Farm of the Week: Preaching the value of organic crops out in the east

A RED carpet greets visitors to Westfield Farm in the village of Burton Fleming. It’s a beautiful sea of poppies that are in full bloom in a field of Wizard winter beans, providing a picture postcard vista for a steady flow of passing ramblers.

Judy Coleman walking amongst the wild poppies at Westfield Farm, Burton Fleming. (GL1006/34d)

John Coleman explains why they adorn his land which lies between Filey and Bridlington: “Just under half our acreage is organic farmed and of course that means we can’t use chemicals to control the land, which has resulted in this magnificent field of red.

“We started down the organic route on part of our 235 acres because our son Jim and daughter-in-law Jane came back to the farm after their university studies and they weren’t keen on the use of fertilisers and chemicals.

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“We also benefitted at the time we were going into organic farming because there were reasonable premiums to be made through organic produce. While those premiums aren’t as great as they were, one of the benefits we still get today is that the costs of production are a fraction of what they are on the rest of the farm.

“Our 100 acres of organic land also leans itself towards livestock production. We had outdoor pigs at one time with as many as 350 sows and rearing progeny to go to fattening units at 32kgs but the company we were rearing for went out of pigs.

“Then we had a smaller herd of 25 Saddleback sows but we had to get out of them quickly when the recession started and our local buyer didn’t want their progeny anymore.

“We now have a flock of Lleyn sheep that we started in the last few years and it’s performing well. They’re lambed in the first six weeks of the year and currently we have just 20 lambs left of this year’s crop, having taken 130 to markets in York and Malton. They averaged £80 at around 42-43kgs. We also supply direct to Dawn Meats at Carnaby.”

Crop rotation on the organic land operates on a four-year cycle with a grass and clover ley producing hay, followed by grass and clover leys being grazed by the Lleyns; organic spring wheat Paragon is next and then Wizard winter beans. John says the beans help put nitrogen back into the soil.

“We cultivate the land after the beans are harvested in September or October, sowing the grass and clover ley in the spring. Two years of grass and clover being ploughed in doesn’t pay many bills though, so that’s why we decided to go with the Lleyns. We bought the start-up flock of 71 sheep from the top side of Settle and another 30 from a farmer in Kilham. Having started with 101 ewes we’re now at 93 so our next plan is replacements.”

The conventional farming acreage includes Ventura winter barley, Concerto spring barley, Solstice winter wheat and grass and clover leys grazed by the family’s other sheep flock of pedigree Suffolks that have been a part of the farm for many years.

“We started with the Suffolks in 1979 and used to show them. Over the years we have sold them as far afield as Bakewell and Kelso. We’ve reduced numbers from 55 to 45 breeding ewes recently. They also lamb early, within the first four weeks of the year and we’ve recently sold all the Suffolk cull lambs. Our last batches of light lambs went for £71 last week and the heavy ones sold at £80. Pedigree stock is sold direct off the farm and at sales at Wombleton and Malton.

“Our land ranges from gravelly to chalk and is generally around Grade 2-3. Our yields are usually around three tonnes per acre for wheat; two-and-a-half tonnes for winter barley and 2.25 tonnes for spring barley. Solstice wheat is aimed at going to Warburtons for breadmaking.”

The poppy fields are a real eye catcher for the Colemans’ steady influx of walkers whether they are from the village, holidaymakers, daytrippers or hardy ramblers. A couple of weeks ago John was asked to speak at an East Riding of Yorkshire Council environmental meeting regarding the permissive footpath around the organic area at Westfield Farm. It’s a subject close to his heart.

“Our family has lived in and around Burton Fleming for hundreds of years and there are no roads around here that are suitable for walkers. If lorries, buses or even cars meet up coming from opposite directions it can be tricky enough.

“A permissive footpath isn’t the same as a public footpath. It’s a footpath that we allow people to use and we get something like 20 users every day. We mow it twice a year and it’s only closed once a year. It’s very popular and with the Ramblers Association trying to get more bridleways and footpaths better looked after ours stands up well. We’re also in the HLS scheme and throughout the farm we have planted trees and bushes encouraging wildlife.”

John and his wife Judy met at Bainton Young Farmers Club in 1961 but their life hasn’t always been confined to the East Riding. They went out to Kenya together in their 20s where John was an agricultural missionary for two years before resigning from what he refers to as his ‘vicar’s job’ and becoming a farm manager/agricultural adviser for the Ministry of Agriculture for a further two years before they returned home. But that wasn’t the end of their globetrotting. On returning home they received a communication from an American entrepreneur who they had met in Kenya who offered them furnished accommodation and work in Maryland. They spent two and a quarter years there.

The time that John spent preparing church services in Africa hasn’t gone to waste as he is still a lay preacher taking services for both Church of England and Methodist services in East Yorkshire.

Westfield Farm is wholly owned by the Colemans, with John, Judy, Jim and Jane equal partners.

“We’re making a living but certainly not a fortune,” says John.

“Just where we would be without the single farm payment is another matter.”