The Morrow family have been farming the land at Streamvale Farm on the edge of Belfast since 1730 so it is fair to say they have deep roots in the land and are very much at the heart of the local community. For a farm to remain vibrant for almost 3 centuries, generational farming is a living legacy.
A brief history and a legacy that runs deep
Streamvale Farm has fascinating history that is distinctive by the continual progression and diversification of the farm as the Morrow family adapted with the times whether it was moving from horse power to the tractor or a challenging economic environment, each generation has put their own stamp on the farm’s legacy. The Morrow family’s renowned tenacity was cultivated from the earliest of days when like most Irish Farms, the land was owned by a big landlord with the farmer buying it in instalments over many years, often decades. The Morrow family paid their final instalment in January 1962 and have been going from strength to strength since continuing with farming diversification schemes!
Farming diversification and innovation is in the Morrow blood. They’ve always been early adopters being at the forefront of new technology to create efficiencies on the farm and also in their efforts to provide for their growing family. In the early days at Streamvale Farm, the traditional mixed farm developed to a dairy farm as the core commercial activity of the farm, which is still the case today.
Streamvale Farm in 2020
Today the Morrow family are continuing with their early legacy as 2 generations of 2 family units work closely together with the Dairy Farm and the Open Farm the main focus of the business, but as has been the tradition, the family have demonstrated their agility and resilience in adapting to the current environment and challenges thrown at them in the current pandemic.
Sustainable farming has always been a core value and way of life at the farm, and their 250 dairy herd spend most of the year out on the pastures. Protecting the resident wildlife is something that comes naturally as it has always been an ingrained part of their farming ethos and adds to the Streamvale Open Farm visitor experience.
They opened the farm as a visitor attraction to the public 30 years ago attracting on average 50,000 visitors per year. However, as is the Morrow way, each generation has continued to organically develop and innovate at the farm and in the last 5 years visitor numbers have grown to 150,000 per year. The farm is now home to in the region of 750 animals including the dairy herd, with deer, alpacas, donkeys, guinea pigs, rabbits, puppies, sheep, pigs and even reptiles all part of the farm family. A lot of mouths to feed, especially during a pandemic lockdown!
Business not quite as usual with a pandemic lockdown
Streamvale Open Farm is open to the public from March to December every year, closing just after its Christmas event. The Open Farm opened as normal on St Patrick’s weekend this year, amid growing anxiousness around the Covid-19 situation and what it would mean for Northern Ireland. However, its Spring 2020 season was short lived as they made the decision to close the farm just a week later out of concern for their staff and visitors, just a few hours ahead of the government announcement that all non-essential businesses were to close.
We spoke to Chris Wilson, who in partnership with his wife Helen (Morrow), are now custodians for the running of Streamvale Open Farm. Chris and Helen have been responsible for the 3-fold growth in visitor numbers over the last 5 years, adding further attractions to enhance the visitor experience, but also creating events for all age groups, from small children, to students and adding a bit of romance to the farm with date-nights at Streamvale!
Chris told us about the agonising decision they had to make to close the farm to the public just a week after opening for the 2020 season, informing their much valued staff that they were introducing a 2-day week for the foreseeable future and how their ‘Moo to you’ delivery box initiative came about.
Tell us a little bit about the background of Streamvale Farm.
The farm has been in my wife Helen’s family, the Morrow family, for generations. It is a working farm which Helen’s cousin, Patrick, runs managing a 250 dairy-herd. His father Timothy still has a hand in too and has his own plans to reintroduce Streamvale Free Range Milk direct to the public soon. Helen and I took on core responsibility for Streamvale Open Farm about 5 years ago as we were eager to see what more we could do with it and Helen’s parents wanted to take a bit of a step back.
Streamvale opened as a visitor attraction about 30 years ago with Johnston, Helen’s father, and her mother, Judith, taking responsibility for it and his brother Timothy and his family managing the dairy herd. When Helen and I became more involved, we visited open farms in England. The first thing we did at that time was open the toy shop, then we started running a few events such as student nights, unicorn weekends, pumpkin patch and the Christmas experience. Pumpkin patch is now our busiest time of year. We have grown the open farm side of the business organically over the last five years and increased annual visitor numbers 3-fold from 50,000 to 150,000.
You made an independent decision to close due to Covid-19 concerns. Tell us about that.
