Thursday, May 23, 2019

Bells, barns and basket-weavers

March 5, 2019 by  
Filed under Fen Tiger

A family wedding sees Fen Tiger turn his thoughts to farm diversification.

My daughter is tying the knot shortly, which means I must put my hand in my pocket. It’s important to get these things right – and I like to spend money wisely – so I have been doing my homework although the big day remains a little way off.

On a recent surveillance operation, I was taken to a converted barn that used to be the old dairy. It got me thinking about alternative incomes and how farms are more and more dependant on diversified enterprises to turn a profit.

Statistics show only around 27% of couples now choose to get married in church. This converted barn with its rustic feel and exposed beams created a unique atmosphere with the potential to provide an evening reception as well.

Tidy profit

The clean and well-maintained farm yard was fenced off from the main working yard. And the owners were taking regular bookings. At £8,000 a time, I expect it makes a tidy profit too. Although I did detect mixed views from the farming family who ran it.

This wedding barn venue was run by the younger generation – the daughter of the family who enjoyed the challenge it brought. But her parents seemed less enthusiastic about hosting weddings. I guess the wind of change is blowing but is sometimes unwelcome.

Not keen on weddings? How about starting your own brewery? The number of craft beers and microbreweries is increasing dramatically. So too has the UK hop area as we chase our new-found taste for beer. Competition is fierce but for some it is a tasty number.

Got any areas of forgotten woodland? Michael Gove might want to clamp down on wood burners but biomass systems and multifuel burners are increasing in popularity. And it is sensible to make use of lower value forestry products.

Government grants are available for many start-up businesses – helping would-be entrepreneurs along their way to their first million. But even in the absence of such funding, it is still possible to make money.

A growing number of people like to leave their pets well-looked after during holiday periods. The opportunity to create an on-farm kennel or cattery business is an easy option on many farms where existing buildings may not need much adapting.

With extra space always available – and the opportunity to give pets a good exercise – the appeal is there for pet owners too. Livestock farmers already experienced in animal welfare can make easy money – especially from affluent customers.

Some farmers are going further and reviving ancient crafts. Giving townies lessons in traditional rural occupations such as bee-keeping, bodging and basket-weaving is a lucrative business – and especially popular with people who spend all day staring at a computer screen.

It also helps ensure that the old skills survive. In fact, there are endless possibilities – despite hostile planning laws and business rates that need looking at closely. The rateable value can have a major impact on any scheme but with some relief available they can be offset.

Change needed

Farmers aren’t always as reluctant to change as some people think. With profits tumbling, off-farm income is increasingly important. It is just a shame that the grants available do not always reflect the true financial position of individual farms or the investment required.

Several cases spring to mind. Wealthy farmers are able to claim grants for potato and grain storage facilities with the promise of storing other farms’ produce, thereby creating a co-operative. Is it a good idea or just a tick-box exercise to secure easy money?

Having a healthy bank balance shouldn’t mean you automatically secure funding. I believe the smaller, less financially secure family farms should be given first chance. Perhaps a means-testing system should be implemented where tenant-only farmers achieve preferred status.

I also believe that grants should be repaid on a pro-rata basis if the items purchased or built are sold or become redundant – or are used for a different purpose than the grant was applied for. The system as it stands is all too often open to abuse.

As for me, all I want is to farm how I used to. And find a wedding venue that doesn’t require me to remortgage the farm.

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