Little girl taking care of a herd of sheep

Farming is often a family business, with knowledge passed down the generations – but not always. We meet a couple from outside the industry who started young and with nothing, and have built their successful small business on their own terms.

Group picture of people holding a huge check

Peter and Amanda Shaw run Monk Fryston Organics, at Monk Fryston and Fairburn Ings, with their two daughters Fran, 14 and Delia, 12. They raise cattle and organic sheep and produce individually prepared lamb and beef in an ecologically-aware, traditional environment.

How did you get into farming?

So it was difficult starting from scratch?

So it was difficult starting from scratch?

Amanda: We are not from a farming background, my father worked in the mine and Peter’s father was in education. Farming must be in our blood though – Peter’s maternal grandparents were farmers and my great auntie was in the Land Army. We came to view the field at Monk Fryston a couple of days before our wedding in 1990. It was just a field, but we were young and energetic, and decided that we were up for the challenge of turning it into the farm we would never otherwise be able to afford to buy.

Peter: What a challenge it was! We bought the field and set about on a very steep learning curve attending college to learn the basics of animal husbandry, calf rearing and lambing.

So it was difficult starting from scratch?

So it was difficult starting from scratch?

So it was difficult starting from scratch?

Peter: In the early years we were both working full time jobs as well, sorting the animals before we went to work in the morning and again when we got home. It was almost the norm to be putting in 16 hours days, seven days a week.

Amanda: It wasn’t an easy introduction, and we learnt firs hand just what a rollercoaster farming can be. The BSE crisis in 1996 was the first thing to rock us. The market for beef fell apart leaving us with a barn full of stock that we could not sell. It was a very dark time and we were just starting to see the light of day when the devastation of Foot and Mouth engulfed the industry in 2001. Up to this point we had concentrated mainly on beef but decided we needed to spread our wings. So with our daughter only a couple of months old we took our first holiday in 13 years to Wales to view and buy some Lleyn ewes.

Picture of a small sheep

Why did you choose to go organic with these sheep?

Amanda: We were fortunate to spot a piece of land in a neighbouring village and after renting it for a year we were lucky enough to be able to buy it in 2003. It’s a beautiful valley, and we thought the best way to enrich it further would be to farm it organically and the best sheep for the job would be Lleyns. We needed a breed that was not too large, so I could catch and hold them, and that were good mothers. These ewes formed the basis of the main flock we have and that flock has remained closed

Peter: We are certified organic with Soil Association and Red Tractor Certification, and we work closely with our vet to ensure we are proactive in maintaining the healthiest and most content animals we can.

Picture of special breed of cows on a field

How else do you farm in an environmentally friendly way?

Peter: Our land is entered into Countryside Stewardship. Since buying the land we have planted over 20.000 trees and created new, very traditional hedgerows. We intend to plant more hedges over the coming years.

Amanda: We noticed an advert from RSPB Fairburn Ings for expression of interest to graze the nature reserve. Knowing it would fit perfectly with our existing farming practices, we applied and were delighted when we were successful. We bought a fold of Highland cattle and flock of Jacob sheep to graze the reserve (I have an inbuilt aversion to horned animals but the cattle and sheep soon won me over) and have since added Dexter cattle and Whitefaced Woodland sheep. The Jacob sheep belong to our daughters who bought them from the money they earned selling eggs. Wo work closely with RSPB to help the fulfil `Giving Nature a Home` to the extent that one of our tractors which we parked over a weekend, ended up staying there for six weeks when it became a home to a blackbird and her brood.

How are your traditional and ecological methods reflected in the produce you sell?

Amanda: Direct selling is something we are keen to promote. We are proud of our animals and want to show this. We use a local family abattoir and the meat is hung, cut, packed and labelled by a master butcher. This very personal service means we can tailor each pack to the customer’s specification and keep up with current trends in individual cuts of meat. We sell our meat direct to the public via a box scheme, or through local farm shop Bert’s Barrow – Highland beef and occasionally Dexter beef, and Jacob lamb and hogget along with organic Lleyn lamb and hogget. Lamb is animal up to the age of one year, a hogget is from the age of one to two years and mutton is anything over two years old.

Peter: We are `off` grid and do not have cold storage facilities, so produce is only available periodically – something we are trying to work out how we can change. Off grid living is a challenge for us. Going forwards we want to develop direct sales, maybe start supplying restaurants and local butchers but always maintaining direct contact with the end consumers.

Amanda: Our sheep and cattle enjoy their days grazing on wild native meadows that have a diverse mix of flowers and fauna. We allow our animals to mature slowly and naturally and we believe this is the secret to producing a superior product in both taste and texture. Highland cattle have a double coat, so we will see them paddling in the Ings with snow on their backs. This coat helps keep out the harshest of weather and helps them maintain body temperature without the need to lay down additional fat so the beef has lovely marbling and the added benefit of being low cholesterol and fat but high in omega 3 and iron.

A butcher we supplied commented that the brisket he cooked was `the best beef he had ever tasted`. High praise indeed from a second-generation butcher used to eating the finest!

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