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Farming is like Training to me: It's a hobby.

Mick Easterby explains his lesser known passion in life.

An afternoon with Mick Easterby is always going to be time well spent, as well as an eye-opener.  This afternoon he has promised a tour of the farm, which he describes as his 'other' occupation, lesser known than his training exploits but a significant concern nonetheless, with over a thousand acres of land at his disposal.

Easterby is close to the hearts of the racing public, with sixty years of training experience in the bag, but feared by bookmakers and television racing presenters alike.  A history of nice touches in the betting ring and colourful television interviews have carved out a reputation second to none in terms of charisma and instant recognisability in the sport of kings.

As we climb into the jeep, Patsie, his faithful black Patterdale terrier is relegated to the back seat.  The front wing is patched up and the bumper is held on with tape, the various colours suggesting that there have been more than one or two running repairs to this trusty steed. The back floor of the vehicle is full of rocks removed from the fields during rounds of the farm and the floor of the passenger seat has more than a liberal layer of soil. The jeep is about three years old, although it could easily pass for being much older, and if ever cleaned it would be better handled by an archaeologist than a car wash.

"I never spend more money than I have to on a vehicle", Easterby advises sagely, his first of many words of advice.  "Spend your money on stuff that will go up in value.  Stuff that'll make a profit.  Spending it on one of these is just throwing good money away.  I run 'em into the ground, get every last mile out of them.  Nobody gets a second hand car off me."

"How many miles has it done?" I ask.

"Haven't a clue, never look", replies Easterby.

The farm, or more accurately, farms, are his pride and joy.  We set off for Bulmer, there is a direct road but a track across the fields is the chosen route today. 

"It's a wonderful life, farming",  begins my host.  "I'm a very lucky man, I love everything I do.  Life is a hobby.  I can't wait to get up in a morning, have a cup of tea and start work."

Breakfast is two eggs, boiled to perfection in a kettle, then the morning is spent overseeing the training.

"Farming's me afternoon job. I never switch off, I don't know how to. I get bored very quickly. I don't go to bed til one in the morning and I'm up about six. I've never needed a lot of sleep."

Bumping over the fields Easterby spies a buzzard on the track in front, picking at a freshly killed rabbit.

"Terrible things them buzzards, kill everything, they do." 

The bird flies off and Easterby takes a quick look at the remains of the rabbit and we set off again.  He sounds the horn at two more rabbits on the track and they scuttle off.  Patsie isn't satisfied and leaps out of the open window and chases them into a hedgerow.  She knows the way and we follow as she runs ahead towards the first port of call.

We arrive at Mill House Farm through the back entrance.  On the right is a field of yearling fillies, enjoying their last few weeks in the ample acreage and idyllic surrounds by the side of the gushing Bulmer Beck.  The Beck is full after an inch and a quarter of rain the day before.  Next month the yearlings will come in for breaking and training, to make their appearances as racehorses in the 2018 flat season.

In the next field are some of the heroes of past years enjoying their retirement.  There is no shortage of space, their paddocks spanning the Beck by way of a pretty stone bridge over which they can freely cross to their feeding station.  The horses' coats shine in the summer sun and it would be hard to imagine happier and healthier horses. Plenty of good food, plenty of space, their own bridge and literally dozens of acres of fields. Their exploits on the racecourse are rewarded by a blissful retirement.

"Isn't it a lovely spot this? Beautiful", says Easterby as he points out Blue Spinnaker. Standing on the banks of the Beck alongside Blue Spinnaker is the 2011 Gosforth Park Cup winner, Ancient Cross.

Then follows an explanation of how Blue Spinnaker was bought from France for next to nothing and after patching him up he went on to win over £100,000, including the Thirsk Hunt Cup and Zetland Gold Cup in the same season.

"He was in a bad way when I got him but he came good. What a wonderful horse he was. What a horse", enthuses his former trainer.

Switching topic, Easterby looks ruefully at the Beck and the pond beyond. "There used to be water hens and ducks on the pond there but the otters have killed them all. None left. But you can't do 'owt about them, they're protected."

