In the recent run of hot weather the volatile nature of land based rural businesses became very apparent. Weather conditions, disease, stock prices and many other factors directly affect the profitability of these businesses and can make the reliability of a steady and profitable income unpredictable. How can rural land based businesses create a stable and sustainable income for themselves that complements their core activity while at the same time offering a more predictable source of income? One tried and tested option is for land based businesses like farms and country estates to diversify into tourist enterprises.
As the tourist high season begins in earnest the large Devon attractions like Crealy, the Milky Way and the Big Sheep will see thousands of customers through their doors in the coming months. Tourism is big business for the South West and a vital part of the region’s economy. According to the International Passenger Survey data the tourism economy in the greater South West was worth almost £11bn in 2014 representing nearly 11% of the UK’s tourism economy. Tourism also employs almost 200,000 people across the region. (http://www.tourismalliance.com/downloads/TA_395_420.pdf).
According to the Heart of the South West LEP report 2017, across the four South West LEP areas, rural local authority areas accounted for 58% of all economic output and 60% of all workforce jobs, a much higher proportion than elsewhere in England. However, being a rural land owner in 2018 is a challenging prospect often requiring lateral and entrepreneurial thinking. Schemes such as Countryside Stewardship and Woodland Grants are offering the opportunity to support income that is made from land. However rural land owners can also benefit from looking into alternative, and less volatile, income streams to add an additional means of making money and to ensure the viability of their business.
For many rural land based businesses in the South West and beyond, diversifying all or part of the business into tourist activities, particularly those with an ecological/ environmental agenda proves a logical and profitable use of the land. Small farm based attractions such as maize mazes, high rope courses, mountain bike trails, segway safaris, cycle hire, children’s petting farms, family farm experiences, pony/horse trekking, holiday accommodation (cottages/glamping/camping, etc), Airsoft/Paintball have all been demonstrated as viable ways for a farm or country estate to diversify their incomes. Food and Drink manufacture and supply has also been wholeheartedly embraced by many rural landowners, particularly those who tap into the organic, local, and sustainable markets. All these options not only provide add-on income streams for a rural landowner, but they also enable the business to benefit from being a part of, and contribute to, the booming tourism economy of the South West region.
But how easy is it in reality to diversify a rural land based business into a tourist activity? Coming up with a sound, realistic and achievable idea is just the first step. Once work begins the financial and time investment can be overwhelming for rural businesses, who are largely micro or small enterprises with only a handful of key people running the business or self-employed sole traders. With the right support though, and once successfully implemented, these diversifications and additional income streams mean businesses can grow in size to bring in further revenue to the local economy and ensuring more employment, even encouraging young people to stay or move into
rural areas of the South West. Importantly too, a more profitable business is a business that has durability and sustainability, ensuring jobs and incomes for the owners and employees.
So how can rural land based businesses manage to diversify? Some businesses do it independently, while some choose to get help from specialist companies (like the DR Company for whom I am a Director) to find and access funding which will enable them to grow and develop new income streams. The DR Company has worked with many different businesses who have come up with a wide range of inventive and enterprising tourist-oriented diversifications to their land based staple work.
Hunts Cider in South Devon grow apples on the farm for use to make their branded and award winning cider which complements and adds to the original and still running farm business. Hunt’s opens its doors in the summer months for tours of the cider making facilities and to browse in the onsite shop. The ciders are organic and gluten free/vegan appealing to the ever growing market of sustainable and health conscious customers. Dartington Dairy now offer not only goat milking experiences and farmer for a day packages but even goat yoga.
These businesses and many more like them are supported by the DR Company (www.drcompany.co.uk), and other organisations like them, which has enabled them to branch out, build up and ultimately blossom. We need to encourage rural land based businesses to seek advice, signpost them to the support available and continue to offer financial and intellectual assistance. Practical advice on business planning, access to funding, and experienced support are what help small rural businesses diversify and develop. The more help they receive, and the more help they are aware they can receive, the more productive and profitable those businesses will become and in doing this they will contribute to an improved local economy, will encourage workers and will entice tourists to the region.
By Dave Gibson
The DR Company
DRG Consulting Ltd