Farm Of The Week: A dairy farm where youth leads the way

Ben Barnett visits a farmer whose traditional operations are evolving under the guidance of a new generation.

Farmer David Ross outside the farm shop with sons Chris, left and Anthony
Farmer David Ross outside the farm shop with sons Chris, left and Anthony

THE rural brain drain is often quoted as a reason to fear for the future of rural economies but a farm nestled on the outskirts of Rotherham has seen its youngest sons turn their backs on the bright lights of the city.

Just a 20-minute drive from Sheffield city centre, Lawns Farm spans almost 200 acres in an unassuming corner of South Yorkshire in Morthen village, looking out towards the M1 and M18 motorways. Predominantly operating as a dairy farm, it has belonged to the Ross family for successive generations and its current incumbents are widower David, who has lived on the farm for all of his 66 years, and his sons Christopher, 27, and Anthony, 24.

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David’s father, a Glaswegian, Alfred Edwin Ross, who was better known as ‘Jimmy’, acquired the land in the 1940s.

As a teenager he lived locally with his spinster aunt who looked after him and he later married a local farm girl. The newlyweds lived together at Lawns Farm and the Ross’s have been in residence ever since.

Theirs is a farm which has, in David’s own words, undergone a metamorphosis in recent years, breaking from its traditional operations as purely a dairy farm with the opening of a farm shop in a converted cow house.

The conversion took the gents three months of hard graft to complete themselves and the result is a cosy, wooden beamed farm shop. Bunting in the windows adds to the homeliness, as do the oak framed windows and door.

This new enterprise was made possible with financial backing from the Yorkshire Bank’s agribusiness team. It opens six days a week, Tuesday to Sunday, and is run by Anthony, with the help of an assistant at the weekend, and a butcher.

At the meat counter are fresh cuts of pork and beef such as sausages and steaks, all produced from animals reared on the farm. Products from other local farms are available too. As David explains how much farming has changed, a neighbouring farmer drops off lamb carcasses, which will be butchered and sold at the shop. A steady stream of locals drop by over the course of the morning, including another local farmer in the market for fodder for his breakfast. Visitors can park up in the farmyard which is bordered by sheds holding livestock, the shop and the farmhouse.

David says: “The biggest change in my time farming is from everything being done by hand. It used to take six weeks to do a harvest.”

Lawns Farm Shop also sells pies, cheese, milk, game and poultry. Anthony declares he is satisfied with how the business has gone since it opened last June. After graduating with a degree in forensic and analytical science at Sheffield Hallam University, he found himself drawn back to the farm.

“I missed it, being on the farm, being my own boss,” he says.

“We’ve relied on word of mouth to bring in customers and it seems to be getting busier and busier. People in Wickersley (a few miles up the road) are just finding out about us.”

He hopes to add a cafe to the shop in future, possibly by converting an existing shed.

With a grin, Christopher says his younger sibling has got it easy as the shop’s manager while he goes about a daily routine of looking after livestock. Away from the farm the brothers enjoy rugby, Christopher coaches the ladies’ tag rugby team in Dinnington and Anthony plays prop for National League 2 North club, Sheffield Tigers RUFC.

Around the farmyard in various sheds, pens and sties are calves, cows, bulls and pigs.

Some of the latter share an enclosure with Sooty the cat; a stray which befriended the pigs and never left. A pair of goats which go by the names Will and Grace, the family’s pet dogs and geese, as well as some majestically preened peacocks add to the lively mix.

Some 85 milking cows live here, and the farm tends to produce 7,000 litres a cow per year. The milk is transported to a processor in Denby Dale before going to market.

Pigs were first introduced to the farm in 2008 and there are now 60-odd of rare breeds here, including British Lops and Gloucestershire Old Spots.

Beyond the farmyard lies 40 acres of maize silage, 50 acres of grass silage and the rest is dedicated to wheat. The crops are used to feed the livestock.

Like his younger brother, Christopher was given a taste of life away from the farm, studying agriculture at Bishop Burton College, 50 miles away, near Beverley. He paid his way through college by breeding dogs and turkeys, but always intended to return.

“I’ve worked on the farm for as long as I can remember, from being ‘so high’,” he says with his hand hovering at waist level.

“I’ve always wanted to do it.”

With eager help to rely on, David plays more of a ‘domestic’ role now, leaving the boys to lead the way. Christopher is learning fast about the pragmatic nature of the job.

A recent deal with a fellow farmer saw him invest in a litter of pigs. Thrown into the bargain were two goats, due to the seller’s incapacity to continue to look after them.

Christopher says he was unsure how best to use the goats at first, but given their friendliness to humans, they have proved a diversion for younger visitors to the farm who are allowed to visit the pigs and cows in sheds outside the shop.

“They took a while to settle and wouldn’t eat at first,” says Christopher of the goats.

“We tried all sorts and discovered that they go nuts for cornflakes.” Christopher also introduced geese to the farm.

“We keep the geese as pets for the children who visit but people have been going mad for their eggs in the shop – the secret is to cook them for seven-and-a-half minutes.

“It took a week, but I’ve trained the geese to walk on a dog lead.”

To help the farm tick over, the Ross’s have an arrangement with Reaseheath College, Cheshire. An agricultural studies student spends a year in industry on the farm to pick up practical know-how. At present, teenage student Rob Hobson, a local lad, assists with manual tasks and is paid an apprenticeship wage.

It is further evidence that Lawns Farm has the exuberance of youth to drive it forward. Where some dairy farmers have aged with no heir to their operations, the Ross’s keep going with a clear plan of diversification and a passionate new generation at the reins.