Building a farm business from nothing is always a tough call. Many new entrants become tenants or rent parcels of land with the long-term goal of ownership, but it is only few that achieve their ambition.
Graham Hunt purchased his 30-acre farmstead of Sowerby Parks Farm between Dalton and Sowerby near Thirsk in 2001, the culmination of a long slog, hard work, money accrued through his animal husbandry skills and a lifelong desire to have his own place, that he now runs with his son Sam who also lives on the farm with fiancée Melissa.
Graham and Sam have pigs and a Beef Shorthorn herd, taking Graham back to his roots.
“I came from a council house in County Durham. My dad worked as a cowman at Gainford Hall, at the time one of the most famous names in the Shorthorn world. When I left school I went to work for a farmer called John Hodgson who taught me everything I know about stock. If I had my life over I’d go back and work with him again.”
Canny lad that Graham is, he knew he couldn’t just wait for things to happen. “I soon realised that working on a farm for someone else was never going to get me to where I wanted to be, so I took up other jobs, working for the Water Authority while holding down my farming role and latterly selling for animal feed companies.
“I’ve had my own livestock since I was in my teens when I bred pedigree Texel sheep. I’d showed them successfully and believe I’m still the only Englishman to have won at the Royal Highland Show with a homebred ram, but I was renting quite a bit of land. My accountant mentioned with what I was then paying in rent I should just as well invest in buying a farm. This came up and I sold my Texels to afford the deposit.”
Having finally realised his dream Graham was dealt a double whammy when foot and mouth disease restrictions took hold and he lost his job with the feed company he had joined just a short while previously. Faced with a sizeable mortgage, quick thinking was needed.
“The farm’s previous owner had 200 pigs on bed and breakfast accommodation for Don Sanderson of Brompton on Swale and I was carrying on with the arrangement but, given what had happened with my job, I needed an income to replace the salary. I’d taken a look at my figures and the farm buildings here and had a word with Don saying I needed 2,000 pigs. Don was fantastic. He looked around the buildings, told me what I needed to do and in six months we were up and running. They come in at five weeks old or seven kilos and we take them through to 110 kilos, when they go largely to Woodheads in Colne who supply Morrisons.
“I did most of the work myself and I have my neighbours John and Sue Smith to thank who helped me out tremendously. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their generosity and Don’s help. The pigs are the bedrock of what is now mine and Sam’s farm business.”
Getting his breezeblocks and future building blocks in place has allowed Graham to pursue the arena where he is perhaps now best known, but the Beef Shorthorns have only become his main breed in the past three years having previously enjoyed success with a Dexter herd that rose to 100 cows.
“There were a few Dexters here when I took on the farm and we expanded the herd. The beef went well, with restaurants and hotels really going for it. We took on extra land at Wetherby as we increased numbers and won at nearly every show, including a fabulous year in 2014 but we moved out of them in April 2015. Beef Shorthorns had always been the breed I really wanted, going back to my dad’s day.”
Graham’s first three years with his beloved Beef Shorthorns have proved nothing short of phenomenal. He has won classes at all the shows he has attended, has taken male, female, junior and reserve championships and has ticked off one achievement he thought might never happen, selling a homebred Beef Shorthorn bull at the breed sale in Stirling.
“I’ve been very lucky. When we were first going into the breed I decided the best place to buy was at the society sale in Stirling, so Sam and I went there in November 2015. We bought four heifers at reasonable but not exorbitant prices. Our stroke of luck came in meeting with Martin Moore from Worcester after the sale. We were just having a brew in the mart café and chatting with Martin and Jack Ramsey from Ayrshire.’
“Martin suggested I should have a few more mature cows as well as the heifers and invited me down to pick a few out from his herd. I selected three and the following week took my trailer to collect them. There was only room for two of them so the week later I went down again, this time selecting another so I was going back with two not just one.”
“The cow I selected from Martin that day had a bull calf that proved amazing. I took it to 14 shows in 2017 and it won its class at all apart from one. Sowerby Parks Kincade won at the Royal Highland, Great Yorkshire and the Royal Welsh where he was male champion, junior champion and reserve. I never thought I’d have a bull good enough to go to Stirling, but we took him, he won his class again and sold him to one of the top herds for 8,000 guineas.”
This year’s show season has seen Graham achieve a second place at the Royal Highland but the Great Yorkshire Show proved a personal high. ‘It was a right good Yorkshire. We had junior champion and reserve male champion with another bull we’ve bred Sowerby Park Gypsy Leader out of the same mother that bred Kincade. He’ll be up for sale at Stirling in November. We also had reserve overall champion with a heifer, Wenmar Tessa. We’ve won classes all over the country again.”
Graham sells breeding bulls, with the rest of his bulls going to either Thirsk or Darlington marts at between 13-15 months. He’s calving 50 cows and heifers next year, but increasing further will need more land than his 30 acres plus a further 150 he currently rents.