We continue, racing is not this afternoon's concern, as our four wheels bounce along the track to the foot of Bulmer Bank.  Half way up Bulmer Bank is 'Michael's Mound', a substantial pile of earth constructed by Easterby after many incidents of cars descending the bank too quickly and ending up in the field. 

"Sometimes you have to do things yerself" advises Easterby.  "The council didn't think it necessary but I was fed up of pulling cars out of that field with a tractor so I put in this bank.  Common sense".

Easterby has always been one to help out the local community.  He runs an annual Point-to-Point in his field at Sheriff Hutton.

"It raises about £12,000 a year for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance.  I'm very proud of it.  But when you do things for charity you have to do it 'cos you want to do it.  A lot of work you do to raise money gets no thanks, so you have to want to do it, don't do it to get thanks". 

Easterby recently held his annual Sunday lunch event at Bulmer.  Invited were family, friends, owners and anyone else who wanted to come.  Again the proceeds went to help the Air Ambulance.

"Did yer see 'Oof It run at Goodwood on Saturday?" asks Easterby.  "What a marvellous horse.  To do that at ten years old, to get beat by two lengths.  Marvellous."

Although an afternoon job which helps him switch off from racing, you can tell that racing is never far from his mind.  Hoof It is one of the latest in a long line of bargain buys, which have included a Champion Sprinter and a Classic winner. 

"He cost £14,000 and he's won nearly £400,000 in Stakes money", states Easterby.  "Some investment that.  You won't get that at any bank."

We travel another mile then turn off the public road into a yard surrounded by huge buildings with various agricultural machines awaiting their call to action.  This is Wheatclose Farm, the heart of the farming enterprise.  In common with with every other part of the farm, there are also horses present.  In the barns are horses out of training, whilst the surrounding fields are again populated by more equines having a break.

Easterby then spots Pete, his trusty farm manager, and they discuss the harvest. The combine harvesters will be able to start at 2pm as the crop will by dry enough to bring in. It's all hands on deck again.

"See them big tanks?" Easterby points at three huge beige coloured towers.  "Full of fertilizer them".  The scales on the side showed that if full each one would hold 40 cubic metres. 

"There's four of 'em". 

I looked at him, was this a trick to see if I was paying attention to my farming lesson, I could only count three?

"Turn round, another one behind you".

Indeed there was, it tallied just like everything in the Easterby book, be it horses, sheep, tonnes of wheat or barley or in this case fertilizer silos.

Quick calculation showed capacity for 160 cubic metres of nitrogen fertilizer.  "160 tonnes that", I am advised.  Clearly a tonne a cubic metre.  A lot of fertilizer, but then there's a lot of land on which to put it.

"Look at that field", Easterby points to some crops damaged in a huge field of barley at the back of the farm.  "Storm did that in the week."

"A lot of the produce from the farm goes to feed the horses," Easterby proudly informs. "The oats are stored and moved to the stables about once a month, we deliver five or six tonnes at a time and that's part of the feed that keeps the horses running."

We arrive at a rusty yellow tanker.

"This thing 'ere; we use it to water the gallops. Holds thousands of gallons. Tractor pulls it along." 

After a wet summer the tanker clearly hadn't seen use for a while other than being a host for a tangle of spider webs. But it's another reminder of how the tools of farming and tools for preparing a racing yard and surfaces have much in common.

"Come here, I'll show you me workshop".  Of course, it is not just any old workshop, but the size of a medium to large backstreet garage complete with mechanics and tools.  Huge tires punctuate the floor as Easterby opens a drawer of spanners, looking for something to tighten a loose nut on a tractor outside.  They're rejected in favour of a wrench.

"I'm not much of a mechanic", he confesses.  "But the chaps in here know what they're doing.  This lad's quite good."  He introduces Alex, happy with his appraisal as 'quite good' is a huge complement in the language of the proud Yorkshireman.

Attention turns to a reel of seven core steel wire. 

"What can we do with it?" asks Easterby.  "Can we use it for the top of a fence?"

"Scrap man I think" advises Alex.

"Can't you think of a use for it?  We must be able to do summat with it".

