Opinion: Diversification feels like Monopoly

Dairy farming these days can feel a bit like a life behind bars so, to use a Monopoly analogy, it seems our many trips around the farming board just repeatedly land us in jail.

Sadly we don’t have get a get-out-of-jail-free card either, so are furiously exploring other options.

Until now, we have been a straight dairy business, but in a rapidly changing sector, we’re going to have to get out of our comfort zone and find another income stream.

See also: Opinion – Farmers are the climate-change scapegoats

About the author

Cath Morley
Cath Morley grew up on a mixed livestock farm in Derbyshire. She now lives and works on a Lancashire dairy unit with her husband, Chris Halhead. They milk 150 cows with three robots and rear all their own replacement heifers.
Read more articles by Cath Morley

I’m full of ideas – from the sublime to the ridiculous, I’ve thought of them all. The current, more conservative plan is to convert a beautiful old stable block, currently disguised as a calf shed, into three holiday cottages. That’s stage one.

Included in stage two are a swimming pool, spa and plenty of farm and nature activities for families to enjoy.

It’s quite ambitious, but I refuse to do something average, and in a very competitive market, we need to be a step ahead of the competition.

Our first throw of the dice was a very positive pre-application visit.

Surprisingly, no problems were identified, and according to the planning officer (who was obviously enjoying a sunny excursion out of the office) it was all going to be very straightforward.

Move forward three spaces, I thought.

How wrong I was. The entire process is painfully slow. Our architect submitted a full application which has now been in nearly six months.

Every attempt to push things forward has resulted in us having to pay someone else for yet another report that wasn’t requested at the beginning.

An absolute masterclass in kicking the can down Old Kent Road.

Incidentally, if there is no decision after six months have elapsed, I’m entitled to reclaim the planning fee under the government’s Planning Guarantee, something I’ll definitely be pursuing if things drag on much longer.

I’ve also succeeded in securing a £20,000 grant from the Rural England Prosperity Fund (REPF). I’m chuffed, and not least because I managed to fill out the 11-page document on my own.

The terms of the funding mean we have to complete a successful project with measured outcomes before April 2025.

Unfortunately, clearly nobody in the planning department received the memo about the time-sensitive nature of REPF funding, so it’s now hanging in the balance.

I know 2025 seems a long way off, but when you throw bat mitigation into the mix, time is not on our side.

Farmers are being encouraged to move into diversification and apply for funding through government grants, so it would make sense if everyone could play the game.

Better communication of policy from the lofty echelons of Whitehall and collaboration between council departments would be a good start.

When it comes to funding being awarded, there should be a more realistic timescale and increased flexibility for showing and recording the outcomes. Simple changes might help applications like ours be realised.

It’s more frustrating than I ever imagined. All I want to do is put a boot up the backside of the planners.

Deep down, though, I know that won’t help, so for now we will just have to draw another chance card, roll the dice again and hopefully collect the £20,000 if and when we ever pass Go.

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