‘I didn’t want to milk cows 24/7!’: how four people reinvented their family farms

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‘I didn’t want to milk cows 24/7!’: how four people reinvented their family farms

Joe Garland with his dog Pebbles on a quad bike at Mythe Farm in Warwickshire.

It isn’t easy to secure the future of a traditional farm, and so the race is on for new ideas – including quad bike rides, speedboat adventures and natural burial sites

Sirin Kale
Wed 7 Jul 2021 05.00 EDT

Farming has always been a gruelling job, with unsociable hours, physical exertion and the unpredictability of the climate to deal with. And, for a long time, British farmers have been struggling financially. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the average income for English general cropping farmers decreased by 21% year-on-year in the period 2019-20. Were it not for generous EU subsidies, many would have gone out of business years ago.

Faced with these challenges, many farmers are diversifying into other, more profitable ventures – most commonly as B&Bs, wedding venues, solar farms or farm shops. We visited four who have taken more unusual routes.

The quad biking experience: ‘The sheep are used to it; they’re not too bothered’

Mythe Farm in Atherstone, Warwickshire

Joe Garland, 43, is the third generation to farm Mythe Farm, a 150-acre sheep and arable farm. He started diversifying almost as soon as he took over the farm from his father, Peter, in 2004. “At that point, farming was going through a pretty tough time,” Garland says. The BSE scandal had driven many of his peers out of livestock farming entirely, while the price of milk was constantly being pushed down by the supermarkets.

“The only people left in dairy were doing it in a massive way,” he says. “The prices are low and the margins are low. You have to have lots of equipment and more and more acres.” Mythe Farm wasn’t big enough to compete. “A 150-acre farm will never be a massive business any more,” says Garland. “It’s barely viable from a farming point of view.”

Over the years, Garland has grown the farm’s alternative revenue streams. Now, farming accounts for barely 20% of their revenue. Mythe Farm offers weddings, corporate hospitality events and, more unusually, extreme 4×4 and quad biking experiences. The quad biking skirts the farm’s arable fields. “We just incorporated it into the farm’s existing design,” says Garland. “We made a few small alterations to make it interesting, especially when you are going through the trees. But there were no massive earthworks – we just worked with what was there.”

Luckily, the farm’s sheep know to stay well away when the quad bikes roar across the fields. “We close the gates to keep them in,” says Garland, “but, to be honest, the sheep keep away anyway. They hear the engines and head to the other side of the field. They’re used to it; they’re not too bothered.”

Garland admits that running quad biking has its stresses. “You’re giving people the opportunity to injure themselves, potentially. We take health and safety really seriously and train all of our staff well. But when you hear those quad bikes over the fields, it can create anxiety.”

Mythe Farm used to let stag dos do the quad biking experience, but it got to be too much. “When you live and work on the same site, you need to have a quality of life,” he says, diplomatically. They have reoriented the quad biking experience to the corporate market; it is much easier to host executives on away days, as they are less noisy and disruptive. (Apart from when they are buffeting each other using the farm’s giant inflatables, It’s a Knockout-style.) In the summer months, though, the chimes of Pharrell Williams’ Happy drift over to the family house on a weekly basis; wedding DJs all play the same songs. “Always that Happy song!” Garland jokes.

When Garland presented his diversification business plan to his father for his approval, Peter could scarcely understand what his son was proposing. “He didn’t really understand it, and he still doesn’t to the present day. Dad understands that you put something in the ground and you tend to it and it sells and you make money.”

But even if Garland is as much an events manager as a farmer these days, he is mostly happy that the farm is still operating and thriving, in spite of everything. “I am massively proud of what we’ve achieved over the years,” he says.

Emily Goodson on the site of the proposed natural burial ground at Castle View Farm in Leicestershire.

The natural burial site: ‘I want to make it a wildflower meadow, with memorial trees’

Castle View Farm, Bottesford, Leicestershire

Emily Goodson’s grandfather started Castle View – a 350-acre arable farm that grows wheat, barley, rapeseed and oats – in 1956. “It was really fun growing up on a farm,” she says. “We had horses, so that was something me and my mum always did together.” Her older brother was adamant that he wanted to work on the farm when he grew up, but Goodson wasn’t so sure. “I thought I’d move away after uni and get a job in a city.”

