Covid-19 has brought mixed fortunes for diversified farm businesses. Ewan Pate and Hannah Binns report.
Many farming enterprises have weathered the storm of Covid-19 remarkably well but those involved in self-catering or agritourism are a definite exception.
A short period of near-normal business in August and September has been replaced by another flurry of cancellations as new regulations have begun to bite.
Fiona Cameron, chief executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self Caterers (ASSC), said most of her members had experienced a ’torrid time’, made far worse in recent days, firstly by confusion over new regulations and then by confirmation that the ’one family rule’ would apply.
Ms Cameron, who has a long established business with two large properties on the shores of Loch Long at Arrochar in Argyll said: “On September 22 we were told that the one family rule did not apply to self- catering units.
"The next day Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s clinical director, said it did apply.
"This was countered quickly by Scottish Government only to be confirmed later by Fergus Ewing, Tourism and Rural Economy Minister.
“Apart from the confusion caused, it has made our business completely unviable. Even offering a 50 per cent discount on the rate for each house it is too expensive for a single family and nearly everyone has cancelled. I was fully booked for October and now I only have three bookings left.
“We have asked for evidence to back the decision but there is none. There has not been a single case of Covid-19 transmission which can be traced back to self-catering so why close us down? It takes 10 hours to clean a five-bedroom house thoroughly but we have been quite willing to do it.”
Ms Cameron pointed out that the sector was worth £723m to the Scottish economy and that many ASSC members were farming families who had diversified.
“To make things worse renting furnished properties, which is essentially what we are doing, makes us exempt from Self-Employed Income Support,” she added.
For Keesje Crawford-Avis and her husband Oli, 2020 should have been the year they started to make a return on three years of investment in self-catering accommodation at their Burmieston Farm and Steading at Logiealmond in rural Perthshire.
“We thought this was the year we would be able to make some profit and the signs were good. Back in March every week was booked until the end of October,” she said.
"Of course it has not worked out that way with only a short period of nearly-normal operating during the summer.
The traditional stone steading at Burmieston has been converted to include five en-suite bedrooms with communal social spaces.
“We looked for a gap in the market and could see a demand for places where a whole family could come and stay for a celebration,” Ms Crawford-Avis said.
There are also regular yoga retreats and other events involving an instructor and up to 12 guests.
The ’rule of six’ and now the Scottish regulation that only one family can occupy self-catering accommodation has essentially meant that every group booking has been cancelled.
Ms Crawford-Avis said: “ It is not easy but we are constantly told we have to be able ’pivot’ and that is what we have done. We have a new pricing structure for family groups of up to six. Scottish Enterprise have been a great help all the way through. We have also turned our attention to the agricultural side of our business. The hold up here is that we cannot book a slot for our lambs at a local abattoir until after New Year because it is so busy."
Caroline Millar, recently appointed Scottish Agritourism Lead, has been providing Scottish Government with regular case studies from the sector to allow politicians and civil servants to assess the knock on effect of Covid-19 regulations.
Mrs Millar who operates her own Hideaway Experience self-catering business on the family farm near Dundee, said: “I have submitted 20 case studies so far and the average cancellations per business are running at £8,000 over a three week period.
“There also been a huge effect on the wider agritourism sector. For example there a lot of pumpkin festivals planned for later this month. I know of one where thousands of tickets have been sold at £5 each.
"People are finding it very hard to know want to do. There has also been a big loss of income for those offering wedding venues.”
Farm shops had however in many cases been busy and Ms Millar sees long term strength in the agritourism sector.
Her hope is that Scottish Government will be able to provide capital grants to allow the sector to recover and develop.
Chris Cardell, a county council tenant, runs a dairy farm with pedigree Jerseys in Truro, Cornwall alongside boarding kennels and a cattery.
Influenced by the holiday trade, the kennel and cattery side of the business was scaled down during the Covid-19 lockdown but is starting to bounce back following a busy summer holiday season.
Mr Cardell said: “We have had quite a bit of trade of people visiting Cornwall on staycations with their pets and finding it hard to find suitable accommodation.
“There has also been a lower number of holiday makers this year, but in most instances people have opted to postpone their holiday and their pets’ boarding, so our books are ahead of where we would usually be for this time of year, and it will all depend on how people can move around going forward.
