Working pro-actively and productively as a family unit is what many farmers want to achieve. Add to that a successful collaboration with a local farmer and you have extremely robust business. Marie-Claire Kidd visits Yorkshire to find out more.
Inspired by Oxford’s local food scene and driven to raise Yorkshire-born children, Chris and Charlotte Shipley have left their life in academia and returned to Chris’s family farm in East Yorkshire.
The couple have been working with Chris’ parents, Margaret and Patrick, for almost 10 years and there have been a few important changes, but the fabric of this mixed arable, dairy and beef business remains intact.
Chris, who is to step down as chairman of the Yorkshire Coast NFU branch next month, moved away from Manor Farm, Thornholme, to study chemistry at Oxford at the age of 18.
He settled in the South and, following his graduation, found work as a chemistry lecturer at the university.
Charlotte studied nursing and worked as an accident and emergency nurse for five years.
They both loved the multicultural influences in Oxford cuisine and their favourite restaurant was a small Japanese haunt. They enjoyed the burgeoning local food scene, with its farmers’ markets, Slow Food Market and annual Real Farming Conference.
But they were looking to start a family and decided to move back to Thornholme after Chris spent the summer of 2007 helping his parents with the harvest.
“It’s difficult to put a finger on why,” Chris says. “My teaching job was always one year to one year. I was thinking about what we were doing moving forward and the teaching was changing.
“I’d never had that drive to work on the farm, but it was the animal side that drew me and the dairy side.
“As a child it was what I was least interested in. I was more interested in tractors. But I’ve had the opportunity to see things differently. A lot of things do fan out from London and Oxford is very much an early adopter.”
“We’d always been passionate about food,” adds Charlotte. “We shop on the high street and we shop locally. Fuel yourself, fuel your brain and the rest will follow.
“Don’t buy lots of cheap food and waste it, spend the same amount on British food of better quality, and perhaps eat less of it.
Initially the couple looked at bringing new ideas onto the farm and considered retailing raw milk but admit they were mindful it was Chris’ parent’s farm after realising the extra testing would have been a burden on their core business.
Instead, they set up Manor Farm Beef, rearing pedigree Belted Galloway and cross-breed British Blue, Limousin and Simmental cows, which they breed and graze for taste and texture.
Manor Farm Beef is a separate business which runs alongside the family farm, A. Shipley and Sons (Manor Farm).
The aim is to ensure a consistently good price for Manor Farm’s beef, satisfy local demand for quality, traceable meat and safeguard the farm for future generations.
The cows are born at the farm and graze locally before being finished at 30 months, as opposed to the industry standard of 16 months.
Currently, Chris and Charlotte have cows grazing on 12-hectares (30 acres) for Daleside land at Wold Top Brewery at Hunmanby Grange, near Driffield, at Burton Agnes Hall, just a stone’s throw from Thornhome, and at Centre Farm in Thornholme, which they bought two years ago.
Before Chris’ return, Margaret and Patrick did not eat their own beef, instead sending all their animals to wholesaler Dawn Meats. “They’d never put their own beast in the freezer,” Chis explains.
“We chose Bluebell, a right-sized British Blue, and had it butchered locally. It returned the the farm and my parents said it was the best beef they’d ever tasted.”
The couple have gradually added to their product range, inspired by Charlotte’s South African family links.
First they invested in equipment imported from South Africa to produce Yorkshire Beef Biltong, using topside, silverside, thick flank and fillet and a home-produced dry spice mix.
They dry the meat for 24 hours in a UV cabinet which simulates the South African sunshine.
Next they developed a recipe for Boerewors, a South African farmers sausage which they have made from minced beef, coriander seeds, British red wine, nutmeg, all spice and a secret spice mix.
Initially, Chris and Charlotte sold Manor Farm Beef through farmers’ markets and took orders for beef boxes at their stall and through their website.
They built up a customer base, but when Driffield farmers’ market closed two years ago, they still needed an outlet to ensure a solid market for their beef.
In response, Charlotte teamed up with grower Emma Hobbs to establish Field and Forage, a catering company focused on seasonal, locally-sourced, home reared, home-grown and foraged food.
Charlotte and Emma invested in a food truck, Flora, from which they deliver ‘everything from rural elegance to bohemian chic’ at festivals, weddings, promotional events and parties.
“I’d always really enjoyed the catering side of it,” explains Charlotte. “The natural progression was to go more into that. We’d already been asked to do barbecues and birthdays and we knew it could work.”
As well as influencing the way Manor Farm’s products are marketed, Chris and Charlotte have worked with Margaret and Patrick to modernise the technology on-farm, including a jump to precision farming and robotic milking.
Supported by a £40,000 grant from the Rural Development Programme for England, the family invested £90,000 in one milking robot and at the same time re-organised their animal housing and feed passage locations to separate young and adult cattle.
The aim was to increase efficiency through new technology and promote animal welfare by reducing mastitis and calf pneumonia.
“On both these counts it was an absolute success,” says Chris. “Efficiency has increased as we use less feed and there was a three quarter drop in mastitis in the first year and a significant drop in calf pneumonia.
“We moved their feed passages and housing and put the robot in the safest situation. It means there’s less contact between groups of cattle, which is important on a still, foggy day when the bugs are bobbing around.
“The cows have been brilliant. There was a natural culling process for the ones that aren’t going to get it, but there were very few of them.”
Since the family instated the milking robot at Christmas 2014, the milk price has fluctuated wildly. Although prices appear to be recovering, in part thanks to the move towards Brexit, Chris is still concerned.
“The milk price is going back up but feed and fertiliser costs are rising,” he says. “It’s still uncertain.”
In 2008 the family embraced precision farming by co-investing in a new combine harvester with its next door neighbours, Graham and Wendy Winter, of East End Farm, a 243ha (600-acre) arable farm.
“We share a combine harvester and other machinery with our next door neighbour and that works well,” says Chris. “It’s worked well for decades, back to my grandfather.
“We have a very good working relationship. He helps us with the cows and we take some of his straw. We swap barley for beans and we contribute more in landwork because he’s got more acreage to do.
“They’re more like brothers. He’s there if we need to call him for a hand and vice versa.
“After I came back his combine driver was retiring and ours was leaving. We bought a new combine harvester between us.
“It was my job to drive it. At that point I was the only person who could drive a computer.
“We’ve created nutrient maps for the fields and use a variable rate spreader for NPK.”
He estimates the two farms are collectively investing about £30,000-35,000 per year in new technology and the rewards in efficinecy, time and innovation are clear.
Chris’ other interest is managing the breeding programme for Manor Farm. As well as breeding replacements for the dairy side, for which he uses sexed semen to get daughters, he is experimenting with different crosses for the beef business.
He has been using commercial semen, a commercial bull, his Belted Galloway bull, which came from Neil Hesseltine at Malham, North Yorkshire, or his British Blue bull to breed crosses for beef out of the dairy herd for selling at farmers markets, with some pleasing results.
The herd of Belted Galloways are also being grown, which currently comprises nine calves, one bull and 15 heifers, which mainly came from Paul Coppen’s Gilmonby herd at Bowes, County Durham.
Farming has provided an outlet for both Chris and Charlotte to continue learning about food, apply their scientific approach to breeding and food production and exercise their creativity. What’s more, fourth generation of the family Sophie, Bethan and Maisie and Emma are now old enough to get enjoyment from a rural upbringing.”
Charlotte says: “We followed our dream to provide sustainable, wholesome food for our young family, to help with the third generation dairy farm and to set up Manor Farm Beef.”