Farm of the Week: The Fletchers of Little Ayton

Three generations of the Fletcher family ' Lucy, Mark and Stuart ' pictured outside their popular coffee shop.  Pictures: Scott Wicking
Three generations of the Fletcher family ' Lucy, Mark and Stuart ' pictured outside their popular coffee shop. Pictures: Scott Wicking
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Next weekend sees the curtain come down on another Yorkshire agricultural show season that started in May with Otley Show and climaxes with two larger shows in the rural calendar at Stokesley on Saturday and Pateley Bridge the following Monday.

This year’s Stokesley Show president is lifelong supporter Stuart Fletcher who has been the main ring steward for 15 years. He farms a dairy herd with son Mark in Little Ayton and has seen how both farming and shows have had to adapt to meet public demand and maintain business.

“Stokesley Show is our North East Great Yorkshire Show. I’ve been involved in some capacity or other since first assisting my father Harold with horse section duties when I was a teenager.

“Like all agricultural shows it has had some tough times, particularly around 25-30 years ago when it seemed as though many shows dropped off a bit as there was a move away from the agricultural side. That’s when I think agricultural shows realised that their strengths were in promoting farming and the countryside.”

Embracing the general public through a love of farming has also proved to be a winner for Stuart and Mark who farm a handful of miles from the showground at their 220-acre Woodhouse Farm which is sometimes better known as Fletchers Farm Coffee Shop.

In the past two years the success of the family’s all-new coffee shop-cum-café inspired by Mark’s wife Kay has opened their eyes to just how much those who haven’t grown up on farms or in the countryside are fascinated by what they see.

“The nice part about people coming here, and to Stokesley Show, is that everyone is interested in farming and the animals and they all want to learn more. It’s truly amazing what they don’t know.

“Everybody loves to talk and ask questions and that makes you feel better as a farmer as it shows there is a very real interest in what we do and how we work.”

The days when Stuart and Mark would milk 300 dairy cows are long gone and today they milk a herd of between 80-100 black and white predominantly Holstein Friesians. The business now encompasses the dairy herd, camping, a children’s play area and the all-new coffee shop which is housed in a Dutch barn that opened last year.

“We still want to be a dairy farm as much as we can but the coffee shop has brought about more than just another business. The two work well alongside each other.

“Great Ayton is a real tourist hotspot and we’ve added another attraction with a working farm, a camp site and somewhere to come for all-day breakfasts, pies, burgers and cakes, as well as somewhere for children.

“Kay saw the potential as we have always had plenty of walkers and horse riders coming through the farm,” says Mark.

“We started about eight years ago when we were struggling with milk returns not being good enough. Kay hoofed tea, coffee and cake out to tables by the stream on a weekend and it grew from there. After five or six years we made the big decision to put up the building and it has been a great success, we’re now even getting bookings to use it for special events such as parties and anniversaries.

“With the current milk price situation we considered coming out of day-to-day farming altogether, selling most of the land and keeping animals in pens for the visitors to the coffee shop or the camp site but that’s not what we’re about. At our heart we are still farmers, but I do think we might be able to add a more educational side to the farm.

“We’ve gone back to grass-based cows with rotational grazing. It’s taken me 25 years to realise this suits us best, but there are other reasons for doing it too. The people who come here enjoy seeing the cows in the fields. Every dairy farm is different and for some large-scale indoor methods work best, ours is to fit the cows to the number of acres we have. We’re serving all our cows to a Hereford. The bull calves are sold but the heifer calves look good in the field for visitors.”

In addition to his Stokesley Show commitments that have included stewarding, council, horse and management committee membership, Stuart is joint Master of Foxhounds with the Cleveland Hunt. He has ridden and trained Point to Point winners, chaired a local dairy farmers group and 12 years ago was appointed to the main Arla producers’ board as a director looking after 250 dairy farmers’ interests in the North East.

“When the Milk Marketing Board finished I took a bigger interest than ever about milk beyond the farm gate and who we should sell to. I went with the Northern Food Milk Partnership, which since then has progressed to being with Arla. I became chairman of my local producer group and now we are one of 2,700 dairy farmers who have joined Arla’s European co-operative.

“What we all need to do at present is not go berserk and start producing more milk, otherwise the price increase that is just starting won’t last long.

“I’ve been involved with horses all my life through pony club, hunting and Point to Point. I was reasonably successful as a jockey winning a number of races and had some good horses. My favourite was Wild Child who I never rode but trained. She won me 15 Point to Pointers and a Hunter Chase.

“I’ve been involved with the Cleveland Hunt since I was 10 years old and they will be parading at the show next Saturday with the Stokesley Farmers Beagles.”

Stuart’s grandfather John William Fletcher took on Woodhouse Farm as a tenant and it was Harold Fletcher who purchased it in 1946 running it as a mixed enterprise. Stuart concentrated on dairy and now it is embracing tourism, and he’s happy with the move.

“Things change and ours has been for the better.”

Stokesley Show takes place next Saturday, September 17.