Manangement Matters: Turning to tourist market has appeal

A debut venture into holiday cottage letting may be on horizon at Fearn Farm in Ross-shire, as the Scott family consider diversifying into tourism. Carol McLaren reports

With a smooth and successful lambing safely behind them and the spring crops well established, James Scott and son, John, have been turning their attention to longer-term business planning.

They have recently been visited by their bank manager for the annual financial review, which involved a round-the-table discussion and farm walk focusing on changes in the past year and looking at peak borrowing, plus recent and future spending.

“For the first time in several years we have found ourselves seriously reviewing our banking options. This includes considering switching away from RBS to another bank, prompted partly by the big picture economic situation and the banking turmoil,” says John Scott.

The Scotts are now properly looking into building two holiday cottages and their application for funding for this project has received an encouraging amber light from the Scottish Rural Development Programme. The development would be subject to planning permission, but, all being well, Mr Scott hopes to have the properties up and running in time for the 2011 season.

john scott outside farmhouse

“We have four properties rented out on the farm; three cottages and the old mill house. Several have recently been re-let and while the market had seemed very quiet, it suddenly firmed and we got them rented out very quickly,” he says.

The properties each have three or four bedrooms and are rented out for £450 to £500 a month unfurnished. Three are in excellent condition after a programme of renovation work, which saw £18,000-worth of improvements on the lower level of one cottage last year, and upgrade work on the other two in recent years.

“We use a local solicitor to draw up the leases and deal with credit and background checks on potential tenants and we check everything is fine every six months,” Mr Scott adds.

The properties are mostly rented to professional people, with the proximity of the train station, just a 10-minute cycle ride away, an attraction. “The move to holiday let cottages would be very much a case of us putting a toe in the water in terms of venturing into the holiday letting market.”

He estimates the family could potentially charge a rent of £600 to £800 a week for the cottage, although he acknowledges there would be greater costs associated with the properties, including furnishing, maintenance and cleaning.

Crops off to good start

On the arable part of the farm, Mr Scott says cereal sowing went smoothly, with good establishment of the 194ha (480 acres) of spring barley, mostly Optic, plus 20ha (50 acres) of Catriona and 11ha (28 acres) of Concerto.

Malting barley contracts have been secured for half of the Catriona at £140/t, with the rest on an open contract. About 1000t of Optic and Concerto are bound to Scotgrain on a verbal “gentleman’s agreement” contract.

Having seen the price of distillers’ dark grains become prohibitively expensive as an ingredient in feed rations, this season the Scotts will largely replace them with home-grown protein peas. A small area (23 acres) of protein peas is being grown for own feed use. In addition, 60ha (150 acres) is rented out for potatoes and 8ha (20 acres) of kale and forage mixtures are being grown for winter use, with stubble turnips sown into older grass leys in midsummer for winter forage. Stubble turnips are also sown after spring barley to provide winter forage for sheep.

Some of the grass (25 acres) has been renewed and is looking excellent. The Scotts again sowed a tailored mix produced for them by John Watson Seeds, including chicory in the lighter soils, with cattle performing well on this. The grass mixture includes Aberstar; Aberavon; Bree; Danluce; Cooper; and permanent clover.

The Scotts have also recently rented 19ha (47 acres) of grass for hay from a neighbouring farmer.

Moving house

Another big change on the horizon will see John and his wife, Fiona, and their four children moving into Fearn farmhouse. John’s parents, James and Janet, moved into a new house built on the farm last year and the Scotts have been renovating the farmhouse – where John grew up – over the past few months.

While he is reluctant to give a final figure for the renovations, it looks likely to be a six-figure sum. “The farmhouse has had little or nothing done to it for as long as I can remember and we are putting in new windows, doing some work to the roof and rewiring it. The work is on schedule and we hope to move in before harvest,” says Mr Scott.

The family are very excited about the move, which will result in John and Fiona’s home, about a mile away from the steading and farmhouse, being rented out.

One benefit which John hopes will result from the move is that he should see more of his young family. He has recently taken on the position of vice-chairman of NFU Scotland‘s livestock committee and, with the additional travel involved in this role and his other farm organisation and breed society commitments, he is quick to point out he doesn’t spend nearly as much time with his family as he would like.

Because Fearn is so far north, with Edinburgh 200 miles away, a meeting there with an early start invariably means a night away from home. But conference calls are becoming more the norm and a useful tool, he says, allowing meetings to be held remotely and saving time and money.

A further commitment to time away from home is his role as coach of Ross-Sutherland Rugby Club. He has been involved with the club from the age of 16, first as a player and now as coach.

“It is vital for me to be able to switch off from the farm business and rugby really allows me to do that as well as raising my energy levels for work. I never imaged myself as a coach rather than a player, but I am really enjoying it,” he says.

“But I would be the first to admit that I haven’t got the balance quite right between time away and getting time with the family and I hope moving to the farmhouse will help to improve that.”

Successful lambing

Lambing went well at Fearn Farm this spring. The first batch of lambs was sold on 5 May at the local market, averaging £91.90 a head for 14 Suffolk and Texel-cross lambs. The following week, 22 lambs were sold at an average of £82.50 a head and then 21 lambs were sold at 440p/kg deadweight.

The serious pasturella problem, which dogged fast-growing lambs aged around four-weeks in previous years, was successfully overcome this year, with only a handful of losses, compared with over 100 lambs lost in previous seasons. A combination of factors contributed to this, including injecting newborn lambs with a long-acting antibiotic, rigorous culling of problematic ewes in recent years and better weather this season meant sheep were moved out to grass quickly, resulting in lower infection build up in sheds.

Fearn Farm, Tain, Ross-shire

  • Fearn Farm, near Tain, Ross-shire, a 410ha (1015-acre) unit owned by J Scott & Partners. The family partners are John Scott, his wife Fiona and his mother and father, James and Janet
  • Land is grade 2 and 3, about 50ft above sea level and ranging from sandy to clay
  • The farm comprises about 300 acres of grass, 480 acres of spring barley plus 23 acres of protein peas for feeding. Kale and forage mixtures and stubbles turnips are also grown for winter forage for cattle and sheep
  • Fearn runs 110 suckler cows and heifers (a commercial herd plus 30 pedigree Shorthorns and 10 pedigree Aberdeen Angus). The herd has High Health Status and is Johnes monitored and BVD accredited. They also run 700 ewes including 600 commercial ewes, 70 pedigree Texels and 20 pedigree Beltex ewes
  • One full-time employee – Ross Groves

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