JANUARY

This is usually the quietest month on the farm, but there is still quite a lot to do!

The three fold yards are full of cattle, 60 to 70 in total, being fattened to sell to our local butchers. They are mostly Charolais, Limousin or Simmental cross bullocks and heifers, with an occasional Galloway or Angus beast. Richard enjoys going up to Hexham Auction Mart in Northumberland to buy his store cattle and lambs, and whilst there takes the opportunity to sell fodder beet. Since the closure of the sugar beet factory in York we have grown increasing acreages of fodder beet, which is a good source of highly palatable energy for sheep and cattle. The fodder beet harvest finished soon after Christmas, so the crop is now in store in outdoor clamps.

We have about 1200 hoggs (last year’s lambs which will be sold for meat) to look after, along with 360 in-lamb ewes and 9 rams. The ewes are mainly Mules, with some Texel and Suffolk X sheep, whilst the rams are Suffolks, Texels and Charolais.

From now until the beginning of April we will be selling the hoggs, some of our own breeding and some bought in. They are being fattened outside on fodder beet tops, stubble turnips, a beet pulp/ barley mix and hay. They are sold through Darlington auction Mart and to our local butchers, Nick and Chris Hartley of Tholthorpe.

FEBRUARY

February continues in much the same vein as January, but the in-lamb ewes start being fed once a day 3 weeks before lambing and twice a day 2 weeks before. As well as giving the ewes the additional energy they require at this stage of their pregnancy, we can keep a closer eye on them as problems such as twin lamb disease often arise just before lambing begins.

The arrival of the first lambs heralds the start of the lambing season, and even after all these years it is still a time of great excitement, and wonder! Richard, Tom and I will be kept very busy for the next few weeks!

MARCH

Lambing is in full flow. Having scanned our ewes for the first time, it has been hailed a great success, as we know whether a ewe is expecting 1,2 or 3 lambs and she can be fed accordingly. We have had 4 sets of quads this season, and along with a lot of trebles have ended up with 30 pet lambs! With bucket feeding it hasn’t been as onerous as it might have been, but they are a hungry bunch! We have lost more ewes than we would have liked, but on the whole things have gone well. The weather has been amazing for March – it has been wonderful turning the ewes and lambs out into warm temperatures and some good grass. We have started turning out the cattle too, to graze old pasture and riverside land.

On the land it is all go, and the tractors are back in action! The land has been worked and the spring barley drilled, whilst fertilizer has been spread on the various crops and the soft fruit.

APRIL

Lambing is drawing to a close, with Tom’s ewe lambs, which were due to lamb a little later than the rest, lambing relatively easily, and taking to motherhood wonderfully well. Our ewes and lambs have coped on the whole with this cold, wet weather, although we have had to bring in 1 or 2 lambs recently.

Richard has completed his favourite job of the year which is following the fodder beet drill, checking everything is running correctly. Potatoes have not yet been planted as we are waiting for the land to dry up.

We have planted a further one and a half acres of asparagus, all by hand, into trenches 60inches apart with 11inches between each crown. We may get a light pick from these next year, but definitely in 2014. We are all ready to start the harvest of our established 4 acres of asparagus in earnest, but it will not grow in these low temperatures. Consequently we have only managed to pick very small quantities for a few local orders so far. It is very frustrating as last year we had been picking for 3 weeks flat out, before the end of April. However, this did not deter us from welcoming Jules Bellerby from Radio York to our Asparagus fields on April 19th to witness the beginning of the season and our Asparagus ritual being performed for the first time! Written by our near neighbour Mike Barfield, it caused much amusement among the gang of 20 of us gathered to perform it at 7.15a.m. live in a cold, drizzly asparagus field and great entertainment for the listeners! We are all willing the weather to warm up as the asparagus will only grow in higher temperatures – on a hot, sunny day you can see it growing, but when it is cold it just doesn’t move!

The plum trees have had a lot of blossom, so we are just hoping that the April frosts haven’t done too much damage, but the early strawberry blossom has been hurt. The ‘pulling’ peas we have sown at Sessay for the first time are through, but aren’t growing very much.

MAY

May has been so wet and cold. Nothing is growing, including the asparagus, so for the first couple of weeks of the month we only picked 2 or 3 times a week instead of each day which we would have expected. Last year we had picked 12,000 400gm. bundles of asparagus by May 20th, and the season was almost over! This season is a very different story.