Coronavirus changed everything. Goodson, 21, returned home and spent more time with her family. “We started talking about ways to diversify,” Goodson says. They already had a livery yard – stables that horse owners can rent privately. During these conversations, Goodson thought back to a dissertation she had written at the University of Leeds, where she studied environment and business. It was about how farmers had been affected by our changing diets. In the course of her research, she had spoken to a number of farmers who had been diversifying due to external factors in farming. One of the farmers mentioned that they were getting into the natural burials business. “I definitely thought it was a weird concept at first,” says Goodson.

But the more she thought about it, the more it seemed like an intriguing proposition. “We have a field that is quite important to the village,” she says. Previously, it has been used to grow rapeseed, although it has been fallow for a year. “There’s a footpath through it. I thought that it could be a perfect natural burial ground.” Goodson is overseeing the project, which will see the land turned into an environmentally friendly natural burial ground, where people will be laid to rest in biodegradable coffins, without the use of embalming chemicals. “I want to make it like a wildflower meadow, with memorial trees,” Goodson says.

Goodson and her family won’t be burying bodies themselves – they plan to work with local funeral directors, who will arrange the logistics. Pricing is yet to be fixed. “This is all very new,” Goodson says. But already the demand is there. “We’ve had some interest, but we’ve had to explain to people that we’re not taking bookings yet,” she says. “We’ve had lots of support from the village, too. When I told people about the idea, they all thought it sounded really good.”

She hopes that the burial ground, which is slated to open in 2022 – it took a year to get the planning permission – will be a way to help her parents make the farm more financially secure. “I grew up watching them work so hard,” she says. “I feel bad for farmers. They seem to be misunderstood by a lot of people and they don’t get much representation from people in high places. There’s such a disconnect between farmers and people who live in cities.”

Freda Scott-Park (right) and her son, Chris, on the shores of Loch Lomond

The speedboat tour operator: ‘Loch Lomond is a special place’

Portnellan Farm in Gartocharn, West Dunbartonshire

The first time I call Freda Scott-Park, a veterinary surgeon who runs Portnellan Farm with her husband, David, and son, Chris, she is too busy to speak. “Changeover day!” she says gaily. “Call me tomorrow.” Scott-Park, I will learn when I manage to get hold of her, is a phenomenally busy woman. “My last holiday was six years ago,” she says. “I’m still living off the memory of it, really.”

In addition to being an organic grass-fed beef farm, Portnellan is also a thriving agritourism business. Visitors can stay in glamping tents by the waters of Loch Lomond – the farm skirts the loch – or in the old dairyman’s farmhouse, now converted into self-catering accommodation. Portnellan first flung open its gates to visitors in 2014. “We make it clear to our visitors that we are a working farm and we are very proud of it,” says Scott-Park, 65. “There will be cows right in front of you in the summer. You may even find cows wandering outside your front door – although they shouldn’t be.”

The family started diversifying in about 2000. “Dairy farming was becoming increasingly difficult,” she says. “And, although we support organic principles, it was hard to make enough money out of it to support our families.” David’s parents, who started the farm in 1952, took a bit of persuading. “We were very keen to do things, but I think when you’re a bit older you become risk-averse and lack a bit of youthful energy,” Scott-Peck says. The first thing they did was install boat moorings, renting them out to local boat owners. “We weren’t sure if people would want them, but, blow me down, they did.”

It was touch and go whether Chris would come back to work on the farm after university. “A lot of farmers’ sons and daughters look at how hard their parents are working and are not really that interested,” says Scott-Peck. “We were extraordinarily lucky to have him come back. But he said, categorically, that he didn’t want to milk cows 24/7, 365 days a year.”

