Steven Crabtree farms in one of the most scenic spots in Yorkshire. At the heart of Wharfedale, Bolton Abbey attracts around 500,000 visitors a year thanks to its stunning farmed landscape.
Steven is the third generation of his family to farm at Bolton Park Farm as a tenant of the Duke of Devonshire. Overlooking the historic Priory Church and Augustinian Priory ruins, it’s hard to think of a more traditional setting for a hill farm, complete with seven miles of dry-stone walls and a rolling landscape that rises nearly 1,000 feet from the ‘in-by’ land around the farm house to the exposed heather moorland dotted with Swaledale sheep.
This traditional setting belies a changing approach though as Steven seeks to build a modern hill farm – one that delivers on the environment, and is able to make a modest profit and secure a future on the farm for his son, Simon.
Farm output has changed dramatically over the years. Originally a dairy farm, its remote location and difficult access – a mile and a half up a single track road – ultimately made this untenable. Sheep numbers too are also down but they remain essential to manage the upland terrain and maintain the Yorkshire Dales landscape that attracts so many tourists.
Breeding beef cattle are a relatively new addition to give Steven an additional income stream and more flexibility when managing his pasture land – cattle and sheep graze differently and this can be invaluable especially when managing the ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ grassland on his farm that comes complete with the rare ‘Alpine’ plants that populate the area’s limestone geology.
But in a sector where farm incomes are declining, the real challenge is to make the farm pay and provide a reasonable standard of living for the family. His approach has been four-fold. He has a real focus on costs and ‘benchmarking’ his business to measure and continually improve his performance; he invests heavily in animal health and welfare and in farm infrastructure; he has developed different income streams and has explored different marketing options for his animals.
But he says, the future is very uncertain and this threatens not just his hill farming business but the families of his two farm workers and the businesses of the 20-30 local suppliers that he uses daily.
I really want to secure a sustainable future for the farm and see my son able to come home and take it on,” he said. “But it’s hard to know what the future holds post-Brexit. With food self-sufficiency currently at just 60%, I’d like to think there will be a greater demand for quality home-produced food, with all that delivers for the rural economy and environment. That could make all the difference for farms like mine across our county’s glorious uplands.”