoon. She’s also been treasurer at Snainton Young Farmers’ Club.”

Sue is a farmer’s daughter from a little further to the west of Sawdon Heights.

“I’m a Teasdale and my brother farms at Skiplam Rigg. I went to Helmsley Young Farmers’ Club and met Andrew through young farmers. He got into trouble for poaching one of the Helmsley women!”

Opening up their farm to holiday makers also brought back a piece of its history. “One of our visitors was a 92-year-old lady who lived here in the 1920s. She told us how her father had married the farmer’s daughter but that her mother had died. She’d then been brought up in a guest house in Scarborough. Her dad had visited her every week but when she was nine he had brought her to live here. She had to bring up two half siblings and it probably wasn’t the best of experiences for her, but we found it fascinating. She brought us the horse brasses that were originally here.”

Pigs and people, along with their arable concerns and contracting have ensured that the Dickinsons’ future should not be in doubt. They also now run a holiday cottage in nearby Ebberston and Sue has plans for shepherd’s hut accommodation next. It just goes to prove that the family farm can exist in the 21st century. I can also tell you from personal experience that Sue’s Victoria sponge cake is to die for. And what’s more Sue has also recently received a gold award for reviews of their accommodation on the internet.