Opinion: The perfect diversification for this hill farm

As the supermarkets seem to be embarking on another price war and beef prices have been noticeably driven down, the trading outlook for hill livestock farmers does not seem very promising. I even noticed from the UKIP election leaflet, in its short journey between letterbox and the bin, that they are promising lower food prices for all when we leave the EU.

Against this general background of gloom, I have therefore decided to review our options for diversification. We have, of course, been through this before and most of the obvious things people do are non-starters. We don’t have much in the way of machinery for contracting, we don’t have spare bedrooms for a B&B or cottages for holiday lets, and there isn’t a big local market for a farm shop.

Furthermore, farming on land owned by the MOD, it would probably displease our landlord if we tried to lure large numbers of the general public to an on-farm visitor attraction on the military firing range when the red flags are flying. This is particularly so as they seem to have become rather sensitive to Health & Safety litigation costs recently. In any event, we are explicitly forbidden from doing anything like that in our tenancy agreement.

It appears to me that many of the most successful diversifications are those that leverage existing assets of the place or the people and comprise activities the proprietor enjoys.

This is an important consideration. For example, this farm could produce goat or ewe cheese wrapped in nettles – but does anyone see themselves doing the milking or the tasting? No.

Some people have tried selling cakes at farmers’ markets, normally under a slightly suggestive name such as “Nice Buns”. However, while I have been known to produce edible cakes from time to time, the worry about whether it will rise/sink/stick would be too much for me. Furthermore, it strikes me that you would have to sell a lot of buns to make a serious contribution to your income.

None of the family have any discernible musical or artistic talent – so that cuts out busking, selling pictures or producing illustrated children’s books.

This brings us back to the qualities of the place. Aside from sheep and cattle, this valley has chiefly been known for centuries of conflict from the Romans to the Border Reivers, only ending in the 17th century.

So, as other parts of the country were developing into a civilised, wealth-producing and peaceful land, the farmers of Redesdale were living above their cattle in fortified bastle houses, waiting for the next raid. I don’t think the area ever really recovered from this – virtually nothing of any note has happened here apart from this one special thing which I was reminded of as I walked the dogs the other night.

Redesdale is the ancestral home of the border terrier – first bred by Jacob Robson of the Border Hunt and recognised by the Kennel Club in 1920. The breed has grown in popularity to the point that, in 2008, it represented the eighth highest number of Kennel Club registrations. It would seem that people love border terriers.

What we should do is create Border Terrier Land. Doting owners can bring their dogs to go on a heritage walk, investigating holes in the ground, sniffing the air and digging at molehills. Tea and souvenirs will be available. This could work.

There is the small matter of landlord permission to overcome, which could be tricky. But that’s about it as far as diversification opportunities go for us.

Maybe it’s time we looked into joining some demonstrations about the falling price of beef.

Elizabeth Elder and her husband Jake run sheep and cattle on 235ha 
of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range 
in Northumberland.

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