Behind the scenes at the farmers and growers in Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:33 13 August 2020

St Helens Farm (c) Geir Anders Rybakken Ørslien

St Helens Farm (c) Geir Anders Rybakken Ørslien

Foto: Geir Anders Rybakken Ørslien

Farmers and growers have been through a tough few months in Yorkshire, as they tell us here.

Spilman farm (c) Kevin GibsonSpilman farm (c) Kevin Gibson

There is a period in the farming calendar known as the hungry gap – a few weeks in spring when there is little produce, before a fresh crop of fruits and vegetables springs to life in May and June, sending farmers and pickers flocking to the fields to harvest their bounty.

This year, however, the joyful summer sprouting season has coincided with the coronavirus lockdown, leaving farms without their seasonal workers from overseas.

The Pick for Britain campaign encouraged unemployed and furloughed workers to seek jobs on local farms to make the most of our wonderful produce and keep the nation fed.

Here four Yorkshire farmers share how they’ve fared over recent months.

Philip Dodd and farm workers on the herb farm near Thirsk (c) Kevin GibsonPhilip Dodd and farm workers on the herb farm near Thirsk (c) Kevin Gibson

Philip Dodd managing director of Herbs Unlimited

which grows fresh herbs, salads, speciality herbs and edible flowers in Thirsk

‘Early on in the season, before lockdown had even started, we thought we’d have a problem with seasonal labour, as the majority of our pickers are Romanian. But we were fortunate that two of our normal pickers were already here, as some of our crops were ready earlier, so they have trained up our new recruits.

‘There’s been a lot of interest in picking, particularly from students. In a normal year I’d be pulling my hair out trying to get enough labour, but with less demand for our produce, I haven’t needed as many pickers. It’s a real skill: you’re working outside, it’s manual labour and the plants need cutting correctly – some need to be almost manicured into shape.

‘What’s been quite shocking has been the food waste. If perennials like rosemary, thyme and sage are not cut, they get too woody, grow too close, and become prone to disease and pests. So, I have had to pay for them to be cut, but haven’t been able to sell everything.

‘We’ve been trying to support local greengrocers and doing direct deliveries of smaller packages, because home cooks don’t want catering-size packages of herbs. We have launched specialities including green and bronze fennels, lovage, sweet cicely, orange and lemon thymes, pineapple and chocolate mints, lemon verbena, lemon balm, as well as violas, begonias, chive flowers, thyme flowers, borage, dianthus and cornflowers.

‘We planted a lot of violas up in spring and they looked fantastic, but there was no restaurant demand, so we sold them in pots at the gate to people in the village, who were very grateful with no garden centres open. The village looks like a feast of violas. ‘The herb season here ends by October, but we’ll carry on growing vegetables into autumn. We have planted a wider crop than usual, because we have found what people really want is staples. You can’t make a meal out of herbs (though those that use them wouldn’t be without them), so we’ve planted a wider offering, just to help us get through the winter.’

Tom Spilman of Spilmans, growers of asparagus, soft fruits and pumpkins in Thirsk

Tom Spilman on the family farm in North Yorkshire (c) Kevin GibsonTom Spilman on the family farm in North Yorkshire (c) Kevin Gibson

‘Lockdown fell right on asparagus season, and we were worried about not being able to get pickers from overseas. But actually, all of our spaces have been filled with locals and unemployed people. Some had been furloughed, we’ve had quite a lot of students and a couple of people who knew us through friends have come up from London for the season. We have 40 to 50 pickers at the height of strawberry season and have managed to fill those slots.

‘In lieu of restaurant trade, we’ve been selling to local retailers, farm shops and wholesalers. We’ve also had people buying asparagus from the farm gate as usual. The chef Tommy Banks has taken a lot for his restaurant’s takeaway boxes, too. ‘Our pick-your-own strawberries are going ahead as usual. We’ve spent quite a bit of money on extra handwash basins, signage and tents to ensure social distancing when people are paying for their strawberries. Then we’ll see how it goes as we head into pumpkin season.’

Rachel Bradley owner of The Yorkshire Flower Patch cut-flower farm near Hebden Bridge

Rachel Bradley, owner of The Yorkshire Flower Patch cut-flower farm near Hebden Bridge (c) Kevin GibsbonRachel Bradley, owner of The Yorkshire Flower Patch cut-flower farm near Hebden Bridge (c) Kevin Gibsbon

‘My business is mainly aimed at wholesale to florists for weddings, and I do some weddings myself, with a mix of country garden flowers – roses, phlox, stocks, poppies, sweet Williams, achillea, larkspur and more. I love the annual phlox; this year I’m growing every single variety as it goes with everything and I just think it’s so pretty. ‘I possibly have one wedding to do at the end of October, but the rest have been cancelled, and most of the florists I sell to are also not doing weddings or are closed. Instead I’ve focused on the retail side of things, making local deliveries around Hebden Bridge. In the spring, when I had my tulips, I started sending out letterbox flowers, which was completely new to me. It went down really well and I had lots of requests to do it again, so I’ve started summer letterbox flowers now. I will try and keep going once everything has gone back to normal, but it’s definitely more work, especially with all the deliveries.

‘The positive thing is that more people locally know about me now. I’ve always done a Sunday market in Hebden Bridge, but because I don’t have a shop, they didn’t always know I was here. Now, some local advertising and my deliveries mean people are more aware of me. ‘I really feel for all the couples who’ve had to postpone their weddings. I think next year is going to be very busy!’ This month, Rachel will be taking part in the virtual Flower Farmers Big Weekend Open Day. Visit for details. She will also be running workshops at her farm from next year.

Paul Dunlea operations manager of St Helen’s Farm, a goat dairy product business in Seaton Ross, York

Demand for goat milk rose by 30 per cent during the pandemic (c) Anthony RakusenDemand for goat milk rose by 30 per cent during the pandemic (c) Anthony Rakusen

‘There’s a small element of seasonality to our business, but it’s generally year round, and we have been able to maintain normal production during the coronavirus pandemic, with some changes in the factory, like staggered start times and signage about handwashing.

‘During the peak period of panic buying, demand for our products went up by about 30 per cent and we were able to fulfil more than 70 per cent of that demand. I asked nicely, but the goats just couldn’t provide any more milk! We were able to direct things like school milk into retail milk and use extra milk for cheese, so nothing was wasted.

‘We’ve worked hard to keep it business as usual for the family farms in Yorkshire that supply us with milk, and we’ve been trying to help other farmers, buying milk from outside our normal suppliers.

‘The farm is always involved with local food banks, as it is owned by a charitable trust, but this has increased during the pandemic. We have been working with The People’s Pantry, which services local communities. Staff nominate local charities for us to support. I think this year they’ll be likely to nominate food banks and others needing support following coronavirus.’

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