Mother and son team Jo and Ed Cartwright are sharing their farming story with the local community and working with the mixed farm’s natural heritage to embrace best practice, as Marie-Claire Kidd discovered when she went to meet them.
Swillington Organic Farm has a reputation for doing things differently. It introduced one of Britain’s first community supported agriculture schemes in 2007, and has been at the centre of the Leeds local food scene ever since.
It works with volunteers to connect people to the food they eat, and partners with a forest school and outdoor events providers to bring more people on to the land. Swillington boasts ‘food metres, not miles’, as virtually all the fresh food in its farm shop is homeproduced.
A small range of local products including ice cream, preserves, crisps and honey produced on the farm by Stickeys, and a window into the butchery, completes the experience.
Visitors can also see the spectacular walled garden – a work in progress – and some of the most beautiful fishing lakes in Yorkshire, on oxbow lakes along the banks of the Aire.
Sadly, this corner of the farm will fall foul to the HS2 high-speed rail project and farmer Jo Cartwright has relentlessly battled against the move but has had no success.
She says: “The route will carve up the southern end of this historic and environmentally important site. We have tried to fight it but there’s nothing we can do.
“We don’t know how much land they will take, what they will do or how long it will take. To be honest I’ve just about given up. It’s going to happen, unless the Government finally sees sense and realises what a waste of money the whole scheme is.”
Swillington’s landscaped grounds, with their parkland, woods, lakes and avenues of trees, neighbour St Aidan’s bird reserve, where Jo grazes her cattle and sheep. Once one of the biggest opencast mining sites in Europe, it is now part of a 404-hectare (1,000-acre) country park under the care of the RSPB.
Jo has lived here since 1959. Her mother Jay took over the farm in the 1960s while still working as a medical social worker.
“My mum had a poultry farming background and was at agricultural college when the Second World War broke out,” Jo explains.
“She abandoned college to join up as a mechanic-driver for the war effort.”
Jo has seen the business run much more intensively than it is today, including pig production, battery chickens and a sizeable dairy business.
But with her son Ed she shares a desire to produce food in a way which is not only transparent, but also traditional.
They are interested in animal welfare, slow-growing rare breeds and preserving the natural heritage of the area.
Ed works on the marketing side of the business, looking after the shop and the farmers’ markets and working to expand their customer base to high-end restaurants and mail order customers.
He says: “Our market isn’t necessarily on our doorstep. Our meat boxes have grown from a handful of local deliveries to a nationwide service. We’re gradually increasing our herd, our team and the land we farm to supply more households, without compromising our values.
“As we butcher everything ourselves we can include offal, bones and traditional cuts. To ensure customers only receive the meat they like, we ‘meat match’ every box.
“We have monthly ‘meat ups’ where customers can visit the farm. We’ve made ordering as simple as possible and we use a recyclable cool box so you don’t have to be home.”
Jo’s aim is to lovingly restore the walled garden which belonged to the now-demolished Swillington Hall. It is a mammoth taskand is inevitably time consuming.
“We’ve got some really committed volunteers working with us, but the walls are unusually high and ruined in places,” she explains.
“It’s been carried out by pensioner Geoff Forbes and his son Len. It’s surprising how much can be achieved in just a couple of hours on a Saturday morning.
“After a couple of years we can now see some results. Another 20 years or so and it could be finished.”
The Cartwrights had an unconventional route into farming.
Jo’s father Jim Bullock worked his way up from pony driver at one of the neighbouring pits to colliery manager, and bought the derelict stables of Swillington House when they were cheap. Jo inherited 16ha (40 acres) and has since bought the remaining parts of the estate.
She produces organic chickens, turkeys and eggs, organic beef and lamb, free-range pork, and, in the walled garden, organic fruit and vegetables. The cattle – Aberdeen-Angus, Herefords and British Whites – graze all-year-round on the parkland and marsh pastures.
In winter they are fed haylage made on the farm and in very wet winters they are housed to avoid damage to the land.
Jo says: “They mature slowly over two-and-a-half years. They are slaughtered at an organic abattoir and hung in the on-site butchery for at least three weeks. The sheep are run as two flocks with about 60 ewes in each. One is a mix of Texel, Lleyn, and Rouge. Jo uses Charollais cross Beltex, Meatlinc and Rouge rams to give ewes an easy lambing and produce a lean lamb.
“Our lambing finishes later than most as we lamb later in the year so there’s enough grass to support the sheep and lambs. This means they don’t have to rely on bought-in feeds.
“A second flock of Hebrideans was added two years ago when we began grazing on St Aidan’s. They are tough sheep able to thrive on the coarse grasses and exposed marshland.
“The lambs are slow to mature at about 15 months. This year we’ve been putting a few of the older ewes to the white tups with the aim of producing larger earlier-finishing lambs. The results have been impressive, with no lambing problems, so in future we’ll be putting more of the Hebridean ewes to other tups.”
Saddleback pigs live outdoors in small family groups, on a diet free from additives and genetically modified feed.
“Saddlebacks are a hardy breed which thrive outdoors, they’re full of character and are good mothers,” Jo says.
“They were one of Britain’s mainstream breeds, however the growth supermarkets demanded for ultra-lean white pigs led to a fall in numbers. Along with other small producers we’re committed to bringing it back.
“Recently we’ve crossed the sows with a Hampshire boar. The progeny aren’t as fat as the pure Saddlebacks and are a bit bigger on the legs – ideal for gammon. Replacement gilts are bought-in or Saddleback AI is used.”