"We know we will have to trade differently and so are in the process of modernising our website to make bookings easier and adding value to our services.”
Richard Bower and his family run a beef and arable enterprise in Penkridge, Staffordshire and opened their new venture PLAY @ Lower Drayton Farm, on Saturday August 15 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The project had been almost a decade in the planning and was planned to be launched in May but Covid-19 and lockdown meant the project had to go on ice.
Mr Bower said: “As lockdown eased, we prepared to re-open with a summer only event in our new outdoor play space, and were literally on the starting blocks when the government announced that soft play centres could reopen.
“It was a steep learning curve to get the indoor play ready to open following Covid-19 safety guidelines, but we did it and the feedback has been phenomenal.”
Approximately 8,000 people have visited the venture in its first six week.
67 new jobs at the farm, including part-time seasonal and full-time roles in the play zone, animal care and the on-site Honeypots café, have been created, helping the local economy.
“We could not be more proud of the whole team and how they have delivered an exceptional experience for families,” Mr Bower added.
“We are now adjusting to term time trade, planning ahead for our October half-term activities including a pick your own pumpkin patch and our membership packages.”
Fiona Partington and her family run a tenanted dairy farm consisting of 70 milking cows in Bolton, Greater Manchester and diversified into farm shop selling home-made ice cream two and a half years ago.
Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the shop stopped scooping ice-cream for eight weeks but found demand for the product remained strong so reintroduced it.
“People could not go out for tea so wanted to take tubs of ice-cream home as a luxurious treat,” she said.
“We also found people were coming from all over for a day out and had queues outside the shop every day for ten weeks, regardless of the weather.
“We had to be very strict with social distancing and put barriers up from the start, but people have been really compliant.”
Ms Partington said the shop is trading at its usual levels but said they will be in for a bumpy few months in the coming colder months.
“I am a bit worried as we have limited seating so we will struggle over winter as there is no space to sit indoors and socially distance.
“We are considering turning the barn next door into shabby chic seating.
“I am also unsure how many Christmas ice-cream sculpture cakes we will sell this year if families are not allowed to gather due to social distancing restrictions.”
Nick and Clare Buckley farm 90 suckler cows and 380 breeding ewes in Staveley, Lake District alongside running a log business, wedding venue and a ten-person holiday house.
The couple purchased the house and barn in November 2019 and following renovations opened for business this August.
But after five weeks of lettings, they found it ‘died of death’ overnight following the introduction of Government’s rule of six measure.
“At the time Covid-19 seemed to be getting under control but the second wave brought in new regulations which led to cancellations straight away, given the size of our holiday house," Mr Buckley said.
“Nobody could have written Covid-19 into a business plan and it is pretty deflating as we have spent a lot of money getting things ready and the property is currently sat empty.
“We have reduced prices by 25 per cent per stay to encourage groups of six but everyone is a little bit nervous of coming away.”
Weddings due to be held in the next couple of weeks have been postponed until next year.
Mr Buckley added the log business had a thriving boom in trade at the start of lockdown and is hopeful it will get going in the coming winter months with people spending more time at home.
Ben Eagle grows 160 hectares of arable crops and has diversified into seabuckthorn berries and an outdoor gym and obstacle course.
He introduced seabuckthorn as a trial crop in 2009 and now grows 20 different varieties of the berry, which are sold to wholesale buyers as well as private customers.
“Coronavirus has helped lift the profile of seabuckthorn as a nutritious product and we saw a lot of traction through our website with consumers tapping into the health and wellbeing market,” he said.
Noticing a gap in the market, Mr Eagle further diversified his business through opening an outdoor gym and obstacle course accessible to all ages this year.
“We were delayed with building works due to the wet winter in 2019 and spent most of the lockdown building,” he said.
“But luckily we opened at the end of July and were fully booked throughout the summer holidays.
“We have now limited our hours and are focusing on half term and Christmas.”
Mr Eagle added the lockdown has seen a shift in mind set, with more people enjoying outdoor fitness for wellness.
“This year has been about survival and challenging as we can only have a maximum of sixty people on site socially distanced,” he added.
“But if we can get through this, we can get through anything.”