Advent begins this weekend and it will be a busy time at Rudfarlington Farm. Ben Barnett met a farmer who deals in trees.
Farming requires year-round dedication and hard work but if there’s one month of the year when business is quieter than others it’s usually December, unless you stock and sell Christmas trees like Mike Reynolds does of course.
Mike’s tenant farm located off Harrogate’s busy Wetherby Road was a traditional mixed operation under his parents when they moved on to what originally spanned 200 acres of Harrogate Borough Council land at Rudfarlington Farm in 1962.
While sheep, pigs and crops remain fixtures, the cattle have gone and a livery with the capacity for 40 horses has been built and, come the start of December there’s Christmas trees wherever you gaze in the farmyard.
This seasonal diversification started out 18 years ago. That first Christmas Mike sold 150 trees and considered it a success, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the pace of trade these days.
“On a busy weekend we can sell double that in a day,” says Mike, who has welcomed me on to the farm just before the start of the seasonal rush.
Today, he is picking out two trees to deliver to The Crescent Inn in Ilkley.
“The Christmas trees came before the horses. A guy from Pateley Bridge who used to shoot pigeons here wanted to sell a few of his trees through me and split the profits 50:50.
“We started with just one sign at the bottom of the lane and now we advertise on local radio, newspapers and over the internet. Me and computers don’t get on but the amount of emails we get now means I’ve had to learn how to respond to them.
“We ask people how they heard about us and the amount who say they typed ‘Christmas trees in Harrogate’ into Google and we came up at the top of the list is unbelievable.”
Given the competitive nature of seasonal trade, Mike prefers to stay tight-lipped on the number he sells.
Nowadays he sources the trees from a supplier based in Mirfield and another near Barnsley – merchants who order stock from the hills of Scotland. Customers can also buy wreaths and tree stands, and as part of the service, Mike and his team will trim trees to fit into stands.
Having got started, Mike realised people had very specific requirements and so he specialises in different varieties of non-needle drop trees such as Nordman Fir, Noble Fir, Fraser Fir, the traditional Norway Spruce and, new for this year, the larger American-style Lodgepole Pines.
“Buying habits have changed during my time selling trees. More people are buying the non-needle drop type now.
“The busiest days are the two weekends in the run-up to Christmas. There are five or six of us, family and friends, just selling trees and Charlotte (Mike’s youngest daughter) keeps us watered and fed.”
Mike employs one full-time worker and one part-time employee to help out at the farm all-year round, Tim Bennett and Callum Moore. He lives at the farm with his three children, Emily, 17, Charlotte, 15, and Eddie, 12, and their Border Collie, Buddy.
“I do get sick of the sight of Christmas trees by the end of the season but I do enjoy it,” says Mike.
Eddie, who earns his pocket money by helping out, chips in: “It’s a good way to get some money to pay for all the Christmas presents.”
Mike adds: “It’s nice having people up here. We see people who come every year since we started. I can almost tell what tree they will want when they come back again the following year.
“People can be really fussy about which tree they want and sometimes it’s difficult when you have a couple having a bit of a domestic over which one to go for.”
The wide range of trees neatly lined up in order in the farmyard range from as small as three-feet tall to as looming as 18ft. The larger trees tend to get snapped up for health centres, pubs and offices. Mike supplies trees to a number of solicitors’ offices as well as The Academy Health Club in Harrogate.
Selling trees may provide a good seasonal income but it is just one string in the bow of the farm at the gateway to the spa town. Mike explains how the operations at Rudfarlington have evolved over the years.
“I was a typical child growing up on a farm, just helping out with all sorts. My dad died when I was four so I left school at 16 and I got the tenancy at 18.
“We used to breed pigs and kept cattle and sheep, and we got a chance to take extra land when a neighbouring farmer retired – another 100 acres so we became a 300-acre farm.
“We went out of beef. At that time it wasn’t making enough money and in the Foot and Mouth year we came out of pigs – about 12 years ago – and that’s when we started the stables. Horses were completely new to me. I’d never even sat on one before.
“There are 40 horses now. It has built up through word of mouth. We started with five stables but had planning for ten at the beginning and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the interest.”
Some 180 acres is dedicated to a mix of wheat, barley and oilseed rape which are sold to local merchants. The other 120 acres is grassland, used for hay in the stables and for Mike’s 120 ewes, a flock mainly comprised of Mules and Texel tups that are sold live at Wharfedale Auction Mart in Otley. Most of his current stock will go to auction in the post-Christmas sales.
He also contract farms pigs in a single shed for Bailey Livestock in Ripon and sells local produce over the farmgate, free range eggs from Ian Taylor in Burton Leonard and potatoes from TH Heslop and Sons in Spofforth.
“We’re not like a traditional farm,” explains Mike.
“There’s always someone on the farm. Because of our location we can do these things. It’s important to exploit your location.”
For details of Christmas trees available at Rudfarlinton Farm, located opposite The Kestrel pub, Wetherby Road, Harrogate, visit the farm’s website at www.christmastreesharrogate.co.uk or call Mike on 07703435480.