Diversification Farmer of the Year – finalist Charles Davies-Gilbert

Diversifying a business can be hard, but doing it while trying to change the reputation of a notorious part of England was a challenge that has made success even more satisfying for Charlie Davies-Gilbert.

Using his four 250-acre farms near Beachy Head, East Sussex, Charlie has created an entire visitor attraction around the infamous suicide hotspot, making his business synonymous with the landscape rather than shying away from it as others might.

Realising that the farm’s arable production was being supported by the 100 acres signed up to Environmental Stewardship agreements, Charlie decided to flood 400 acres of drained marshland and return it to its natural beauty.

“I realised people want the countryside in this area for other experiences, not just for food production,” Charlie says.

“More than a million people were coming here every year to see the beautiful scenery, and the walking is great. I realised it was an asset the farm could make a profit from.”

Charlie began his campaign to turn his farm into a tourist experience by registering Beachy Head as a trademark. The £80 marketing ploy now means he can brand the farm and all its produce, including the beef and lamb grazed on his land, with the iconic landscape.

He also borrowed £300,000 to develop three empty farm buildings into holiday cottages and secured a Business Link grant to set up a Beachy Head website.

“It was a risk connecting the business to a suicide hotspot, but I felt I could make Beachy Head more than a depressing place. Before, the only sites that came up when you searched for Beachy Head were about suicide.”

“I thought I would just get depressed people looking at the website, but it’s a huge success.

“We get 100 visitors a day to the site and all of our promotion for the holiday cottages is done online.”

The online promotion has paid off, with occupancy rates for the cottages, which can house 16 guests at a time, at 75%. They have proved so popular that Charlie has been able to charge £1100 a week for each of the cottages in July.

Following a trial farmers’ market in the local village hall, which attracted 350 visitors in its first week, Charlie built a tea room.

“From that week, I knew a tea room would be successful,” Charlie says. “I now rent the tea room to a local woman for £15,000/year on a 15-year lease.”

His diversification does not stop there. Charlie also invested £13,000 in a joint venture to develop a micro brewery.

Beer is sold to five local Waitrose stores and locally to shops and pubs. Turnover is just £800 at the moment, but Charlie believes the business has huge potential.

“I’d like to take over the local pub, which would allow us to get our food and beer in there.

“We want to give people who stay in the holiday cottages a reason to remain in the village during their stay. If we can provide accommodation, entertainment, food and drink it completes the circle.”

Charlie hopes to begin growing his own crops for the beer – the first step to begin redeveloping the conventional farm business.

“I want to build up the revenue to do it properly,” he says. “It wasn’t financially viable to continue farming in the way we were doing.

“Now we’re using the land to bring rural life back to the village. Previously the attitude behind the farm was ‘get off my land’, now it’s come on and enjoy it.”

Farm size: 1000 acres

Farm: arable

Diversified business: micro brewery, farmers’ market, café, holiday lets

What the judges liked:

  • The range of innovative projects

  • Beachy Head branding

  • Lifting the negative reputation of the area

See: Farmers Weekly Awards 2008

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