Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Fairchilds Lodge: Tourism offers bright future for family farm

January 30, 2020 by  
Filed under Profiles

A luxury barn conversion on a family farm in Rutland is already proving popular for holidaymakers – with bookings coming in thick and fast from eager visitors.

Andrew and Louise Brown completed the barn conversion at a cost of almost £500,000 just three months ago at Fairchilds Lodge, Caldecott, near Uppingham. Comprising two semi-detached holiday lets, the first bookings were taken for Christmas and New Year, just days after going online.

“It’s been a real team effort,” says Louise. “We were full over Christmas and the New Year, so I had the novelty of decorating three Christmas trees rather than just one. But it worked really well and we are really pleased.”

Set over two floors, the holiday lets enjoy views over the surrounding countryside. Bi-fold doors open on to the property’s own private decking. Designed for social gatherings as well as family breaks, it includes a hot tub, small patio area and seating to enjoy al fresco dining.

Formerly a sheep barn, the building was converted under Class Q permitted development rights following a suggestion by rural chartered surveyors Berry’s. It has already had a number of five-star reviews on the global accommodation booking website Airbnb.

The holiday lets are a good way of spreading risk at what remains an uncertain time for agriculture, says Andrew – generating additional business income which is less reliant on the weather than farming or government support.

“Initially, we looked at converting it to residential units rather than holiday letting. But holiday lets can provide a higher income. It is a useful diversification and we were fortunate enough to obtain £75,000 in LEADER funding to increase rural tourism.”

Special events

“It is a big investment for us and we are a relatively small farm. But we really believe this could be a viable alternative source of income for us while offering people the opportunity to visit what is a fantastic part of the country.”

The first event at the barn was a 21st birthday celebration for Andrew and Louise’s daughter Immy. “Our idea is to market the barn as a place for special events – such as a wedding anniversary, formal celebration or special birthday. It was a good way to make sure it works.”

The farm itself encompasses some 252ha of combinable crops and grassland. About 40% is permanent pasture with the remainder down to a mixture of rape, wheat, beans and barley. Wheat goes to nearby Weetabix and to Roquette at Corby.

“Historically, this area was one of the best in the country for fattening beef cattle. We used to have a lot of beef cattle and sheep but the economics of livestock production don’t really stack up on a farm of this size so we rent the pasture out.”

The holiday lets will make the farm’s income more resilient to changes in government policy and funding – including the abolition of direct payments which are due to be phased out and replaced with a new system largely based on environmental support.

Stewardship scheme

Much of the farm is already in a higher-level stewardship agreement – which is set to be extended by a further year until 31 July 2021. “In farming terms, that it not far away, and the holiday lets will mean we have an independent income whatever happens,” says Andrew.

“I think all farmers are going to have diversify and make the most of any opportunities – especially on farms this sort of size. We are a relatively small family farm and we wouldn’t be viable without support payments.”

Volatile commodity prices have made it increasingly difficult to forecast farm income with any degree of certainty, adds Andrew. “You don’t know what you are going to get in yield terms or in price,” he explains.

“Our grain marketing strategy is to sell one third forward, put one third in pools and sell one third spot. The aim is to spread the risk but it is still difficult to get it right, especially when the weather is as unpredictable as the market.”

“Bigger farms have economies of scale but we felt vulnerable going forward and we wanted to change that. We didn’t want to be at the whim of the government but we wanted to stay farming and do it on our own terms. For us, tourism is the future.”

Perfect place

Well-located in the middle of England, local attractions include Rutland Water, the Eyebrook Reservoir and Rockingham Castle. “It’s the perfect place for an active, outdoor holiday and we are well-connected too by road and rail to London and the other big cities.”

Keen that visitors can make the most of the surrounding countryside, the holiday lets and the farm are dog-friendly, with lots of permissive walks and bridleways in the local area. “You can get your wellies on and have a lovely time,” says Louise.

“We wanted to make it dog-friendly because the sort of people who want to stay on a farm are likely to want to bring their dogs with them. And as part of our higher-level stewardship scheme, we put in a 3.5km permissive bridleway which they can use too.

“It’s a wonderful place to live and we want to encourage people to share what we have – we have welcomed visitors on the farm for many years and now they can stay here too. We enjoy meeting people and answering any questions they have about farming.”

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