Easterby hates waste, there's a use for everything.  Many of his stables have been converted from various buildings, originally constructed for other purposes.  Converting things and changing things from one use to another are a constant theme.

The wire issue is unresolved and the roll remains in place until a purpose can be found, it will possibly languish on that same spot for another decade.

"See them warehouses?" Easterby points to a row of seven huge sheds.  "Thousand tons each them holds.  Everything goes in there, barley, wheat, oil seed, you name it we probably grow it.  Come and see the driers".

Entering yet another huge construction reveals computers that control the drying system.  "Press them buttons and it'll send stuff different places.  Amazing isn't it?  Technology.  Saves a lot of time that."

All is quiet in the driers but it will not be long before the harvest comes in and the machines will roar into life, blowing away the accumulated cobwebs and drying tonnes of produce from the farm.

Back in the jeep and we're off again, out of the farm onto the road but not for long as we and pull up by a great expanse of green leaves.

"This is me bean field, there's 90 acres of beans growing here. Good for the soil, beans, puts all sorts of nutrients back in.  Look at this, it's a good crop this year".

Easterby pulls up a plant, opens a pod of beans and is happy with what he sees.  

"For human consumption this lot",  he states proudly, "Lot of beans in here.  I've grown beans for years now".

We don't have time to admire the beans for long, as we're on the move again, leaving the road to head up a dirt track. 

"See that little wood there?" Easterby points across a flooded field to the hillside a couple of hundred metres away.  "Alice (Easterby's wife) planted that wood about 40 years ago.  It was bad land, couldn't do much with it, so she planted a wood.  Just for recreation, it doesn't produce anything at all, its just for nature and that."  

A little wood it might be but sufficient size for the Ordnance Survey to have recorded it, clinging to the side of a slope called The Sykes.

We press on, the farm track is bumpy.  Patsie has fought her way to the front and now yelps at some rabbits as she balances on my knee and rests her front paws on the dashboard. She's a keen eyed lookout if ever there was one. Like her master, she doesn't miss much.

A ninety degree turn across the bottom of the field and we now run parallel to a drainage ditch.  The landscape resembles a small section of the Norfolk fens, which I'm to later learn is no coincidence.

Another turn left and we cross the ditch and arrive at the bottom of the flat gallop.

"I built this for Lochnager" explains Easterby, referring to his 1976 Champion sprinter.

"Have you ever thought of extending it, making a bend round the field" I enquire, there being obvious room for expansion in any direction should he wish.

"No, always been straight".

"Bloody expensive this stuff.   It's the most expensive thing is the gallops.  That and vet's bills. Costs a fortune to maintain. Do you know I was the first trainer to put down an all-weather gallop, about 40 years ago.  This one's rubber, sand and carpet fibre.  Gives a good bounce, it's good for 'osses with bad legs. I've used all sorts over the years. Pig hair, mushroom compost. Used to have shavings but they didn't last long when they got wet. The stuff we've got now is ideal but it costs me a fortune."

Following the gallop for a couple of furlongs it's time for another stop to inspect another of Easterby's constructions. 

"This was all a swamp 500 years ago" he explains proudly.  "Man from the Ministry (of Agriculture) told me.  It was gated land, when the Halifaxes owned this land everyone in the village had an allotted area.  Problem was it was bad land, wet, boggy, nothing grew.  I bought it for next to nothing, a separate deal with every individual owner."

The land this year is home to several thousand sheep.

"Grows good wheat, grows good grass for the sheep too but it had to be drained".  Easterby mops his brow and points towards a low spot in the field. 

"See that bit of low lying land.  I had to drain it, I had a pumping station here, and there's a lagoon behind there.  I put in drains so the drains lie two foot below the gutter, so they're always under water.  But I found out that if you turn off the pumps the land still stayed dry.  The water drains uphill.  I know when you write this nobody will believe it but it does.  Its pressure y'see.  Pressure down there pushes the water up here and it comes out of that pipe there."

It clearly works, as the water gushed from the outlet, discharging the remnants of the storm which had wreaked havoc to these parts earlier in the week.  If he'd not been a farmer it wouldn't be hard to think of Easterby as an engineer, Sheriff Hutton's very own Telford or Brunel. 

