When it comes to farm tourism, Steve Maggs, an experienced business development consultant retained by the Wales Tourist Board, is cautious.
“It is still possible to make money, but any farmer who sees tourism as a way of saving an ailing business should forget it, especially if funding has to be borrowed,” he says.
“A redundant barn may look ideal for conversion to self-catering accommodation, but the average cost of creating a high-quality four-to-six-bed unit is around 120,000.”
Even if a farmer has the cash to pay for conversion and fitting out, he or she should be aware that the sector is on the verge of overcapacity. Profits will not be high, and certainly too low to service a loan of that nature.
Getting into bed and breakfast is easier and cheaper, though Mr Maggs warns farming families that the UK’s farm bed and breakfast sector is world class.
Competition is such that newcomers will have to reach the same very high standard.
“Like everyone who provides accommodation to paying guests they will have to cope with a mass of legislation.
They will also need good communication skills, and be prepared to show visitors what is happening on the farm itself.”
Another alternative is to cater for land-based activities like walking, fishing, grass boarding and paintball games, with or without the provision of accommodation.
However, such enterprises can interfere with farm management, though Mr Maggs says there are plenty of examples of successful enterprises that do not compromise farming efficiency.
“The most successful farm tourism projects are established by people who have sound farming businesses and a very clear vision of what they want to achieve.
Involvement in tourism must not be a last gasp attempt to save a failing farm.”
But in his view vision is not enough to guarantee success.
The market must be thoroughly researched before investment is made.
Tourism enterprises have to be sold to paying customers, including overseas visitors, and the best now make full use of the internet.
“Unless there is something very special to offer, there is no point in opening another farmhouse bed and breakfast business if several already operate in the area.”
Dilys Parker, a senior Wales Tourist Board investment analyst based at Machynlleth in Powys, says about 80% of farm tourism involves the provision of accommodation.
“There is still scope for further development linked to activities, provided the packages are good quality, are marketed well and use the skills of farming families,” Mrs Parker claims.
David & Jane Jones
The seven-bedroom mid 18th century house was ideal for the job as it was split into family and servants’ quarters, each with their own staircases.
“We moved into one part, which gave us three large letting rooms in the rest of the house,” recalls David Jones, who runs 1300 Mule ewes and 120 suckler cows on the 214ha (503-acre) tenanted farm.
At the time interest rates were high and BSE had hit beef margins hard.
Jane Jones, a former bank employee, considered getting off-farm work, but really preferred to stay at home to look after the couple’s three children.
Fortunately, Mr Jones received a residual 6000 payment from the break up of a family partnership, which, because he did much of the structural work himself, meant the farm overdraft did not have to be extended to allow a start in bed-and-breakfast.
The three rooms were made en suite and decorated.
Furniture for the bedrooms and guest sitting and dining areas was bought at second-hand sales.
“Everything has been gradually upgraded out of income, so the accommodation now has a Wales Tourist Board three-star rating,” says Mr Jones.
The partners have considered going for an extra star, but it would require costly structural work.
However, five years ago the money earned from bed-and-breakfast, with the help of a 50% Wales Tourist Board grant, paid for the 30,000 conversion of little used storerooms into a small five-star rated self-catering unit.
“We were very lucky when we attracted 600 guests in the first nine months without advertising. But things have changed.
Competition has increased and there seem to be far fewer foreign visitors.
“Though around 50% of guests are returnees, or have been told about us by friends, we now have to spend about 1000 a year on advertising.”
Originally, Jane Jones said she would take guests for 10 years, but acknowledges the valuable contribution tourism continues to make to family income. Catering is a tie, but she also enjoys meeting visitors.
The partners agree that tourism has worked well for them, but warn would-be entrepreneurs that visitors demand increasingly high standards.
“It is possible to make money from bed-and-breakfast and self catering, and there have been years when we have made more from that side than from farming, but people should think carefully about borrowing a lot of money to start,” cautions Mr Jones.
“You have to identify an opportunity and get in first,” says Chris Powell, who gets more than 25,000 visitors a year to his family’s tourist attraction – the Red Kite Feeding and Rehabilitation Centre – which was founded at Gigrin Farm, Rhayader, in 1993.
Started in response to an RSPB request for red kites overwintering on the 800ha (2000-acre) beef and sheep farm to be fed, the centre is now open to the public every day except Christmas Day.
It has become a Mecca for ornithologists who want to get close to the magnificent bird of prey that was once close to extinction.
Adult visitors pay 2.50 and children 1 to attend a feeding session at Gigrin Farm, but they also have access to a Red Kite information centre, a nature trail and shop.
Daily opening means that the Powells, or very reliable part time staff, must be on the farm every afternoon.
But the centre is so successful that the farm’s pedigree Welsh Black cattle and Blueface Leicester sheep have been sold.
The Red Kites also attract many customers to the family’s farmhouse accommodation and adjacent caravan and camping site.
So would Chris Powell encourage other farmers to get involved in tourism?
His answer is yes, as long as they accept the impact on farm management and family life, have good ideas and the ability to market them well.