Behind the scenes at a Cheshire Champion Farm near Middlewich
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 October 2016 | UPDATED: 08:56 05 October 2016
It's not just Welsh ponies that keep the Lowe family busy at their prize-winning Shanty Farm in Byley, there are many and diverse activities, writes Martin Pilkington.
Turning off the lane into the Lowe family’s farm in Byley, near Middlewich, you get a small snapshot of their diverse activities. In a meadow prize-winning ponies graze, watched from the road by children. Alongside the field stands a farm shop where a trailer is delivering vegetables fresh-picked from their fields. And across the yard huge glasshouses await another batch of plants to nurture. It’s a thriving scene.
In fact to capture more fully what happens on the inappropriately-named Shanty Farm you’d need to add the local butcher delivering bacon he’s cured from their pork, and sausages made from their beef cattle. Not forgetting a few rare-breed bantams, perhaps posing on a vintage tractor or two and nibbling home-grown corn or oats. ‘We’re a bit like The Good Life here, and it is a good life - but a hard life, it has taken a lot of building up. It’s a traditional mixed farm harking back to when all farms had a few cows, a few pigs, a few hens, some vegetables and potatoes,’ says farmer Graham Lowe. ‘Nowadays nearly everybody specialises, all their eggs in one basket, whereas we’re not far off self-sufficient.’
Graham’s parents bought what was formerly a council-owned 37-acre holding in 1958. Today it extends to 500 acres. Graham runs the growing side and his brother, Brian, oversees the farm shop and horticultural business. It’s a proper family concern, with Graham’s wife Tracy and sons Sam and Tom all involved too, and nearing her 80th birthday his mother Doreen still does the books and helps in the shop. ‘It’s in her blood,’ says Graham, ‘She’s only had two nights away from the farm since 1958.’
Though they’re hard work, those handsome ponies provide Tracy and Graham with relaxation and occasional outings: ‘This is our hobby rather than part of the business,’ says Tracy: ‘It gets us out to show, away from the farm where we’re constantly busy, and we’ve made fantastic friends through the ponies – plus they attract people to stop at the shop!’
It began when football superseded riding for her sons, and Tracy wanted to keep Tom’s Welsh Cob. A neighbouring farmer lent her a Welsh Pony and Cob Society publication which revealed a whole new world. ‘I didn’t realise all this showing stuff existed,’ she says, ‘It’s just massive.’
As a stockman with a competitive instinct – he has won everything there is to win with his fancy chickens - Graham suggested breeding the animals. They started modestly before really getting the bug with a few prizes. A filly bought from the best stud in the country produced fine stock, and then they purchased their own stallion. ‘We picked one out as a foal - a major gamble,’ Tracy recalls. It paid off as in 2012 that tenderly raised animal - Hilin Tattoo – became male champion for Welsh Section B ponies (not exceeding 13.2 hands), first out of more than 300. ‘We won a gold medal, you can only win gold at the Royal Welsh Show. Some friends doing this for years have never won gold, it was amazing,’ she says. Byley Aragorn (Byley is their stock prefix), a stallion sired by Hilin Tattoo, has just been sold to a stud in Holland, their first export.
Most of their business is rather closer to home. Like the farm itself the farm shop has gone through successive expansions, from the original storage shed operation to the current purpose-built premises opened in 2011. ‘We stock 40 lines of our own vegetables, plus potatoes, our beef and pork, and all our own plants,’ says Graham. ‘And we supply other farm shops and a lot of pubs and restaurants around us with hanging baskets and with vegetables – everybody these days is keen to put “locally produced” on the menu.’ “Local” takes in much of Cheshire: ‘We’re in the middle of nowhere, but surrounded by big towns within 20 or so miles,’ says Graham, listing some as he points around the compass: ‘Chester, Northwich, Knutsford, Macclesfield, Congleton, Middlewich, Crewe, Nantwich...’
It’s not all about business though. The family is proud of its farming heritage, and feels a duty to put something back into the community and the county. Tom has just been named next chairman of Cheshire Young Farmers; the farm holds visits for children from the primary next door and from inner city schools too; and, back to the ponies again, every August they host the Northwest Association summer silver medal show of the Welsh Pony and Cob Society. Plus they’re a regular stop for tractor enthusiasts eager to view the 56 vintage machines Graham has collected. And on October 15th foodies will flock to their annual food-tasting event. It is indeed a good life; but an incredibly busy one.