"I love doing something I've never done before.  Test yourself.  There's a lot of folk out there that have ability but they have no idea how to use it.  Wasted it is.  All that ability put to no use just 'cos they don't know what to do with it and they won't take any risks'.

You could add 'philosopher' to the list of Easterby's alternative vocations, but for the moment he's happy training and farming.

"If I had me time again I'd do it all the same.  I've got a wonderful life here.  I enjoy everything I do.  Farming, training, it's the perfect combination.  They both work in cycles you see.  Farming and horse racing both have a natural annual cycle.  With training it's buying horses, breaking them, getting them fit, and racing them.  Two calendars that go well alongside one another.  The farm feeds the horses, we grow all our own feed, all we buy in is the cubes."

A couple of horses canter down the gallop and it's time to take up position to watch them working back. 

At this point self-sufficiency goes a step further, as many of the horses have been bred at home too.  The first horse back along the gallop is Babouska, a horse bred with retired chartered surveyor and estate agent Alan Black, who has owned racehorses for over half a century.  Related to many past winners, Babouska herself is a dual winner and looking at her impressive sleek lines she hasn't finished winning yet.  Closely behind her is a two year old filly called Harvest Day.

As she gallops past, Easterby is happy with what he has seen and we return to the jeep for the final half mile back to New House Farm. The farm is quiet, most of the horses have already been out and the constant whirring of the horse walkers is all that can be heard.  Occasionally there's a scuffle and a whinny from the bottom barn where the two year olds are waiting for their evening meal, but all is peaceful.

We leave the jeep behind and  Easterby sets off on a different tangent, recounting stories from eight and a half decades of country life, training and dealing. 

"I could go on forever," he says, wiping his brow. 

Unsure of whether he is referring to his tales or a greater aspiration of immortality its not hard to imagine that either are possible.

"We'll keep these for the book though, let's just do a piece on the farm today," Easterby instructs as more stories are told and the notebook pages are filled and turned over at speed.

The book is coming along well, the tales of one of Yorkshire's finest being recorded for future generations. 

"Some folk won't like what they hear," Easterby advises, "Some of it's going to be a bit close to the bone."

It's a good three hours since we started our afternoon tour, and there's more work to be done.  The farm is busy and there's a couple of runners at Redcar that need Easterby's close attention.

"We'll do the story about the pig next time, that one can go in the book."

And with that Easterby disappears through the chainmail fly curtain into the lounge to his armchair to watch Itlaaq run in the 3.15.

Leaving the yard after another pleasurable visit and chat it's clear that the farm, the stables and of course the legendary trainer are one of a kind.  I doubt there is anywhere that even resembles the uniqueness of New House Farm and its master; a trainer, a farmer, an inventor, an entrepreneur and a part time philosopher all rolled into one very proud 86 year old Yorkshireman.

Easterby's stamp on racing will be fondly remembered for many generations.

Mick Easterby was talking with Steve Parrott.

© Mick Easterby and Steve Parrott, 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted: Friday 11 August 2017

It's a goodbye to money when you spend vast amounts on vehicles. Spend your money on things that go up in value. I've never spent a lot on vehicles, once I've bought a car I run it into the ground.

Surveying the vast wheat fields around the farms.

Think this needs a spot of tightening - needs a big wrench though not a spanner!

If the gallops need water then we have just the thing. The wet August has damaged some of the crops and left this tanker temporarily redundant.

Stores will hold thousands of tonnes of produce from the farms.

Computers now control the drying facilities enabling produce to be directed to different areas of the storage barns.

The enormous stores holding 120 tonnes of nitrogen based fertilizer.

Mountains of grain around the various farms ready for distribution.

The Bean Field. Ninety acres of beans for human consumption.

The idyllic surrounds at the back of New House Farm. The land is reclaimed, a complex system of drains and a lagoon has turned a swamp into prime agricultural land.

The drains and lagoon that have enabled Easterby to farm hundreds of acres of land that would otherwise not be productive.

Babouska and Harvest Day come under scrutiny after a gallop.

Its a wonderful life is farming and training, I'm very lucky.

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