As thousands of people prepare to enjoy Open Farm Sunday this weekend, one Shropshire farm is bracing itself for a record number of visitors.
Danusia Osiowy meets father and son team, Sam and Ben Dixon, to find out more.
Hundreds of farmers will open their gates next weekend as Open Farm Sunday (June 10) takes place across England and Wales, as a collective effort to educate consumers about food and farming.
The one-day event is the result of hard work and preparation, so imagine what it takes to facilitate an open farm all-year-round. For the last 20 years, Sam and Ben Dixon have welcomed thousands of visitors each year to Home Farm, on the Attingham Hall estate, Shrewsbury, Shropshire.
They range from young families with children, to primary schools, parties and adults. Having joined the family business straight out of school, Sam now co-manages the 202-hectare (500- acre) National Trust tenancy with son Ben, following their purchase in 1964 after the previous owner died. Just under 20 years ago, the farm entered organic production after 101ha (250 acres) went into an Site of Special Scientific Interest accreditation on a zero input system to protect the grass species, trees and wildlife.
Historically a dairy farm, it was a wet holiday in Cornwall the year after which sparked the idea to diversify and share their farm with the wider public.
Sam recalls: “It poured with rain the whole time we were there. “We had to find activities to keep our three young children happy and we trudged from one attraction to the next and then found an open farm. “I realised we had just as much to see back home and we returned home with a new business idea.”
After attending meetings at Harper Adams on the logistics of becoming an open farm, completing the necessary health and safety checks and general administration required, the Dixons opened their gates to the public. Their decision was established on two certainties – the visitor would pay one set entrance fee with no hidden extras and could bring their own picnic whatever the weather.
The rest, says Sam, they have learned as they have progressed and their success can be seen in their numbers.
“In our first year we had perhaps 10,000 come and see the farm, but today that figure is more around 25,000, and there is the opportunity to keep growing,” says Sam.
“Young families from as far as 30 miles come and spend the day with us and we also have many schoolchildren. It’s great. At our peak, we have one school a day with around 60 children.”
The rare breeds of livestock are a key feature within the farm, introduced out of appreciation and education. The 30 cows comprise of Longhorn, Red Poll and British White, the sheep are Hebridean and Jacob ewes and the two token sows are Duroc crosses.
“I loved the breeds and many still think the norm is a black and white cow, so it’s nice to be able to explain to our visitors there are others equally as good as the traditional Holstein,” says Sam
In 2008 Ben returned to the family farm, although he admits this was not the original intention. During his time at Harper Adams studying a degree in agriculture and mechanisation, Ben spent a placement in Dakota on an 3,237ha (8,000-acre) arable unit.
This was followed by a stint at a 3,000-cow station in Florida and 12 months of travelling. “It was a real eye-opener,” says Ben.
“The attitude out there is very different from ours and they view their businesses as asset-driven which should be utilised 24/7.
“Originally I wanted to pursue the mechanisation side, but the novelty wore off after sitting on a tractor round the clock.
“Plus, Dad was on his own and he was getting a bit fed up so it made sense to come home.”
Ben’s return swiftly brought a number of advantages, not least a reduction in labour costs and improved arable efficiencies.
“We used to contract out all our arable but took the decision to bring that back in-house,” says Ben.
“We invested in a tractor and have helpful neighbours who we can borrow kit from.” The decision to manage their own silage has also helped them regain control and improve the quality of home-grown feed.
“We are no longer at the whim of a contractor and literally can make hay when the sun shines and not have to wait,” he adds. Unsurprisingly, constant attention is paid to the logistics of running an open farm and the farm is structured with different animals kept in different pens located around the farm for visitors to see.
“The rules are always changing on signage and hygiene but we have our health and safety policy in place and a rigorous health assessment,” says Sam.
“Recently we had to do away with our 20,000 laminated farm maps which we offer visitors over fears of cross contamination, so now we have disposable paper ones. We invite environmental health officers to visit so we share our transparency and it helps maintain relationships.”
In 2002 the family opened a modest farm shop and cafe, but have refrained from introducing any soft play areas.
“It goes against our ethos,” says Sam.
“We want to bring people onto the farm to actually experience the farm. It does mean we are weather-dependant and Easter this year was particularly awful.
“But it means we can take the rough with the smooth and we aren’t standing at the gates counting people in and panicking. We have other functions alongside the diversification.”
To that end, the dairy cows are a core part of the farm. Alongside winter and spring barley grown for feed, there are 70 pure-bred Jerseys whose milk is supplied to OMSCo under a standard liquid contract. A robotic milking system was introduced in 2001 with plans to introduce a second one as they move to increase cow numbers to 100.
“It’s the best thing we have done and makes sense for the cows, frees up labour and offers another element for visitors to see,” Sam adds.
“It’s also a movable asset, so if ever we ran into troubled times or had any health issues we can sell them on.”
The robot also prompted a change in their breeding regime and for the last five years they have switched from pure-bred Jersey to crossing with a Holstein.
“This was really to put more size on the cow as the robot struggles with low udders,” says Ben.
“After we installed the robot we went from 3,500 litres a cow to 4,500 litres but since we introduced the Holstein the figure has increased again to 7,000.
Cows spend the majority of time outside feeding predominantly on grass and supplemented with rolled barley in the robot and, during the winter months, fed a protein pellet and home-grown silage. Sam and Ben are keen to improve feed efficiencies and have grown lucerne which is also tolerant to their light and sandy soils.
“Last year, we grew sunflowers for silage. I realised it was one of the main ingredients and when I researched it I saw a few American farmers having a go, but not many over here,” says Ben.
“They harvested well. It yielded 10 tonnes per acre which, to say we realised we had the wrong variety and harvested too late, we were happy with. We have chosen a taller type with an earlier harvest time this year.”
With consistently positive reviews as a tourist attraction on the internet, the farm enjoys an excellent rating on TripAdvisor and, impressively, has enjoyed growth through word of mouth. Recently, Ben has launched the business on social media and will continue to improve their digital presence.
“It’s crazy how you can target audiences on Facebook,” he says.
“People want to know what we do and so we balance the cute and fluffy with the workings of a mixed farm.
“We recently went down with TB and I shared the news on Facebook. It meant people who don’t understand the problem were actually coming to us to find out more about it. That can only be a good thing.”
The family has been involved with Open Farm Sunday (OFS) since its launch in 2006. Growing year-onyear, they welcomed more than 1,800 visitors in 2017 – a number they were totally unprepared for.
“We just couldn’t believe it, the public just kept rolling in from a 50-mile radius,” says Ben.
“We ran out of burgers by 11am, so we have made sure that won’t happen again this year.”
All the family get involved, with Sam and Ben overseeing the event. A barbecue is manned by Ben’s fiancee Laura and her father, and all cakes are made by Sam’s wife, Judy. The farm is run by Sam and Ben with the help of one part-time member of staff in the cafe and shop.
But during OFS a minimum of eight staff will be needed to ensure the event runs smoothly. For some farmers, this year will be their first Open Farm Sunday and for others it might still be just an idea to get involved.
“I would absolutely say to other farmers who aren’t, to get involved,” says Sam.
“The general public are our customers and it does take a certain kind of personality to be able to deal with speaking to them, but the majority are keen to learn and so inquisitive about what we do. We really are on-board with that.”