The potatoes have been planted. Richard is up to date with spraying the strawberries for pests, mildew and other fungal problems along with foliar feed, but again, the soft fruit season looks like being late.

The high rainfall has resulted in the river threatening to burst its banks, so we have had to move cattle and sheep out of harm’s way four times now! We are also getting more ewes than usual suffering from mastitis owing to the cold weather, so it is a great advantage if we can catch them early as they have a far greater chance of recovery.

We are busy confirming with all our foreign fruit pickers their dates of arrival for the season. The pet lambs are all now weaned and the cattle are turned out to grass.

As I conclude this May entry, the weather has suddenly taken up, and the high temperatures have made everything grow madly. The strawberries now look so much better and are flowering or the fruit has set on some varieties. The fodder beet is growing away, and potatoes are popping through. Tom is up to date vaccinating the lambs and we are looking forward to having the sheep clipped at the beginning of June.

We are still picking asparagus but don’t envisage carrying on after June 5th as we need to ensure there are enough spears at each crown to feed it ready for next year.

JUNE

June started with poor weather which fortunately improved for the Jubilee Celebrations in our Village, on the Tuesday afternoon. We picked asparagus on the first three days of June, missed the Sunday and then had our final pick on Monday, June 5th. It is always quite sad going to the field for the last time of the season as Pasture Lane in spring is a wonderful place to work. A relatively inexperienced asparagus team has managed to cope with difficult conditions very well. Never before have we waded through inches of water several days in a row to pick in some parts of the field! Our end of season celebration at Raines of Helperby was great fun, with a delicious meal.

We eventually got all the sheep clipped on the 10th June which was a big relief. It can be difficult in such a wet season as the sheep need to be dry in order to be clipped. The fleeces all go to wool warehouses in Bradford, and are now worth about £3 each, compared with less than 50p four years ago. The lambs have been doing well and we had our first draw in the second week supplying Hartleys.

Another major job is the strawing up of the strawberries. Fortunately this is now done by machine whereas a few years ago it was such a backbreaking job done by hand. The straw is laid between the rows of strawberries, ideally at green fruit stage, to keep the fruit clean.

The new strawberry field was in planted in the warm weather towards the end of May, 2 acres in all. We would prefer to plant in fresh ground, as the strawberries do better, but this area last grew strawberries 10 years ago, so it has at least had a good rest! This year we have planted Symphony, Lucy, Florence , Sweetheart and Vibrant varieties and they are looking well established now – they have certainly had plenty of water!

June 12th saw the arrival of the first of our fruit pickers, with the last ones arriving on the 25th. It is always difficult trying to work out when to ask people to come to Church Farm as they want to book their flights in February, but we have done fairly well this season matching the number of staff available to the ripening of the fruit. This season we have mostly Czech pickers, with some Poles, but what is so nice is that a lot of them are returnees, some in their 5th season with us, so each season is something of a reunion! Having said that, it was the ‘home’ team of Tom, Louise, Damian, Krzysztof, Richard, Joe and me who picked the very first fruit on the variety Christine. This was early as we had covered the plants with fleece when frosts were predicted during flowering. However, once we started it became apparent how much damage had been caused to the fruit by the triple attack of rain, crows and slugs. We have been picking the very bad ones to stop decay spreading to the unripe fruit, the slightly damaged ones to be trimmed and frozen and the top quality fruit to be sold wholesale – all very time consuming! I am pleased to say, though, that despite the adverse weather conditions the flavour of the strawberries is, on the whole, very good. We are now also picking Symphony, Sweetheart and Fenella strawberries, as well as gooseberries.

I can’t believe we are now half way through the year, and the longest day has been and gone. The weather has been so disruptive and the land is so wet, that we are all longing for a spell of warm sunshine, not least for the increase in demand for strawberries!

I forgot to mention that the carrots which are grown at Lodge farm by Guy Poskitt were drilled at the end of May, but they too, need more sun.

We were very delighted to hear that Becci, who first came to us to see lambing practice as a 1st year student from Liverpool and has been to help every year since, has passed all her exams and is now a fully qualified vet. Congratulations!

