How Britain's farmers are diversifying

With increasing energy costs, lower food prices and the real impact of Brexit yet to be felt, many of Britain's farmers are having to find new ways to make money. BBC Countryfile Magazine investigates the enterprising ventures that are keeping many British farms alive

10th August 2017
farming

Many modern farmers in Britain are finding it hard to make a living. But when we’re meandering around our local supermarket or farmers’ market, we tend to forget the harsh realities of modern-day farming life. According to government figures, 62 per cent of UK farmers are having to diversify alongside running a traditional working farm. 

Livestock farmers, for instance, have seen their animals struck down with diseases such as bluetongue, foot and mouth and bovine TB over the years. Add increased competition and slashed subsidies, and you’ll see that a farmer’s life is never easy. Many also suffer from loneliness and isolation, as well as money worries, which is why suicide figures for farmers tend to be well above the national average, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Additionally, the UK's dairy farmers are in crisis, with the falling price of milk forcing as many as half of dairy farmers out of business in the last 10 years. 

Radical rethinking

Many farmers have had to think laterally to survive. Farm diversification – where the farmer turns to other forms of income outside the sphere of traditional farming practices – has become increasingly commonplace. In fact, more than half of England’s 57,000 farms have diversified in some form according to new figures released by Defra at the end of January. The Farm Business Survey 2015/16 claimed the total income from diversification activities was £580m in 2015/16. And there are regional variations in many farms’ diversification – some farmers in the south-east are taking advantage of the need for office space in the region, while the south-west is more of a tourist hotspot.

Nowadays, if you fancy making cheese, picking cherries, smoking fish or indulging in your One Man and his Dog dreams, you can head down to a farm to learn a new skill. On a farm holiday you can bed down in a cosy cottage or camping barn, a B&B or boutique hotel. Some of these ventures are so successful that they have overtaken the farming income on some farms.

But it’s not just tourism – farmers are now branching out from traditional crops into wildflower seed production and essential oil crops. And never mind cattle, how about knitwear and feather dusters? Cashmere goats, alpacas, llamas and ostriches are new livestock for many farmers, while those who still keep conventional farm animals, such as dairy farmers, can add value with products such as ice-cream and cheese.

Figures from Defra show that diversification looks like it’s here to stay. And it can make for some eye-opening experiences when out in the countryside these days, as the following five case studies reveal.

1. Unusual livestock

Catanger Llamas, Weedon Lois, Towcester, Northamptonshire  

A very happy llama (not an alpaca)
A very happy llama (note: not an alpaca!) Photo: Getty

Catanger Farm began as a hobby. Mary and David Pryse never thought they would make a living from the farm, but by diversifying they have been able to do just that. The couple bought the arable smallholding in 1992. “We only had 38 acres and spent the first five years turning it into woodland and pasture so we could graze Highland cattle and angora goats,” says Mary.

“The first llama, Henry, was bought as a guard dog to protect the goats.” Three years later, the llama herd had grown to 11 and they started offering adventure treks through the woods. You can’t ride the llamas, but being pack animals they will carry your rucksack while you enjoy the scenery.

When foot and mouth disease struck in 2001, the couple took the opportunity to re-evaluate the business. Llamas, which had become their passion, now looked like a viable proposition. So the Pryses sold their cattle and goats to give them more grazing land and expanded into breeding llamas. Half of their income is now generated by the breeding programme (they sell trained llamas for pets and to trekking companies) and the other half is created by the trekking and tourism side of the operation.

As the business grew, the Pryses secured planning permission to build a log cabin, so that they could live on site, and a new visitor centre that now houses Mary’s workshop. She shears the llamas, and then sends the fleeces to a local mill, which combs the fibre into a chunky yarn. Mary then weaves rugs and knits funky hats, which she sells on the farm.

2. Tourism

Feather Down Farm Days, Bangor

Apple picking at a farm
Holiday with a difference at a working farm. Photo: Getty

Farm stays are one of the most obvious tourism ventures, and Glanmor Isaf has just opened its gates to its first holidaymakers. But farmer David Pritchard has not gone down the traditional B&B route. Instead, David and his son Owen decided to go into partnership with Feather Down Farm Days, which offers holidays on working farms. The concept was brought to the UK from Holland in 2006. Holidaymakers escape the stresses of urban living and stay on a working farm, doing jobs such as collecting eggs each morning or helping with lambing.

There are 24 Feather Down farms in Britain, each offering its own unique experience. Glanmor Isaf, an organic hill farm on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, has been in the family for four generations. David and his wife Ann farm Welsh Black cattle and hardy mountain sheep. Owen will take over the farm with his young family when David retires, but he has been working as a teacher for the past 10 years because the farm could not support both families – until they began their Feather Down project.