We close for the winter after the Christmas Experience Event and normally open around St Patrick’s Day each year. We did agonise over opening at all this year as anxiousness over the spread of Covid-19 was building and the impact was being felt across Europe and getting closer to home. We felt a duty to our staff and visitors to keep them safe. The last thing we wanted was to be responsible for the spreading of the virus. We did open in the end but only for a week. We decided to close just before the NI Executive gave the order for all non-essential businesses to close.
Tell us about the impact the lockdown has had on you and the business.
Making the decision to close was one of the worst days of my life so far, just making that decision and having to tell our staff that we were reducing their hours to 2 days a week. We had built up a really great team and they were all enjoying their careers here and we are all close, so that was not easy. One of our managers was picking up the keys to his first home the day I told him we were going down to 2 days. It was tough. There were a lot of sleepless nights.
Then the government announced the furlough scheme and that was a game changer for us, just to know the staff would be looked after and we could keep them on. That was such a weight lifted and we could breathe again and think.
You came up with ‘Moo to You’ initiative fairly quickly. Tell us how it came about.
Yes, well I spotted that there was a demand for provisions like milk being delivered directly to people’s doors in England and I thought we must be able to do something like that here that would help people who were shielding or those that didn’t want to go to the shops. It was also something to keep us going (and all those animals fed). We supply all our milk from the farm to Dale Farm, so I got onto them to see what we could do, and they were very supportive. My brother-in-law lent me a van to see how it would go and we launched on our social media with a range of Dale Farm dairy products (milk, yoghurt, butter, cream) and of course Streamvale Farm’s own Ice Cream. We converted our events ticketing system to a simple ordering system on our website and the response was amazing. It took off.
You started out with the dairy products, but then you started to collaborate with other local producers, didn’t you?
Yes, that’s right. Once we saw there was a real demand, we thought about what other good quality local produce we could add and Corries Farm Butchers came on board, over the weeks adding more of their oven-ready products to the list and then Mash Direct, a bakery in Comber, eggs from a farmer near the Mournes and the last to come on board was a fish box from a fishmonger in Portavogie that usually supplies restaurants and sells as St George’s Market, so we have a good diverse offering.
Did I see that you had your own Streamvale scone and brown-bread mixes and Kids Treat Bags on offer too?
Yes, that’s right, Hilary, Timothy’s wife made the brown-bread mixes up for us and they went down really well, especially in the first few weeks when people were mad into baking.
The treat bags proved very popular too.
Who has been ordering and what has the feedback been like?
Feedback has been really great. People who have been shielding have said it has been a godsend having good quality food delivered to their doorstep and not having to worry. Another type of customer is those who just want the convenience of good quality local produce delivered without having to go to the shops. I suppose you could add a 3rd type of customer – those who wanted to support the farm.
You seem to cover a fairly wide geographical area?
Yes, we are now covering Larne, Ballymena, Lurgan, Banbridge, Downpatrick, Dromore, Belfast, Comber, Newtownards, Bangor and the Ards Peninsula. We deliver on different days of the week to different areas.
Have you been able to bring any of your team back to help you out?
We started off with one van doing deliveries (by me) and then I was able to bring one of the team we had furloughed back in and now we have 3 off furlough and hopefully in the next week or 2 we will be bringing another one of the team back in full time. Especially as we start making plans to re-open to visitors, we will need more hands-on-deck!
So, do you hope to get Streamvale Open Farm re-opened again soon?
Yes, we are hoping to re-open again in July and we are just starting to work that all out. In actual fact, we are already well set up here as we have hand wash stations set up throughout the farm and signs asking people to wash their hands after petting the animals for years. Really all we need is some extra signage to reinforce the hygiene and social distancing messages.
Obviously, we will have lower numbers through at any one time too and people will have to pre-book to come in a certain time slot. A bit more like how we operate our Christmas event.
You have a café at Streamvale Open Farm too?
Yes, we have a café and a burger bar, but I think they will be the last parts of the visitor experience to re-open. We will encourage people to bring a picnic to enjoy when they are here. Of course, they will still be able to buy the Streamvale Farm Ice Cream!
Finally, how do people find out more about Moo to You and Streamvale Open Farm?
We keep our website updated and we love keeping our Facebook and Instagram followers updated daily on all that is happening at the farm, from new calves being born to new products or operational information like opening hours.
Otherwise we encourage people to become part of our Moo to You group for the most up to date offers.
Find out more information on both the re-opening of Streamvale Open Farm and also on the Moo to You local box delivery scheme, check out their website https://streamvale.com/. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the launch of their free-range milk too in the coming months!