As the past three years have shown, farming is a profession always on a knife edge and at the mercy of the environment.
So it is little wonder that increasing numbers are diversifying in order to stabilise their incomes. But it is nothing new; farms across the country have been looking at new ways to make money from their fields and buildings for many years.
Wiltshire Farm Stay, part of Farm Stay UK, was set up in 1983 and now, after 31 years (they hosted the national celebration last year and are now having a belated Wiltshire anniversary), they are celebrating bringing £4 million to the local economy last year – and in many cases saving farms.
They see themselves as offering something different – often a taste of a working farm – and every site is passed to three stars or more by the AA or Visit England.
While financial necessity is the key driver of diversification, it also – as in the case of Helen Rawlings – provides a welcome balance.
“It’s all about seeing what you have from a fresh pair of eyes, looking outside of the box and doing everything to the best of your ability,” says Mrs Rawlings, who in 1992 started farming a flock of 250 sheep with her husband Alex at Great Ashley Farm.
“More restrictions were being brought in on milk sales, we were working ridiculously long hours, we had a young family and I was working as a travel agent and something had to give.
“We now have a gold-star rated B&B, a self-catering barn, horse livery and we are just about to diversify once more into beef boxes. We want to leave our children with successful businesses, which they can develop without the worry of fluctuating subsidies and supermarket prices.”
The latest figures from Defra estimate that 2013-14 incomes on cereal farms will show a fall of 28 per cent, with that for general cropping by 8 per cent. And while dairy, up 40 per cent, and livestock, up 15 per cent on lowland and 33 per cent in less-favoured areas, are expected to rise, these come from a low start point and in the face of rocketing input costs.
In 2010, a third of diversified farms chose to chase the tourist pound, second only to haulage or contracting, a route followed by half of the 24 per cent of farms (25,000) to look elsewhere to pay the bills. Unsurprisingly, the South West leads the way in tourism diversification, with more than 40 per cent of diversified farms joining the sector.
That is not to say that tourism is any easier or simpler than traditional farming – it simply offers an alternative, the agricultural equivalent of spreading your bets or investing in a broad base of shares.
There are of course risks, not least start-up loans and planning restrictions. But the latter should prove less and less of an obstacle; planning minister Nick Boles, while saying national parks should get no presumption in favour of development, urged authorities in national parks and other sensitive areas to balance protection of the landscape with “social and economic wellbeing”.
And as with bets or investments, there is an element of luck. For founding member Cynthia Fletcher, adding extra businesses was the only way to save Foxhangers Farm, which she bought in 1973.
The Fletchers tried to increase the income from the farm but at 90 acres, it simply was not large enough. Without diversification into narrowboat hire, holiday caravans and camping on the beef farm, they would have faced having to sell up.
But being planted firmly beside the Kennet and Avon canal proved a boon when it was reopened after years of neglect – and became one of the region’s biggest tourism draws. And when British Waterways needed to dig clay for repairs, creating a basin large enough for 26 boats, it was too good to resist.
“Diversification was the only way to increase our income so we took advantage of our large farmhouse, and being on the main holiday route to the West Country, it made perfect sense to start a bed and breakfast,” explains Mrs Fletcher.
“We were always turning people away so a few years later added four self-catering units and then, a caravan and camping site.
“In 1985, British Waterways opened the Bath stretch of the Kennet and Avon and this seemed an ideal opportunity to provide moorings. In 1997 our son and daughter set up the narrowboat hire and we now have 15 boats on the canal.”
And those guests are just some of the hundreds who fill the 400 bed spaces offered throughout the county by the Farm Stay scheme.
Alongside the income generated from enjoyable rural stays, guests in turn contribute to the local economy through spending on food, entertainment, travel and attractions.
For some, the scheme has become so successful that it provides an income in itself.
For Hayley and Jon Painter, who are hosting a birthday tea party for the group at the Merkins Farm Cafe they own and run – the ‘Farm’ on the nameplate is now little more than a name.
As well as the cafe, there are three self-catering cottages and a campsite – but the only animals on site are the horses in the livery yard.
“Diversifying was the only way forward when Jon’s parents retired from dairying. “Our farm enjoys panoramic views, and seemed the ideal location for the campsite, which opened in 2004. Two years later, we converted the barns into three holiday cottages, offering accommodation for 10 guests. In 2011 we opened our vintage-themed farm café, which has recently expanded.”
There is also employment, especially in rural areas so often starved of youth by the draw of the city. But rural enterprises keep hold of the younger generation, offering hope of a future for not just farming but for the countryside as a living, working landscape.
“We are proud to have created local employment for seven full and part time staff,” says Mrs Painter. “My eldest daughter is now working in the cafe full time, and one day hopes to manage it herself”.