Faced with challenging circumstances, Andrew and Jenny Jones, Rossett, North Wales, took the tough decision to sell their beloved dairy cows and invest in a luxury glamping enterprise.
Hannah Noble finds out more...
Andrew Jones, 59, has lived at Rackery Farm since he was seven-years-old, when his parents took on a council tenancy. He took over the farm in 1995 and, in 2007, he and his wife, Jenny, were able to buy it from the council.
He says: “My dad’s retirement sale in 1997 averaged £1,700 for the milkers, but the value in pedigree breeding has not kept up with inflation. If we had a sale now, it would be a similar average despite increases in costs.”
Andrew has sold his cows four times since taking over the farm.
He says: “I always say never be worried about selling your best ones. I’d rather have a cheque than a trophy.
“If you trust your breeding policy, the next good one will be in the heifer barn.”
Instead of increasing cow numbers, he increased the equity he had in the business each time but, in January last year, Andrew was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after he started finding milking very difficult.
“It didn’t hurt, but it was just very frustrating. Your brain is unable to tell your hand what to do.”
The three main symptoms of the disease are involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body, slow movement and stiff and inflexible muscles.
Andrew says: “Losing your sense of smell is also a symptom. I lost my sense of smell nearly five years ago and we blamed it on chemicals used in the milking parlour.”
Following a hip replacement two years ago Andrew’s limp was still apparent, which called for further investigation by a neurologist who soon diagnosed Parkinson’s disease.
There are several different types of Parkinson’s and Andrew’s manifested in a communication problem between his brain and the right side of his body.
He says: “While it was frustrating, there was no pain and I did not have the usual tremor associated with Parkinson’s disease.
“Previous to my diagnosis, I was worried about the sustainability of the farm business going forwards [anyway] as I could see the dairy industry wasn’t going to be buoyant for much longer.”
Andrew believes to be successful in the current dairy industry, farmers must either be milking large herds or have a niche, for example producing organic milk, cheese or ice cream.
“You need to be good at what you do or be prepared to be a slave to the industry,” he says.
“Cows have been our lives and our social life has been fully entwined around our business. Most of our friends up and down the country has been made through connections to the black and white cow, so you cannot put a price on that side of dairy farming, but having a good work/life balance is important.
“We are guilty in this industry for doing something because we have always done it, but I have always been of the opinion if it is not working, then don’t do it.
“I’ve always been a dairy farmer, but now I own a glamping business – don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.
“My philosophy is you can only change the future, so being positive seemed to be the only option.
“Parkinson’s was the catalyst, but I could have a lot of worse things.”
Although his three daughters, Vicky, Gemma and Larissa, have always been involved with the cows, they have all gone on to pursue careers away from the farm.
Andrew decided the best course of action was to sell the cows at that point and diversify the farm business into something less physically demanding.
The Rossett herd of pedigree Holstein cows was sold in July last year and went to join the 2,000-strong herd at Grosvenor Farms, Cheshire.
When deciding on a diversification project, they wanted to invest in a venture which would use the land and allow them to slow down a little, landing on the idea of a farm retreat.
He says: “I was looking for something to give us an income into our retirement years while being less demanding than milking cows. It also gives us the opportunity to go on holiday and we have more flexibility.”
The cows were followed quickly by the arrival of the first two safari tents which went up that summer.
Rackery Retreat now comprises a six-person tent and two, four-person tents, aptly named The Beech, The Oak and The Willow, complete with fitted kitchens and bathrooms, hot tubs, log burners and unspoiled views as far as the eyes can see.
“Initially, we were thinking of installing some yurts, but eventually ended up investing in safari tents,” he says.
“They were more expensive, but I could see the payback.
“I know enough about marketing to know when any market gets saturated, the middle ground gets lost, so I made a conscious effort to go high-end. I wanted something exclusive, not Butlin’s.”
When it came to promotion of the retreat, Larissa, Gemma and Vicky took to social media, using Facebook and Instagram as their main channels.
Larissa says: “About 85 per cent of our bookings come through Instagram. We try to post daily, but the biggest success has been social influencers and bloggers.”
The turning point came after an influencer from Leicester with 300,000 followers arrived with her family.
“We grew by 2,000 followers and gained 15 bookings in 48 hours off the back of her stay,” says Gemma.
Andrew was initially sceptical of giving away free nights in the tents, but says this was a ‘lightbulb moment’ for him and, after a week with no bookings, he saw how vital social media was.
Now with 10,600 followers on their Instagram account, Gemma says: “You have to know which social media platform is best for you. Without it you may have a great business, but you will not be reaching out to all your potential customers.”
Considering the changes to the farm and to Andrew’s health over the years, Rackery Retreat has certainly been a positive investment for the Jones family which looks as if it will pay itself back within the next two years.
And after such success, the ideas do not stop there, either. The Jones family will also be holding a wedding fair at the farm on September 29 to explore the possibility of opening a wedding venue.
Andrew says: “It ticks all the boxes from my point of view for being less physically demanding than dairy farming, and it will pay back much quicker than the same investment would into the farm.
“Farming can be a lonely industry and it is easy to find yourself feeling as if there is little help available. I struggled for two years without going to see a doctor, but while Parkinson’s is life limiting, rather than life threatening, it could have been a much worse diagnosis.”