Agritourism: Introducing the farms where the visitors can’t wait to get to work
Agritourism is now a key industry for much of rural Scotland with ever increasing demand for ”back to basics” style farm stays and experiences. Have you considered agritourism for your farm diversification project?
With bracken covered slopes and enthralling views over Loch Lomond, the hill farms on the edge of Luss could scarcely be in a more delightful location. Farmed by the same family for 11 generations, even the sheep can trace their heritage back more than 170 years. But now a quiet revolution in the glen has taken place, the likes of which would have made the current farming family’s ancestors’ jaws drop.
For coming in their hordes are eager visitors anxious to pay good money to do the kinds of ‘down on the farm’ tasks that in their day were essential – and perhaps not particularly loved – chores. It’s part of a growing agritourism movement that has seen farmers across the country finding fresh ways to generate income and meet soaring demand from ‘townies’ anxious to savour a slice of countryside life in the process.
For Kay Wilson of Lennox of Lomond, whose family began farming the gentle slopes overlooking Loch Lomond in 1750, demand from the public to get hands-on fixing fences, building dykes and helping to round up the sheep on their 5,000-acre tenanted hill farm, has been unexpectedly high.
“We are finding we have so much demand for farm tours that we sometimes don’t have the time to fit it all in,” she says. “Folk want that rich experience of being on the farm, they want to really get the feel of a farm. We show them where we are coming from as farmers, and what the land has been used for. It’s about immersing themselves into something that has a deep history. And there’s a feeling after the pandemic that they want to be outdoors.”
Visitors happily pay to roll up their sleeves and muck into the kinds of farm tasks that have been a way of life for generations of country folk. Fixing broken fences and learning how to build a drystone dyke are said to be particularly popular.
As is the farm’s ‘day in the life of a farmer’ all-day experience, which offers the chance to spend the whole day carrying out repairs, carrying out farm jobs and getting close to the farm animals. Indeed, some have been so taken with getting mucky on the farm, they are sharing the experience and buying gift vouchers for their friends to do the same.
And it’s not just farm tours: recently Kay, 37, and husband Dougie, 41, unveiled Bonnie Barns, upmarket glamping retreats designed for couples – hot tub included, of course – at their Shemore Farm, to complement the existing self-catering business.
Life on the farm nowadays, agrees Kay, is about much more than sheep, cattle and crops. Indeed, growing the number and diversity of authentic agritourism experiences in Scotland is among the main ambitions of a new strategy designed to galvanise the country’s valuable agriculture and tourism sectors.
Unveiled as part of the Scottish Agritourism conference held at Perth Concert Hall last week, Scottish Agritourism 2030 – The Strategy for Sustainable Growth sets out a shared vision for the sector. Among its aims is to sustainably develop the rural economy, protect family farms for future generations, build consumer awareness and loyalty towards local produce, and celebrate the history and heritage of Scottish farm communities.
A key area of focus is on expanding the food and drink experiences farm businesses offer to meet rising demand from consumers for local, seasonal and ‘farm to fork’ produce. The strategy, supported by a staged action plan and spanning public and private sectors, will target both domestic and international tourists.
Agritourism, the blending of agriculture and tourism to create days out and holiday experiences on traditional working farms, has become a growing consumer trend, with around 500 farms, crofts and estates now said to have diversified to attract visitors.
Vicki Miller, VisitScotland Director of Marketing and Digital, said: “As custodians of our countryside, real working farms are a vital part of Scotland’s story. The sector is filled with passionate storytellers that can bring to life the unique aspects of our history and heritage, while at the same time educating others about the need to protect and respect our natural assets.”
At Lennox of Lomond, the farm business which includes Shantron Farm run by Kay’s parents, Anne Lennox, 69 and husband Bobby, 67, the agritourism is viewed as crucial for the future of the family business.
“Succession is a big thing for us as it is with many other farming families,” says Kay. “It’s a struggle and there needs to be something financial there to support that succession. The farm used to sustain two families, now it’s down to one. My parents are in their late 60s, they are thinking of easing up and as the next generation we want to know there’s another income stream.”
Brexit’s impact on subsidies has also galvanised farming families to rethink their businesses, along with consumer demands for traceable farm produce, proof of animal welfare and quality.
“We’re not mass production farmers,” she adds. “The sheep we have are direct descendants from the original line that dates from 1750. People want to experience what a farm like ours is like.”
At Bellevue Farm on the Isle of Arran, Ailsa Currie, 53 and husband Donald, 57, have also added farm tours, experience days and farmers’ markets to the existing farm cottage self-catering business.
“We opened up the farm for an open day in 2018 and it was a great success, we had people asking when they could come and look around the farm,” says Ailsa. “At first, we just walked people around the farm, let them feed the animals, collect the eggs and told them about our lives, the ups and downs, the changing seasons. It’s grown from there.”
There’s now a purpose-built shed that hosts farm days, tours, and a farmers’ market showcasing local produce.
“People want to know where their food comes from,” says Ailsa. “Parents think it’s good to bring a child to a farm, but often when we explain things like how silage is made and how we use slurry to fertilise the fields, the parents admit they didn’t know how much was involved in farming.”
The loss of farms on the fringes of towns to housing and a growing concern over food miles and processing has fuelled interest, she adds.
“I can point to plants and ask if people know what they are and they don’t know, and then are amazed when they dig it up and discover it’s a carrot.”
It’s hoped the new strategy will help the agritourism sector double in size with at least 50% of agritourism businesses offering food and drink by 2030.
Helping to launch the strategy, Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, said: “By diversifying operations, farmers and crofters generate a stable income and this, in turn, helps to sustain their businesses. Diversified activity also provides an economic boost to the wider rural community by attracting tourists from urban areas to our countryside.”