Gold in the Wolds for food entrepreneurs

Adam and Jennie Palmer with son Charlie and chef James Mackenzie,
Adam and Jennie Palmer with son Charlie and chef James Mackenzie,
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West Yorkshire has its renowned rhubarb, North Yorkshire has Wensleydale cheese and Swaledale lamb. Now the Wolds is on a mission to showcase its produce. Sarah Freeman reports.

Adam Palmer has a dream. It involves a celebrity chef and a large glug of oil.

The East Yorkshire farmer is not fussy about who features in this particular fantasy – although given his roots James Martin or Brian Turner would be ideal – it’s the “what” which is important. It’s five years since Adam, along with his fashion designer wife Jennie, opened Yorkshire Rapeseed Oil and should one of the current crop of popular chefs be inclined to feature their product on one of their television shows, the Palmers would be happy to oblige.

“Everyone wants to benefit from the Delia effect and we’re no different,” says Adam. “Something like that can have a major impact. In the early days we had to invest a lot of our time in making sure the product was right and in recent years we’ve been growing our markets locally and expanding our range. Now it’s a case of making more people aware of what we do.”

In truth the couple are doing pretty well without celebrity endorsement and are one of a growing crop of independent producers opening for business in the east of the county. In just a few square miles, the Yorkshire Wolds boasts a brewery, a jam and chutney maker, a hedgerow liqueur company, a smokehouse and a producer of meat and cheese from rare breeds.

Like many of the companies, the seeds of the Palmers’ business were sown in the need for diversification. Adam, who grew up in Hutton Cranswick, took over his grandfather’s farm after studying agriculture at Bishop Burton College. While he had emotional ties to the place, with a relatively small amount of acreage he also knew that the arable side of the business was not sustainable on its own.

“The lightbulb came on when I went to the Driffield Show eight years ago and saw a demonstration by Peter Rhodes of some rapeseed presses,” he says. “Initially, I thought about producing the oil as an alternative to diesel, but the more I looked into it, the more the figures didn’t stack up. However, by that stage I was convinced that rapeseed could bring something to the business and Jennie and I started to look at making high quality cooking oil.

“It is incredibly difficult to make a living out of what you would call a ‘traditional farm’, particularly if you are operating on the smaller end of the scale.”

Yorkshire Rapeseed Oil was born in 2008 and in that first year Adam reckons they ended up with between 2,000 and 3,000 litres of oil. This year,100,000 litres will be produced at North Breckenholme Farm on the edge of the Wolds and having diversified into mayonnaise and flavoured oils, the venture has become a family concern with three generations working across manufacture, sales and marketing.

“When we started, we were buying rapeseed at £160 a tonne, it’s now up to £400 and has been for the last three years. That’s the nature of the business and in many ways it’s a reflection of its increased popularity. We cold press our oil, which means that it’s chemical free and it’s a really good source of omega oils. At the moment most of our markets are within Yorkshire and we are currently looking at whether it’s in our interests to take it to a much wider market. One of the real joys of launching this company is that we have got really good relationships with everyone we sell to.”

Adam says there has been a significant rise in the number of food-based companies operating in the area in the last five years. Part of that success has been down to the East Yorkshire Food Network, a non-profit organisation which is really starting to champion the area’s independent businesses. It’s also in part due to an influx of new blood.

While Adam comes from a long-line of farmers, the numbers of those working in the food industry in East Yorkshire have been swelled by those looking for a change of career.

Until 2011, Melanie Moss had spent 16 years working in the pub, hotel and restaurant trade. However, five years ago she was involved in a serious car crash and it was while recuperating that she decided that she wanted to work for herself.

“I’d always been an enthusiastic amatuer when it came to making jams and chutneys,” says Melanie. “After the crash I had a lot of time to think and it’s true what they say, an accident like that really makes you reassess your priorities.

“I knew that rushing into something could be fatal, so I gave myself what I called a ‘year’s sanity check’. I told myself that if at the end of 12 months I still wanted to go it alone, then I should.”

It took a further few years of research and a little while to pull together her business plan, but Wolds Cottage Kitchen has now been up and running for two years, selling jams and chutneys in local markets and to a range of independent delis and hotels.

“I started in my own kitchen, but I’ve just moved out into a purpose-built production facility,” says Melanie, who has already picked up a number of awards for her produce. “Starting your own business is daunting, but talking to other people who have been there and done that really helps. There is a really tight community of producers, who all help each other. I now use beer from the Wold Top Brewery in some of my chutneys, I’ve just started creating some bespoke products for a number of businesses in Beverley and hotels like the Talbot, just down the road in Malton are already using my jams.”

Next month the Robert Fuller Gallery in Thixendale will give itself over to a day long farmers market, where the likes of Raisthorpe Manor, makers of sloe-gin, will be showcasing its wares alongside Jacqueline Broadbent, founder of Epicure’s Larder, whose story is typical of those trying to make their living in the 21st-century countryside.

A farmer’s daughter, she had always been involved with her parents’ business, but with two older brothers she knew that she would have to plough her own furrow.

“I did a degree at York University and then a PhD in plant biochemistry and molecular biology, I didn’t want a job that involved a lot of desk work and I really missed working with animals. I wanted to keep livestock, but I knew I had to be able to cover their costs. There were a lot of people already working in meat production, so initially I started with cheese.”

With a growing interest in rare breeds, Jacquie invested in Shetland cattle and has since expanded the business and her farm now also boasts Tamworth pigs and Kerry Hills sheep.

On her website, Jacquie says the one thing she has learnt on what she describes as her ‘mad caper’ is the realisation just how supportive other people can be. It’s a view shared many of those who have established new businesses in this corner of East Yorkshire.

“We’ve got a lot to be proud of in East Yorkshire,” says Melanie. “Now we just need to let the rest of the county what they’ve got on their doorstep.”

Taste the Best of the Yorkshire Wolds on July 13, will run from 10am to 4.30pm at the Robert Fuller Gallery, Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale. For more details call 01759 368355.