This article is part of our collection on Agriculture
From offering B&B accommodation to selling Christmas trees, savvy farmers are finding ways to create new income streams.
Last updated: 02 Feb 2020 6 min read
Branching out from traditional agricultural activities with new moneymaking enterprises has become a popular and lucrative way for farmers to boost their business. Here, three UK farmers share their adventures into diversification.
In 2004, Laganvale was struggling to make ends meet, with its income reliant on a modest cattle herd.
“In agriculture, you’re what I’d call a price-taker, and you get what buyers are going to give you,” says owner Ian Gilmore. “I wanted to get into a business where I could leave myself a profit margin.”
Gilmore identified an opportunity to sell diversified services to the farm’s nearby population, with Belfast close by.
“We expanded into an open farm with a tearoom,” says Gilmore. “We have an indoor soft-play area for children and host birthday parties; children come in and spend an hour playing, then the families go out and self-guide around the farm. They can feed and interact with the animals.”
Further attractions at Laganvale Farm include a maize maze and a seasonal crop of Christmas trees. According to Gilmore, providing a mixed offering has been key to keeping customers coming back for more.
“Some of the people who came to buy Christmas trees in our early days as a diversified farm are telling their friends and coming back every year to do the maze, seasonal events and indoor play,” he says. “They’re spreading the word for us.”
For Gilmore, part of being a diversified farm is giving back to the community. “We’re a social farm, so if there are people in the area with learning difficulties or mental health conditions, they can be referred to do a day a week or so, growing veg and tending the animals,” says Gilmore.
Trevaskis has been farming pork and traditional winter vegetables for 400 years. A crop-ruining winter in the late 1970s led to a new chapter of diversification that eventually saw the farm add over a hundred new crops to its output.
“That winter in 1978 or 1979 led my father to think we’ve got to find another route,” says owner Giles Eustice. “The old pattern of feast and famine was just too devastating.”
Eustice’s parents became diversification pioneers, supplementing their traditional income with revenue from fruit-picking, a tearoom and the first commercial apple orchard in Cornwall.
Meanwhile, Giles pursued a career in the IT sector. He returned to the family business in 2004, alert to the potential of diversification.
“People were more conscious of where their food was grown, its quality and its health benefits. I came back to tap into that,” he says. “We opened the whole farm as a farm park, free of charge, to show people what we do.”
“Some of the people who came to buy Christmas trees in our early days as a diversified farm are telling their friends and coming back every year to do the maze, seasonal events and indoor play”Ian Gilmore, owner, Laganvale Farm
In the space of two years, the team at Trevaskis had doubled the capacity of the farm’s restaurant (formerly the tearoom) and tripled that of its farm shop. Annual turnover is now in the range of £4.5m – £5m, up from £350,000 in 2004.
“It was a matter of taking what was a very well-supported and well-respected business and putting wings on it and a strategy behind it,” says Eustice.
Finding ways to compete with bigger retailers has been key to Trevaskis’s success. “We play supermarkets at their own game by benchmarking against them, breaking down the misconception that farm shops are more expensive,” says Eustice.
“When other farm businesses shut on weekends, that’s not retail. We’re open every single day of the year, and that’s the offer you need to make.”
Lurgan opened its doors to bed-and-breakfast customers in the late 1990s. “It started off when a friend said that rather than have spare boxes in the bedroom, I should do something with it,” says owner Jane Kennedy. “At the time it was just something that would give me a bit of pocket money, but it’s developed from there, and we’ve got busier and busier.”
For Kennedy, one of the benefits of diversification has been opening up relationships between visitors, her family and the farm. “When the kids were young, they loved it,” she says. “We’d spend a lot of nights with the globe, working out where people had come from and how they got here.
“Our guests are respectful, and we’ve found the majority have chosen us because they want to learn about the countryside and farming.”
In recent years, the animals in the Lurgan herd have played a more prominent role in the B&B side of the business. “Two years ago, we bought some female highland calves and put their photos up on Facebook,” says Kennedy. “A lot of people are now keen to see them, so we’re encouraging guests to walk up onto the hill, where cows live among the heather.”
Diversification is increasingly important to many farm businesses, says Paul Wilson, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nottingham.
“About 10 years ago, 50% of farms had diversified. Now that’s up to two thirds, with a combination of cost pressures, volatile produce prices and increased opportunities driving the change,” he says. “On some farms, diversification is making up a reasonable percentage of income, and offsetting agricultural losses.”
Wilson applauds farmers using their businesses to educate visitors on their way of life. “There’s a lot of good work going on farms, and we need to tell the public about it,” he says. “If farmers can combine diversified income generation with educating people, that’s a great thing.”
Wilson recommends farmers consider these three factors for success.
Location: You’ve got to have somewhere that’s accessible to relatively large numbers of potential consumers, typically near a conurbation or main road with passing traffic.
USP: It’s important to be distinct from others, for example, by having multiple offerings such as a farm trail, children’s soft play and tearoom.
Skill profile: Being a customer-facing farmer requires a fairly unique skill set and mindset. You need to be someone who is welcoming and copes well with customers being on the farm.