JULY

July has continued in the same vein as June – rain, rain and more rain! Things are still difficult in the strawberry fields as we struggle to get around the headlands with anything other than Tom’s truck, or a tractor and trailer. Water is being pumped away from rows of fruit where it has been standing and we are still picking off rain damaged fruit to prevent any decay spreading to the green and white fruit on the plants. On the plus side, we have a good crop of strawberries unlike last year when the late frosts accounted for a large amount of fruit. In the second week of the month we have finished picking the Christine strawberries, the Fenella and Elegance are on their last pick over, whilst the Symphony and Florence are still going strong! Each variety does look and taste quite different, so it is worth coming to the Farm Shop to taste the fruit being picked on that particular day. Each area of strawberries will be picked over probably 4 times with the pickers being paid on piece work i.e. so much for each punnet picked, and the rate is determined by how good and abundant the fruit is on that day. There will be between 6 and 12 pickers in a gang, each of which is looked after by between 1 and 3 gangers, depending on the volume of fruit being picked. The gangers are responsible for keeping the pickers supplied with baskets of empty punnets, and emptying the full punnets into trays at the end of the rows so that we know at the end of the day how many trays each picker has picked and they can be paid accordingly. The gangers also ensure all the punnets are properly full of good quality fruit. Our pickers have been amazing throughout this terrible weather, keeping cheerful in the rain and doing their best to maintain the high standards we expect from them. The gangers have done a good job, too, especially Jan and Jirka who have had to work on the worst headlands in atrocious mud where I could hardly even manage to stand up without slipping!
The gooseberries have not been such a big crop but the demand has been strong, so we are pleased that we planted a lot of new bushes last November, which hopefully will bear fruit next summer. The Greenfinch gooseberries are a particularly attractive fruit. The blackcurrants are big and tasty, and as popular as ever with our Pick Your Own Customers. We do pick some ourselves for the shop, but it is a very time consuming and therefore costly, exercise.

The raspberries are cropping well on all the varieties at present, both looking and tasting good. We are now picking Glen Moy, Glen Ample and Tulameen, along with Juno for jam- making. However, at this stage of the season we really do not want the torrential rain which has been falling recently as it will do a huge amount of damage.

The broad beans are absolutely delicious at the moment and are selling well in the Farm Shop, along with the Raydale Preserves, the Fever Tree tonic and, of course, our own Spring Lamb. Antonia is back in the shop this year and doing a great job!

We have had farm visits from Sessay School and Topcliffe Playgroup which we have all enjoyed! The Sessay children took the fruit they had picked back to school to make jam, which I gather was a great success.

Yesterday was July 15th, St. Swithun’s Day. The saying goes that if it rains on that day, 40 days of wet weather will follow; if it is fine, then we should get 40 drier days. It didn’t rain yesterday, so here’s hoping the saying holds good!

The weather did gradually improve after St. Swithin’s Day and the fruit season ended on a high note after the very wet start. The quality of the late season Malwina strawberries was excellent and much appreciated by our regular customers.
The cereal harvest started on July 23rd with the winter barley, then the oilseed rape closely followed by the winter oats which fortunately did not need drying.

AUGUST

The latter half of August was wet, but the weather finally took up for 10 days when the rest of the spring barley was harvested and all the winter wheat. Some of the wheat had low bushel weight because of the ear disease fusarium, but the variety Istabraq did not succumb and was as good as in a normal year.

SEPTEMBER

The weather in early and mid-September allowed us to get on drilling oilseed rape and then the winter barley. This, however, was followed by the first of the winter’s flooding and all the land work ground to a halt. Cattle and sheep had to be moved swiftly off the riverside grazing, and luckily our neighbouring farmers were very good in offering temporary accommodation. This flood was very high and left the land fully saturated.

OCTOBER

The tups went out to the ewes on October 1st (200) and October 16th (200), and we managed to harvest our potatoes between these dates. Both the yield and quality of the potatoes was disappointing, probably due to the lack of sunshine in the growing season.
The fodder beet harvest started on October 24th and was rapidly snapped up by our regular customers who were keen to have it delivered to augment their dairy rations.

NOVEMBER

During the early part of November the sheep were all moved from the grass fields onto stubble turnips or fodder beet tops and also fed on the hay which we had made in the summer.

DECEMBER

Fodder beet was harvested, when ground conditions allowed, up until Christmas. A flood in late November, followed by another just before Christmas left us looking at lakes in fields which have neverstood water in living memory.
Throughout the winter months Richard has been buying store cattle at Hexham Auction Mart and sheep at St, Boswells, whilst selling the finished fatstock. Sheep are sold through Darlington Auction Mart and to Hartley’s butchers, the cattle to Morrisons and Hartleys.
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