Forty years ago Youlton Lodge, North Yorkshire, supported four families.
Finding it an uphill struggle to provide for just two families, the Newland family looked to growing flowers to sustain their business. Sarah Todd reports...
Fifteen years ago, Youlton Lodge at Tollerton, in the Vale of York, was very much a traditional mixed farm growing sugar beet, potatoes and cereals, as well as running sheep and cattle.
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, potatoes and sugar beet were phased out and the reins of the farm were handed over to Mike Newland from his uncle.
Mike got involved with countryside stewardship and made a conscious decision to reduce capital investment, such as spending on machinery or more land.
In addition to coppice willow, the farm is currently growing winter wheat, winter barley, oil seed rape, forage maize and renting out land – to provide a break crop – to a carrot grower. A neighbouring farmer rents the family’s grassland for summer sheep grazing, too.
But things are set to change again, as ten years of high-level stewardship ends next year and Mike smiles as he says that what happens next will be up to his son, Charles.
“It’s already interesting to see that while I backed away from investing in machinery, Charles has been keen to put some money into new equipment and build up a contracting side to the business,” says Mike.
“I’m the third generation – and Charles the fourth – of our family to farm here. It was my mother’s family farm. My father was a doctor, so not involved in the farm, and I followed my uncle.
“When I came here forty years ago it was an 80-hectare (200-acre) farm and it supported four families. Now, with 121ha (300 acres), as each decade has passed it has lost the ability to support one family.
“Perhaps because of the way I came to the farm, through my uncle rather than working alongside my father, I’ve maybe got a different attitude to succession to some farming families. I believe very strongly in the importance of the older generation stepping aside.
“Of course, Charles knows he can call on me at any time for help or advice, but he has to make his own decisions and mistakes.
“The problem for our family was not whether we would hand over the farm, but how we would be able to do it.”
This is where Mike’s wife Caroline came into her own, setting up a flower business alongside the farm called The Flower Acre.
She had always had her own career away from the farm as a remedial therapist but, five years ago, was looking to find something part-time.
“We were building our own home on the farm, to let Charles and his family move into the farmhouse,” says Caroline.
“Although I’d worked away from the farm, I’d been involved in field-to-fork school visits as part of the HLS scheme. We’d also had a pizza project, where children came and made an entire pizza from scratch. I grew the tomatoes for the sauce and they milled the corn for the base and so-on.
“I’d always been quite a keen gardener, particularly enjoying ornamental grasses, and went to a local gardening club talk about British cut flowers. I met the founder of the Flowers from the Farm movement and, although our land is sandy and light, she encouraged me to give it a go.
We took an acre of land from the farm – which is where our name comes from, and the rest is history really.”
The couple joke that had they realised how labour-intensive growing flowers was going to be, they would probably have found another diversification. All the weeding and dead-heading has to be done by hand, along with picking and planting.
Between April and September, they grow a lot of sweet peas, supplying wedding and event florists as well as other members of the Flowers from the Farm group. But it is not just sweet peas. They grow 400 different varieties of flowers and are particularly keen on zinnias, cosmos and dahlias.
The ethos of Flowers from the Farm is “fresh and local” and it has tapped into a well-worn path trodden by food producers of promoting local provenance.
“People buy flowers visually,” explains Caroline. “They are used to going into the supermarket and the flowers from Holland, South America, Africa and Kenya looking good. What we have to push is that these foreign flowers have little or no fragrance. They have been chemically treated for longevity, but they have no smell. We can’t compete on price – our bunches start at about £15. But we can compete on fragrance and environmental factors such as air miles.
“People are used to buying roses every month of the year. Just like seasonal food; certain flowers are only available at specific times of the year. There are so many parallels between selling locally-grown flowers and promoting food and farming.
As well as environmental awareness, flowers grown on British farms tap into the current trend for the wild flower look, supplying DIY flower buckets for those who want to do their own wedding flowers.
Flowers from the Farm members had a successful appearance at Chelsea Flower Show in 2018 gaining a gold medal, and Caroline was fortunate to be able to play a small part in securing that success. She likes the camaraderie of being part of a network of like-minded growers who are always willing to share their breadth of knowledge.
“People don’t realise how labour-intensive growing flowers is,” she says. “The other obvious thing is how weather-dependent the business is. Watering can be almost a full-time job if it’s dry. Then if it’s cold the plants are obviously slower flowering. It’s been a very steep learning curve.
“It is our retirement farm diversification, but you certainly need to be fit and active.”
Charles lives in the original farmhouse with his wife Elizabeth and children Toby, nine, and seven year-old Emily. Mike and Caroline’s other son, John, has a career away from the farm but, as part of the family, helps out on the farm when required.
Mike designed his and Caroline’s new home, including solar panels and a ground heat source pump.
“After 35 years in a big old farmhouse we knew what we didn’t want,” says Caroline, who ran a couple of holiday cottages on the farm for about 20 years but called it a day when they needed a lot of refurbishment work.
“I found that visitors used to be happy with something quite basic because of the novelty of staying on the farm,” recalls Caroline. “But nowadays people seem to expect a very high standard of accommodation. We were more about the farm experience.”
Visitors are still never far away from Youlton Lodge, with the family offering farm walks as part of their HLS involvement, coming back for some home-made lunch in the summer house, then picking some flowers and going home with an arrangement. They also offer the option of picking flowers then spending the afternoon learning how to paint them. Christmas is always busy with wreath making workshops and the willow from the farm is used in weaving demonstrations.
The farm already had a glasshouse, which Caroline had used for growing tomatoes for the pizza sessions.
The family have a refreshing willingness to accept when something has had its day and they will keep looking forward with new diversifications. They have just launched an online presence, www.flowerheads.co.uk, offering fresh flowers, a greeting card and gift through the post.
“The flowers have enabled me to achieve semi-retirement from the farm, but we’ve never been busier,” says Mike. “Although I doubt we’d like it any other way.”