17 November 2000

VENTURE PROVES

THREES A TEAM

Three farmers are the major shareholders in Park Hall –

the countryside experience which is hoping to attract

45,000 visitors in its first full year. Robert Davies joined

them and busloads of children for a tour

MANAGING director Martyn Hughes and fellow founder director Richard Powell run a total of 300 dairy cows on their Shropshire farms. Co-director Paul Hickson recently sold his 250 milkers, but still runs livestock and arable enterprises. Of the 11 original shareholders, including other farmers, they spend most time actually working at the family attraction, which is located near Oswestry.

Each of the trio had independently intended to open farm shops selling direct to the public, and that was still the intent when their local NFU branch secretary brought them together. The search for a suitable existing site in Shropshire, Staffs or Cheshire made them realise they were barking up the wrong tree.

"There was so much legislation on selling food, and we could never hope to compete with the big stores," says Mr Hughes. "But we found that many successful farm shops also had small associated attractions, like a collection of animals, a bike ride or a farm trail and these certainly attracted customers.

"It seemed that there was a market for a collection of quality farm-linked attractions. As farmers we also saw opportunities for putting farmings case to the public to counter the bad publicity the industry was getting."

Changes to the national curriculum used by schools, with increased emphasis on educational visits, could also be exploited if exhibits were carefully thought out. Harper Adams College-based Objective 5b facilitator Richard Bruce told them that they could be eligible for EU funding.

Through Oswestry Council they met the Davies family, who already operated a Victorian working farm on the Park Hall site. The entrepreneurs wanted to develop a broader educational theme that contrasted old and new farming methods, looked at countryside care and the environment and had fun areas. The location close to the A5 trunk road seemed to be ideal, so they negotiated a 99-year lease on it.

Vintage

Much of the original vintage machinery remains in place, as do the working horses, but the range of cowsheds and other buildings has been renovated and sheds added to house new exhibitions.

There are lambs, calves, goats, pigs, rabbits and guinea pigs and, mindful of recent problems at farm parks, the investors have installed new hand washing facilities. Part of the granary has become a computer centre and the Manus Dairy Group and Shropshire Dairy Supplies have installed a three unit demonstration milking parlour.

Work has started on a woodland nature trail, and felled timber has been used by local sculptor Andy Hancock to create an imaginative adventure playground. Walter Purnell, another investor, has also located his car and motor cycle collection on the site.

"We try to provide something to interest every family member, including a quiet contemplation area where people can escape from the kids," says Mr Powell. "We do everything to the highest possible standard because we want people to have a really good time and go home and tell their friends."

Almost £1m has been invested on the site, where 80% of attractions are under cover. A little over 40% of the money came from the EU, but to get it the investors had to draft a very detailed business plan and accept very tough deadlines for completing different phases of the development.

"I think we are all pretty good farmers, but we all felt the need to diversify into enterprises that give a better return on capital than food production can," says Mr Hickson. "Park Hall is still developing but we seem to have got a lot of things right and there are signs that the investment has a good chance of generating reasonable profits."

The directors take a small income out of the limited company each month, and an amount is put into a rolling loan fund under their names. The three principal investors are keen to make the point that to succeed diversification has to be approached in a very business-like way.

Gut feeling

Their combined gut feeling was that they were on to a winner, but before starting work on the project, which officially opened in April, they took advice from a host of individuals and agencies.

They caution other farmers who are tempted to follow them into enterprises involving contact with the public that they face daunting challenges. Other headaches include red tape and bureaucracy.

"Because the directors of Park Hall have their roots in farming, we believe we can offer visitors a balanced countryside experience," claims Mr Hughes.

"The public, especially the younger generation, need to understand farmers dual roles as food producers and custodians of the countryside. At Park Hall we are trying to chronicle both old and new farming practices as well as providing a fun-filled family day out."

Above and left: Park Hall hopes to attract

45,000 visitors in its first full year.

Below: l-r Shropshire farmers Paul Hickson, Richard Powell and Martyn Hughes are the major shareholders in Park Hall.