Scottish farmers who have diversified into agritourism say they are in prime position to capitalise once the coronavirus lockdown restrictions are lifted.
The agritourism sector, like the tourism sector, has been completely devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and many diversified businesses have been forced to temporarily close.
Last week, rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing revealed that the Scottish government had set 15 July as the restart date for the tourism and hospitality sectors to assist Scotland’s economic recovery.
Scottish Land & Estates said the announcement was “hugely welcome news” for the rural economy and that 90% of 250 rural businesses it had surveyed felt they were well-equipped to reopen safely.
The effect of the virus could last beyond 2020, but farmers with diversified farm tourism businesses are ideally positioned to profit from an increase in visitors to the countryside.
The future of air travel after the pandemic looks very different and the restrictions mean people are less likely to travel abroad, which could see a rise in popularity of day or weekend trips and “staycations”.
A press briefing held to mark the first year of the latest Scottish Enterprise Agritourism Monitor Farm Programme heard that farmers have been using the time well to prepare for life after lockdown.
The three-year programme was established in March 2019 to provide expert and peer group support, knowledge exchange, skills development and confidence building to a wide range of agritourism and rural businesses across Scotland.
Two agritourism monitor farms, funded by Scottish Enterprise, have been established in east central and west central Scotland, supported by a close group of fellow agritourism business owners.
Project facilitator Caroline Millar said: “This programme is very much focused on not just seeing two businesses grow and others learning from them.
“We wanted to make sure a real number of businesses formed a strong community group – and that’s what we have managed to achieve.”
East monitor farmers
Jo and Stuart McNicol, from Castleton Farm, near North Berwick, East Lothian, opened the Drift café on a cliff edge on their cereals farm in June 2018.
The café is built out of upcycled shipping containers and it overlooks a sandy beach with panoramic views over the Bass rock and out to sea. Food is produced fresh on site and focuses on soups, scones, cakes, teas and coffees.
The McNicols have made various changes to their business as a result of the monitor farm programme.
Before lockdown, they were in the process of appointing a manager and supervisors to free up time for Mrs McNicol to focus on the long-term strategy of the business.
During lockdown, they have re-evaluated the menu, and in future there will be a monthly special that focuses on fresh, local produce.They are also exploring plans to invest up to £1m in an events venue on the farm.
Mr McNicol said: “We are also looking at how we can reconnect with the general public on the arable side, including farm tours and how we can get some of the produce we grow on the farm back to Drift to serve straight to our customers.”
West monitor farmers
The Lennox family farm at Shemore and Shantron farms on the Luss Estate, next to the banks of Loch Lomond, Argyll and Bute.
Anne and Bobby Lennox and their daughter, Kate, and her partner, Dougie Wilson, work full time on the 1,500ha working sheep farm. Their agritourism enterprises are two self-catering cottages, a farm tour business and new handmade glamping barns.
The business is in a phase of investment and growth. The first two glamping barns designed and built by Mr Wilson are under construction and due to open this summer.
The family hopes the launch of new branding – “Lennox of Lomond” – and a new website will transform the business profile and attract new travel trade and guests.
Kay said: “Hopefully, by July we will be able to reopen our doors and welcome some people back on to the farm, whether it’s in the self-catering cottages or some sort of family farm tour.
“It’s about being ready, not about sitting back and thinking this [Covid-19] has happened, it’s all doom and gloom.
“We still have work to do. The animals are still getting fed. We are still working away at getting the glamping site ready… but we will be ready to go.”