Market forces and a family tradition

Auction marts were badly hit by the succession of catastrophes which overtook British livestock. Chris Berry reports on how business is picking up and one which re-invented itself.

When the gates closed at Yorkshire's livestock markets in spring 2001, there were many who feared that it was the end for the traditional way in which most farmers sold their stock.

Foot-and-mouth disease looked as though it might also spell the end for those who earned their living at their local mart.

Yet today, just five years on from the funeral pyres and utter despair, most livestock markets have reopened and are seeing a resurgence in trade. Bingley, Penistone, Wetherby and Otley's Bridge End Mart and others had all perished before foot-and-mouth, and Driffield never reopened after it. But those which pulled through are now growing stronger.

At York Auction Centre, James Stephenson says: "There have been so many knocks from epidemics, and the first thing that gets shut each time and without any notice is the auction mart. Every time though, phoenix-like, it comes back again, but we really did fear that the latest incidence of foot-and-mouth would put paid to us altogether.

"During the periods when livestock markets have been forced to close, new links have become forged between those at either end of the livestock market chain. Those sometimes stay in place when whatever restrictions are taken off."

In the past two decades we have seen Swine Fever, Blue Ear, BSE and foot-and-mouth. But James and the team at York are now finding that the support from farmers and public is stronger than ever.

"Since foot-and-mouth, and especially in the last 18 months, our trade has been extremely good. I feel we are now being supported by a much more loyal and knowledgeable public, and that has driven the demand for British meat. Because of that demand, prices are much better and have come back with a flourish."

Numbers of animals in the sale ring are still a mighty cry from the early 80s, when York was selling 4,000 fat pigs and 1,000 fat cattle every week. Today's numbers are 250 fat pigs and 400-500 fat cattle.

Some years ago, York Livestock Centre recognised that they needed to take a wider view. "When we moved here from the centre of York in the early 70s we couldn't attend to diversification because the livestock side grew so rapidly," says James. "But about 15-18 years ago we were looking for a different area to deal in.'

One result was the York Machinery Sale, now held monthly and the largest of its kind in the UK. When I visited recently, the whole place – rechristened in recent years York Auction Centre – was heaving with thousands of farming and rural people. I also saw well over a thousand attending a Rare Breeds Sale there recently too.

"The farming fraternity had little need to buy second-hand farm machinery during the 70s and 80s, but when the pinch was felt during the late 80s, the market started opening up and we resurrected what we used to do some years previously and run a machinery sale," says James. Each day they sell 4,500-5,000 lots.

"Our Sunday trading market, which incorporates trade stands and car boots, is in keeping with the nation's favourite sport, shopping. We had an antique sale side of the business up at Malton, (where Stephenson's took over the long-established trade of Boulton & Cooper some years ago), and we expanded that into York holding regular sales of antiques and chattels.

"We subsequently extended that with a monthly sale of chattels on a Saturday that operates on the same day as our Farmers' Market."

"We have been operating Farmers' Markets for about 10 years now and we have anywhere between 35-60 farmers and farming families taking stands every fortnight.

"One of the ways I would really like to develop our trade further would be to set this site up with a regional food market, with food businesses having a base here, and a food hall."

In the late 80s York Auction Centre also moved into the sale of horses, setting up a new sale ring. "We now sell between 50-120 horses every month and buyers and sellers attend from all over the UK."

James has also been instrumental in ensuring the longevity of the Cleveland Bay – the horses used to pull the Queen's carriages. "My father was involved before me and I took over as secretary of the society in the 1960s. We were down to only nine pure-bred stallions in the world – now we are running at around 60.

"When York council decided that having a lorry park in the city centre area was inappropriate, they approached us, and so we now operate part of the site as York Lorry Parks."

It's all quite a distance away from when the Stephenson family first came to York in the 1920s, having been one of several auctioneers at Tadcaster Mart. In those days, York market was situated where the Barbican centre is now, and the mart itself ran right around the outer city wall from Walmgate to Monk Bar.

They were one of eight resident auctioneers between the world wars, but following the end of rationing, just four remained.

When the move to the site at Murton Lane came about, under the guiding hand of Reg Stephenson, father of Nigel and James, there were only two businesses who moved in – the Stephensons and English & Son of Pocklington.

Their trade today is much more diverse, but agriculture is still very much at the heart of the business. The Stephensons helped well over 500 farmers with their recent Single Farm Payment literature. They sell farms and land, as well as residential property, through their estate agency and presently have what James describes as a little sporting gem – the 3,000 acres of the Grosmont Estate – on their books.

"The reality is that the costs of running a livestock mart are enormous and it is our professional practice and other activities that provide vital additional business opportunity. Sometimes it's difficult to put your finger on what is actually happening, but today there are indisputably less tenant and family farms. In years gone by it would have been quite normal for me to go on a farm and see father and son making a living from 40/50 cows and their by-products.

"Young people who would have come into farming are now looking for better-paid jobs, with less work involved, elsewhere. That's because the difficulty we now have is a straitjacket of regulations and no direction from the top."

That direction never seems to have been too much of a problem for the Stephensons though.

Going back as far as the Civil War, the Stephensons were acting as appraisers for the Fairfax family of Steeton Hall, Tadcaster, who moved to Newton Kyme in 1645. Today the family progression seems just as sure as ever.

James Stephenson and his brother Nigel were joint senior partners until 18 months ago when Nigel passed away.

Today's main team is, James, Edward Stephenson (Nigel's son), Rod Cordingley and Richard Tasker.

It seems that the resilience of farmers to cope with anything thrown at them is mirrored by the Stephensons and York Auction Centre.