A FARMING family has tackled the problem of picking its asparagus crop without its usual labour force, created a safe way for customers to use its farm shop and is now looking at ways to donate its produce to help frontline workers in the coronavirus crisis.

The Spilmans, who won the Family-Run Farm of the Year title in this year’s Northern Farmer Awards, collectively farm 700 acres - 600 as tenants at Lodge Farm, Helperby, where they grow their asparagus, and 100 acres that they own at Church Farm, Sessay.

Here they grow soft fruits, pumpkins and rear their own lamb and beef. They also have a farm shop, a cafe and a play barn. Until this year they have relied on overseas workers to pick their produce. Starting with the asparagus season in April, followed by strawberries starting in early June. Spilman Farming can employ up to 50 workers who have travelled from overseas at one time.

With lockdown coming at the start of the asparagus season, and many other countries already facing limited travel, it became a starkly obvious that the labour previously used for spring harvest was not going to be an option.

The Spilman family turned to social media to begin recruiting asparagus pickers through an online campaign entitled “Asparagus Pickers, Hen’s Teeth & Loo Rolls”, all of which were equally difficult to obtain at the time. There then followed campaigns by British Asparagus and the CLA which elevated the need for farm vegetable pickers to a national level.

The Spilmans’ dilemma was featured on local and national news channels, and with new Government guidelines for furloughed workers, responses flooded in from students, locals, furloughed workers and people looking for work, a situation the family described as ‘ humbling and overwhelming’.

With plans to open their café, farm shop and playbarn for an Easter debut in April, the crisis affected the farming family in more ways than one, but the business has re-engineered its usual café setting to provide an efficient ‘pick-and-pack’ area for customers using their online farm shop.

Similar to an online supermarket, customers can purchase their shopping online, up to twice a week – with collection in a drive-through format on Wednesdays and Fridays. Time slots are given by surname, and customers are asked to give their registration details at the checkout stage.

Customers are asked to familiarise themselves with collection guidelines, including clear instructions to remain in their vehicle at all times.

When collecting their shopping, customers drive slowly through a collection bay, where their shopping is placing into their car by one of the Spilman team. No contact is required.

Having tackled these challenges, their next big focus is towards the NHS, key workers and their families. The Spilmans plan to donate their asparagus to local hospitals, and school hubs where children of key workers are still attending school.

“Asparagus is at its best right now. It tastes incredible, is super quick to prepare and is pack full of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to support a healthy immune system – something we could all do with a large dose of right now,” said Olivia Spilman.

This will be part of the family’s Pay it Forward campaign, ‘From Farm to Front Line’. Details can be found at their website, www.spilmans.co.uk