Farming for Tomorrow
PUBLISHED: 18:15 21 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013
The face of traditional farming is changing as more turn to alternative ways of making a living, but for some diversification may not be the answer. In the July issue we investigate the future of farming. Whether that's farmers gearing themselves ...
Fifth-generation farmer John Snell was recently faced with a choice. He could either spend £100,000 on a new dairy and more cows, or get out of dairy farming and diversify. He and his wife, Gemma, chose the latter and this summer are welcoming their first visitors to The Cow Shed, a collection of luxurious holiday apartments in a striking contemporary building fronted by zinc and glass.
But John hasn't given up farming completely; he says it runs too deeply in his veins. So, as well as building the new accommodation in the farmyard, he also produces organic beef on his land near Yeovil.
"He still gets up at the crack of dawn and doesn't stop until supper, so we probably see less of him," says Gemma. "But when we do it's quality time because he's not exhausted and stressed. When John was milking, he was earning 56p an hour. He was getting up at 4.30am and coming in at about 8pm (as long as there wasn't a breakdown), but he still loved it, so it was a very hard decision to give up that side of the farm."
The couple hope one day to open a farm shop selling their own produce and will next year begin holding wedding receptions alongside their private lake with its views of Glastonbury Tor.
"John is extremely proud of the farm and it's great to have people to stay and show them a taste of our life. He is adamant that this farm will be passed down to our children in a thriving and prosperous condition."
Like many in the industry, John found himself at a crossroads, and today six out of ten family farms have at least one source of diversified income outside of core farming activities.
"When John was milking, he was earning 56p an hour. He was getting up at 4.30am and coming in at about 8pm, but he still loved it"
It's a trend that seems likely to continue, according to Westcountry-based accountants and financial advisers Old Mill. They look after 1,000 farmers, and in a sample of 150 of them, 56% run significant other enterprises, the classic ones being B&B or developing property into holiday lets or office units.
"Some farmers can no longer be considered food producers," says Ian Sharpe, partner at Old Mill Rural Services' division. "They are multi-skilled businessmen and women who have made best use of their resources not only to survive the hard times but to thrive and grow their business as each year passes."
Although many commodity prices are returning to profitable levels, he expects a lot of farmers will continue to diversify. But he urges them to examine any major business change carefully, not least because of the practicalities of running a new venture alongside the core farming enterprises. There are also important Capital Gains and Inheritance Tax implications, as well as planning and employment issues.
A Somerset business which has had help from Old Mill is White Row Country Foods and Caf in Beckington, near Frome, where old farrowing houses have been converted into a farm shop. Pig farmer Stephen Tucker has lived at White Row nearly all his life.
"At the end of the 1990s, the state of pig farming was so terrible and we were losing money so we just had to do something," explains Stephen's wife, Heather. "We are on the busy A36 with lots of passing traffic so we decided to gamble and diversify."
The shop sells its own home-grown vegetables and pork as well as local lamb and beef, and is now expanding to include a deli and fresh fish centre. The business employs more than 30 full- and part-time staff, while a garden shop franchise and butcher's shop employs half a dozen. And all staff are local, from Beckington or surrounding villages.
"It has been hard work but you've got to do it properly," says Heather. "It's certainly the best thing we've done. We say we should have done it earlier, but then it might not have worked out so well."
Meanwhile, holidaymakers have been taken with the rustic chic and eco-friendly appeal of unique farm stays, which were introduced to the country last year. The Dutch creator of Feather Down Farm Days, Luite Moraals, has been delighted with the concept's runaway success and has sought new farms to keep up with demand this summer.
Farms all over the country offer accommodation in a number of tented units which are part-wood, part-khaki-canvas creations containing two bedrooms, a double canopy bed housed in a wooden cupboard, a wood-burning stove, flushing loo and 1930s-style Dutch farmhouse furniture.
Six out of ten family farms have at least one source of diversified income outside of core farming activities
On Moores Farm at Holcombe near Bath, the tents are sited in a field surrounded by trees on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful valley towards Downside Abbey. Set in 300 acres of countryside, the farm is mainly arable with some beef cattle. The land is farmed by Nigel and Katherine Dawe-Lane, who have four-year-old twin boys, Hugo and Rafe.
"Farming as we all think of it is not going to support a family like it used to, so it's important to be aware of other initiatives," says Katherine. "Feather Down Farm Days is about getting back to good old-fashioned holidays. Children can have fun without relying on gadgets and the theme-park experiences we assume they want."
Not all farmers have chosen to diversify, however, and for young brothers James and Adrian Ashley, investing in dairy farming has proved to be the right way forward. The boys were just 20 and 17, and baby brother Liam just two months old when their father died six years ago.
"It was up to me and my brother to get on with the farm, and we decided to invest heavily in trying to move forward," says Adrian. "We have knuckled down and in 2006 we built a new milking parlour and increased the cows by 80. There were thoughts put in my head about holiday lets and other activities around the farm, but at the end of the day you have got to do what you are good at, and I like to think we are good at farming.
"I didn't want the general public on the farm so we're ploughing money into making the farm bigger, building the business. We are doing it in stages because you have to have a level head and not get too carried away and invest more money than you can afford."
With the help of Adrian's girlfriend, Catherine, the brothers have been able to do all the work themselves at Lower Tunley Farm near Bath.
"There's no getting away from it, we are working seven days a week, but my brother and I work well together. There was a lot of doom and gloom in the industry when we started and people did doubt that I could do it. But I thrive off that - I like to do the opposite to what everyone else says, and thought that one day it has got to come right, and we are getting there." BY SARAH FORD
The Cow Shed: tel 01935 426426, www.cowshedretreat.co.uk
Old Mill accountants and financial advisers: Shepton Mallet, tel 01749 343366, Yeovil (01935 426181, www.oldmillgroup.co.uk
White Row Country Foods & Caf: tel 01373 830241
Feather Down Farm: tel 01420 80804, www.featherdown.co.uk
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