SHOULD the Summers brothers get a disappointing result from their latest sally for a rosette from the Great Yorkshire Show, it is a fairly safe bet they will be back to try again.
They are used to tightening their belts and carrying on. That is how they have got themselves amongst the beef exhibitors at the Great Yorkshire from an unpromising start – in the middle of a run of eight boys and two girls on a council estate on the western edge of Bradford.
Dad was a bus driver, then a postman, then unemployed through disability. The children had to earn their own pocket money and several of them did it by helping out the small farmers on the other side of the railway track which ran behind their house in Thornaby Avenue, Clayton.
John Summer, 54, and Phillip Summer, 49, are old enough to have memories of delivering milk with a horse and cart and hauling beef cattle into the air with a block and tackle, in the days when every other farm had a killing shed.
John ended up with a weekend job on a farmer’s meat stall in the old Rawson Market, Bradford. He worked there full-time after he left school at 16. And a few years later he got Phillip a job with another butcher in the same market. There were an astonishing 32 of them to choose from in those days.
In 1982, the brothers leased their own joint stall, J&P Summers. They were just in time to start losing customers to supermarkets. And market rules stopped them from diversifying to compete. They were not allowed to sell even bacon, eggs or cheese, because trade in those products had already been licensed to somebody else.
The brothers both went out and trained for HGV licences, so they could deliver hay and straw as a sideline. Even so, it became clear the market unit was not going to support them both and Phillip went into skip hire, with another brother, and then bought a butcher’s shop back in Clayton, the village neighbouring their home estate.
When he took it over, in 1988, it had contracts to supply 25 local care homes. Ten years later, the Conservatives took control of Bradford Council, privatised care provision and wiped out Phillip’s business. Luckily, the shop had appreciated as a property and he was able to sell it and try again.
Meanwhile, in 1992, John had moved into another Clayton butcher’s shop, which he sold his house to buy. And shortly after Phillip closed, so did three other competitors, leaving him on his own, in Druid Street – where he still does okay and employs wife, Karen, their eldest son, and other family members part-time.
As Phillip’s business declined, he subsidised it by driving a JCB digger – which can be quite a delicate instrument in the right hands and which he found he had a knack for.
Eventually, he bought one of his own. But to pay for it, he had to be in it 14-16 hours a day, he recalls. The only way out of that trap was to expand, he decided. Now Phillip Summers Groundwork Ltd. owns seven JCBs and seven trucks and employs 25 men, mainly doing road works for Bradford Council but also bits and pieces for Tarmac and the odd private customer.
All of which brings us back to farming.
In 2005, Phillip bought the High Birks Fireclay Works, an old brickworks a step further west from Clayton. For a while, it was the depot for his groundwork business. Now it is mainly his home.
It came with 18 acres of fields and in 2006, he began to pursue the dream he always nursed. He bought five beef calves at Skipton, fattened them up and sold them. Then somebody recommended him to the bargains available in the form of spare bull calves from dairy herds. He had about 150 over 18 months. But black-and-whites designed for milking were, he discovered, delicate beasts, which had invariably picked up viral pneumonia by the time he got them.
“I was losing 25 per cent of them,” he sums up.
“And the price for a 500-kilo beef animal then was £520, not £1,000 like it is now. I was losing money and I had to make a decision. I decided to start again with a pure beef breed and make a right job of it.”
In 2008, he began buying Limousins. And two years ago, with about 25 heifers and cows in his breeding herd, he decided it was time to see what a good stud could do for them. He spent his evenings reading Limousin magazines and websites and ended up with his sights fixed on a promising French bull called Attirant. Officially, his semen was sold out. But Phillip got hold of some, at £100 a straw – remainders are now two or three times that – and hired Genus to impregnate nine of his females.
He ended up with two young bulls, High Birks Geoffrey and High Birks Guy, which got a lot of complimentary attention at the Skipton Limousin Extravaganza in May last year and are now coming into their prime.
At Christmas 2010, he suggested to brother John that he could use the High Birks fields to keep a few beefs on standby, rather than having to rush off to the auctions when he was busy anyway.
That worked okay and John got bitten by the bug too. This February, he took his wallet and his butcher’s eye for a conformation to one of the sales of store cattle with show potential which Craven Cattle Marts runs at Skipton – and is now showing two of the three he bought.
Three years ago, Phillip had a stroke – and has since been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The setbacks have made him even more determined to achieve something with his cattle.
His daughters, Emillie and Kate, and cousins from the Clayton clan, have pitched in to help. Emillie, 20, who is studying economics at Bradford University, does the administration for the show entries. Katie, 18, is on an equestrian studies course at Bishop Burton and hoping for a career with livestock and she specialises in the grooming. Both are in the Aire Valley Young Farmers Club.
At Otley Show, the opener of the Yorkshire summer season, Phillip Summers & Daughters & Niece (wife Rachel’s niece, Kelly) picked up the honours for best Limousin and runner-up in the overall beef championship with one of the sons of Attirant.
And at Todmorden, three weeks ago, Phillip had the reserve Limo champ and one of John’s commercial crosses was best in class and reserve supreme beef. They both have entries at Arthington tomorrow – and then in the big one at Harrogate.
“Last time we entered, the best we did was a fourth or a fifth place,” says Phillip. “But all the farmers told us the secret was to keep on trying.”
The Summers brothers are good at that, anyway.