Accommodation is in five safari-style tents among the apple and pear trees. The tents have beds, duvets and running (cold) water, but there’s no electricity – just oil lamps and candles. It’s a back-to-nature experience, and for the farms involved it’s a diversification opportunity that can provide a substantial additional income alongside the core farming activity. Though there is a hefty initial outlay for the infrastructure, Glanmor Isaf received a 47 percent grant from Annog, a fund that helps farming families in rural economies. With this support and hard work, the Pritchards are now able to support both families.

3. Nature and camping

Rectory Farm, Buckinghamshire

Camping in fields of gold
Discover the best wildlife Britain has to offer. Photo: Getty

George and Ann Eaton work with nature to encourage wildlife to thrive on their Buckinghamshire farm. The couple won the regional heats at last year’s RSPB Nature of Farming Award, which celebrates the country’s wildlife-friendly farmers. Their 150-acre working farm in the Great Ouse Valley stocks 550 ewes, a herd of suckler cows (bred for beef) and 50 acres of arable land used for crop rotation. However, conservation and education are also now a key part of the business, providing an additional income source. They also offer camping in a scenic setting for those who want to experience nature for themselves.

Funded by Natural England’s Stewardship Scheme they have cleared glades in the disused railway on their land, encouraging dormant flowers, such as cowslips and dog violets, to thrive. A wildflower meadow full of knapweed, lady’s bedstraw and yellow rattle is used to seed margins around the farm, and three new woodland areas have been planted, each of which has been adopted by a local primary school. The water meadows’ old drainage channels have been restored, creating a habitat for lapwings and curlews, which find their food in the mud.

More than 60 school groups visited last year during lambing and throughout the summer to study the farm, the river and numerous habitats. The Eatons have built a hide for birdwatching and a pond-dipping platform from which children can scoop up and study dragonfly larvae, tadpoles and other pond life.

4. Festivals

The Wickerman Festival, East Kirkcarswell Farm, Dumfries & Galloway

Festival crowd
Festivals on farms are now big business. Photo: Getty

Glastonbury might have been the first, but it’s no longer the only festival on a farm. For a start, there’s Barn On The Farm, in nearby Gloucester, and Lounge on the Farm in Kent.

Hosting a music festival can be a smart business move. In 2000 Jamie Gilroy agreed to host the Wickerman Festival on his wife's family farm. “We live in a beautiful part of the world and I've always said that the beauty of a place is inversely proportionate to its earning potential,” Jamie said. “We needed to make up the shortfall from the reassessed subsidy system and find another source of income.”

“Of course there are drawbacks. We have to cope with 20,000 people over a single weekend and spend a lot of time planning to make it work. The neighbours aren’t happy about the noise and it does impact on the farm. But the advantage is that it is just one weekend and doesn’t affect the farm for the rest of the year.” After the death of Jamie Gilroy in 2014, Wickerman Festival is no longer running. It does, however, leave behind an incredible 14 year legacy.

5. Manufacturing products

Seale Stoke Farm, Holne, Devon

Texel sheep
Texel sheeps' thick coats make them perfect for wooly duvets. Photo: Getty

Pauline and Dick Beijin traded in their corporate life in Holland for a rural existence in Devon in 2008. They bought 30-acre Seale Stoke Farm on Dartmoor but soon realised that the low price of wool (£1 a fleece) meant that they would need to diversify.

The couple did their homework. “Historically, Buckfastleigh was known for its wool production, which made us think back to the olden days, when people used to sleep under heavy woollen blankets,” Pauline explains. They started to mull over ways of making the wool light and insulating, using new techniques – and the idea of woollen duvets was born.

“We investigated the different properties of wool and chose the Texel sheep because it has the best type of wool for duvet stuffing. And as Dick is Dutch, Texel [a Dutch breed] was the logical choice.”

Wool-filled duvets are a sustainable alternative to feather and down bedding and a natural alternative to synthetic materials. They are also breathable, resist dust mites and are machine washable.

The Beijins make the duvets in two different weights for winter and summer to increase their earning potential. As well as selling the duvets online they persuaded a number of department stores – including John Lewis – to stock their products. And if you want to try one of the duvets out, the Beijins have also diversified into tourism. You can snuggle down in the self-catering cottage on the farm complete with a wood-burning stove and panoramic views over Dartmoor to the sea.

 

Useful resources on how to get started:

This Government guide is for farmers who are thinking of diversifying, by adding new business activities to traditional farming.

Concerned farmers can get help from:

Farm Crisis Network 01788 510866
Kent Farmline 0845 4583218

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