Like rural tourism businesses across the UK, Scotland’s Agritourism Monitor Farm businesses have had a rough ride over the last few months, but there are green shoots of recovery on the horizon. Ewan Pate reports.
When the Agritourism Monitor Farm programme was a launched back in late-2019 there was no way of knowing what lay ahead for the sector or for the two businesses selected to lead the project.
Many of the monitor farm group members represent relatively new enterprises and without exception they have all had to cope with the disruption caused by Covid-19.
Launching a report on the first year of the Scottish Enterprise-funded programme, project co-ordinator Caroline Millar said: “With much of the sector closed the focus has moved from group meetings to one-to-one support.
This has been well received and members have been able to benefit from speaking to others and comparing notes.”
Mrs Millar, who with her husband Ross runs a luxury self-catering accommodation business on their farm near Dundee, added: “It is difficult just now but I see a huge domestic demand for days out or stays in the country once the restrictions are eased. Like other businesses we will open just as soon as we can and I expect we will be extremely busy."
The families running the two monitor farms may not have had paying customers since March but both have been making the best of the time.
The Lennox family have been building glamping pods on their farm on the banks of Loch Lomond, while the McNicols, in East Lothian, have been looking at menu changes and management systems on their cliff top cafe in East Lothian.
The plan is that as soon as possible the monitor farm meetings will be able to resume.
In the first year of the three-year programme six meetings were held on each farm with about 20 businesses represented at each meeting.
Stuart and Jo McNicol, Castleton Farm, North Berwick
Drift, the east Agritourism Monitor site occupies a stunning location on the cliff tops near North Berwick with views out to the North Sea.
Two repurposed shipping containers have been skilfully joined together to form a cafe featuring full length panoramic windows on the sea-ward aspects.
Foot fall has been high, but there is no sense of the business resting on its laurels.
Mrs McNicol said: “We have used lockdown positively. It has given us a chance to look at our system and I think we will appoint a manager. That will allow me to focus on the strategic side a bit more.
“Using Scottish produce on the Drift menu is key. We mean to concentrate more on that and may introduce a monthly special.”
Meanwhile, Stuart is looking at ways to engage visitors with Castleton’s arable farming.
“It is more difficult than it would be on a livestock farm but we are looking at various ways, for example having some of our own barley malted locally.”
The couple have found that social media has played a huge part in spreading the word about Drift, with people posting images of dishes or the views.
Ironically, there is no internet connection at the cafe but Mrs McNicol thinks this is an attraction.
“People have told me they enjoy the break from being constantly connected,” she said.
The Lennox family, Shantron and Shemore Farms, Luss
Bobby and Anne Lennox and their daughter and son-in-law Kay and Dougie Wilson live in the midst of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, so it is perhaps little surprise they have decided to combine tourism with traditional hill farming.
Shantron and Shemore farms, with their scenic views over Loch Lomond, are ideally set for offering farmhouse accommodation, as the family well know.
Mr Lennox said: “We have been doing bed and breakfast for 30 years but now moving into glamping has taken us out of our comfort zone. It has been great to have the monitor group behind us and to be able to pick up the phone and speak to others.”
Mr and Mrs Wilson have been key to the move into glamping.
Mr Wilson is a skilled boat builder, so rather than buy ready-made pods he is building their own units.
Work has carried on apace over the last few months and two pods are ready for use once lockdown ends.
The Lennoxes have permission for 10 in total.
Mrs Lennox has also built up a farm tour business offering experience of lambing and hill gatherings to paying guests.
She added: “One of the big attractions is mum’s three-course farmhouse lunch, but she tells them before they start in the morning that it is a family farm and they are here to work."