OPEN Farm Weekend is set to return to Northern Ireland next month and one of the participating farms has already been given the royal seal of approval.
The initiative, led by the Ulster Farmers’ Union, with Bank of Ireland as sponsors, is a free event helps to give a behind the scenes snapshot of the local farm to fork story with events and activities in place to capture the imagination of families and foodies across the province.
Bessvale Farm is just one of the twenty farms excitedly preparing to open its doors to the public as part of the festivities from 16-18 June, though it is well-used to high profile visits having previously welcomed King Charles to the farm.
Bessvale Farm partner, Jonathan Tuft explains: “We look after free-range chickens for Moy Park and one of their customers is Waitrose who bought King Charles’ brand Duchy Estate (now known as Duchy Organic) so we produce organic eggs for them.
“Back in 2011 King Charles, or the Prince of Wales as he was then, was still very involved with the brand and wanted to go out to see one of its farms. Waitrose contacted Moy Park who then contacted us and that was how it all came about.
“I was on honeymoon at the time and my dad couldn’t say too much about it over the phone but when we got home and found out all the details we couldn’t quite believe it.”
As part of the Royal visit King Charles was to spend 45 minutes touring the chicken houses and seeing the birds and then 45 minutes back at the house chatting to the Tuft family over tea and sandwiches.
“My mum Heather had quite a specific menu to prepare,” recalls Jonathan. “Cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off were requested and I think his drink of choice was Earl Grey tea. “He was meant to be in the house for 45 minutes but he went way over that. His staff kept trying to usher him out but I got the impression that he just loved talking to ordinary people. He was genuinely interested in what we had to say and has a real passion for British agriculture.
“He was very knowledgeable and wanted to know all about the farm and talked about how it was getting harder and harder to run a family farm but also about how important it was. He talked about British and Irish agriculture and how essential it was to produce sustainability and to promote our own produce.
“I remember when I shook his hand that it struck me it was quite calloused, like that of someone who is used to doing bits and pieces in the garden. I later saw a programme that confirmed that was in fact true, though I doubt he has time for that now!”
This will be the County Antrim farm’s third time participating in Open Farm Weekend but the first time it is getting the opportunity to do it in person, as Jonathan explains.
“We first took part in 2020 though because of the pandemic it was held virtually. We then weren’t able to participate last year so this will be our first time being able to actually open the farm up.
“We’re really looking forward to it and are hoping to show off not just what we do but what Northern Ireland farms in general do. We want to show what we produce, how we produce it, how we feed our cattle and sheep and how and why we make our silage.
“It’s about trying to get that point across that our local produce is some of the best in the world, if not the best. We want to show that while local produce may be more expensive than imported it is far greener and of a far superior quality.
“As farmers we don’t have the luxury of big marketing budgets so we have to do it ourselves, that’s what Open Farm is all about and why it is so important.”
In addition to the free-range broilers for Moy Park, the 250-acre mixed farm also looks after beef cattle, sheep and arable. It has been in the Tuft family for four generations and for 42 year-old Jonathan who now looks after it, alongside his father John, he could never have seen himself doing anything else.
He said: “When I was at school my dad tried to get me to consider other careers but I always came back to farming. It’s not easy and there have been many challenges, particularly around Brexit but it’s also very rewarding.
“For the size of the farm we have a relatively small team with myself, my dad, my brother-in-law Lewis who works for us part-time and my wife Roberta who helps out as support staff.
“It’s definitely not something you should be pushed into and while I’d love one of my four children to follow in the family footsteps we’ll just have to wait and see.
“Hopefully events like Bank of Ireland Open Farm Weekend help to put farm and agriculture on more people’s radars as it’s really important to get more youth into farming. I think the average age of farmers is in the 50s so it would be great to see more young people going into it and also to have that continued local support behind what we do.”