Chris is a licensed commercial speedboat operator; he decided to start running tours around the loch, from GBP110 a boat. (It is virtually impossible to speak to him at this time of year, because he is working non-stop.) “He’s taught himself a lot about the history of the loch,” says Scott-Park proudly. “He takes people to see the island with the wallabies on it, and he drops them off for picnics on the islands, or does pub tours. The poor boy is chockablock at the moment.” It’s not hard to see why; the loch, which in winter is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, is famously beautiful. “It’s a special place,” Scott-Park says.

When Portnellan Farm started offering speedboat tours, the family worried there might be pushback from other commercial tour operators on the loch. But there was none. “On the whole, the businesses around the loch really help each other out,” says Scott-Park. “I don’t think anyone locally resents what we’ve done. There’s a lot of mutual help and respect.”

Scott-Park warns that many farmers will have to diversify or else risk going out of business as EU subsidies are phased out. “A sea change is on the horizon, because farmers soon won’t be receiving the same kind of subsidies they’ve received before. Farmers who haven’t diversified are at risk of running into serious financial difficulties.”

Now, for the first time since 1983, Scott-Park doesn’t need to put the money she earns as a veterinary surgeon into the farm. “The income is helping us invest in new things like fences and roofs and putting in electric vehicle charging points,” she says. “It’s giving us the opportunity to do things that are good for the farm, and hopefully for Chris’s future.”

Despite the success of the speedboat tours and holiday accommodation, Scott-Park is adamant that Portnellan will continue to be a farm, first and foremost, that preserves organic farming techniques for future generations. “The farm is enormously important to us,” she says. “We love our cows. We wouldn’t like to think of Portnellan without them.”

Ian Piggot among the pumpkins.

The work space: ‘We’ve got software developers, accountants’

Thrales End Farm, Harpenden, Hertfordshire

Ian Pigott, 51, is the fourth generation to farm Thrales End, although his family has been farming in the area since the 15th century. Despite this, Pigott insists, “I wasn’t the child that wanted to have toy tractors and a pair of overalls for my birthday. I was more interested in playing cricket and rugby. But I always worked on the farm during the holidays to earn my keep.”

After a spell working as a commodities trader in the city in the late 80s and early 90s, Pigott returned to the farm in 1996 and immediately began diversifying. “My dad and I had a good relationship and he handed responsibility over to me pretty quickly,” he says. Not all farmers are so quick to embrace change. “It’s a traditional sector with long legacies, and change isn’t always something people love. But I love change. It’s probably a failing of mine. I’m always trying to do something new.”

The office space was built in 1997, in refurbished livestock buildings for cattle and pigs. Now, Thrales End offers office space to small businesses and sole traders. “We’ve got designers, software developers, accountants, surveyors. A few charities.” In many ways, Thrales End is lucky: the farm is only 25 minutes from London St Pancras by train and 10 minutes’ drive from Luton airport. “Not everyone is blessed with the number of chimney pots we have on our doorstep,” Pigott says. “It’s not quite as straightforward if you’re trying to rent office space in the middle of Northumberland.”

People like to have their workspace on a farm, says Pigott, “because it’s slightly different to just being based in a regular office. They value the fact that we have green space where you can have meetings outside and lots of access to car parking. You don’t get those things if you have an office in town.” During the summer months, meetings on the 10-person picnic bench outside the office building are commonplace. Pigott feared they would lose the majority of their office tenants due to the financial pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, but only a few dropped off. “We were surprised,” he says. “We thought we would lose a lot of tenants and we are fortunate we didn’t.”

The way that Pigott sees the diversified business, he explains, is as the fruit, while the farm is the tree. “We can’t have one without the other, as they are so intertwined,” he says. In addition to the office space, Thrales End has branched out into the festival business, running sunflower, sweetcorn and pumpkin festivals in the summer months. The farm also has a school on site, delivering programmes on sustainability, healthy eating and regenerative agriculture. But despite all these side hustles, Pigott is adamant that farming will continue at Thrales End, at least while he is alive.

“It’s a difficult thing to explain, but it’s kind of in the blood,” he says. “There’s an enormous amount of pride associated with making sure you maintain your land and improve it all the while. A friend of mine likes to say that you don’t inherit your farm from your parent, you borrow your farm from your children. There’s sense in that. We are custodians. And that comes with a sense of responsibility.”

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