Farm diversification: Lambing tours to bridge gap between town and country
The Wilshaw family has been adding new farm diversification projects for some years, but the most recent one is one of their most interesting farm diversification projects to date. Bates farm decided to put their plans into motion when lockdown hit and invite visitors on-farm to experience lambing season.
It is easy to see why people have been flocking to Bates farm. Their new farm diversification has seen them open their gates to the public at lambing time, an idea they have had at the back of their mind for quite a while.
Run by sisters Alison and Fiona Wilshaw, between them the pair are welcoming and eager to educate visitors on-farm about the whole lambing process. Their father, Mike, is a third generation farmer, whose parent’s moved here in the 1970s.
The farm is set on the on the urban fringe of Warrington, in Risley, and until the development of the area it originally operated as a dairy farm. It is now a mixed enterprise extending to 121 hectares (300 acres) of owned, rented and contract farmed land.
Along with mum, Diane, who off farm works as a vet, they run 100 ewes, mainly Texels and Suffolks. They also run an approved finishing unit, rearing up to 350 bulls with meat ending up on the shelves in various supermarkets such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.
But the idea to open the farm to the public as a farm diversification project has always been an idea lingering on the side-lines, especially for Alison, 24 and Fiona, 23 – the sisters have, it seems, always had a knack for farm diversification.
They began growing pumpkins as young girls, which although started off as a small childhood enterprise, last year they had over 4,000 and saw an interest in the farm from those purchasing pumpkins.
Alison says: “I remember dad saying I’ve been on my phone a lot, but it was social media and it really worked. I realised people aren’t coming just for the pumpkins, they’re coming for the whole farm experience. When you’re on a farm you take it for granted and become a bit narrowminded. Staying local and exploring what’s on their doorstep – less materialistic and more wholesome experiences.”
They decided to take it to the next level and open up the lambing season to the public. Mike is enthusiastic too, and keen to make it as personal as possible for paying customers.
“It’s good to show people what we’re doing because there’s nothing to hide. Come and have look, and see what we do,” he says. “[We] keep the group small so they can be more informative. There’s nothing worse than going to a big meeting and not hearing anything because you’re at the back.”
In March 2021 they advertised online with 200 tickets, all of which were sold out in minutes, and across 10 days they saw 1,000 people through the farm gate.
“We couldn’t keep up,” says Alison. “We could have done a lot more had the restrictions not been in place.”
And this year is no different – throughout February half term they have had 700 visitors, and will be opening the tours again over Easter.
Visitors are welcomed by Alison and Fiona, and taken into the main building for the introduction, then into the barn where the pregnant ewes are housed and finally, they get to go and experience the lambs themselves.
Both are aware that not everyone wants the graphic detail that can come hand-in-hand at lambing, and learnt over the last year to read the audience.
Fiona says: “Some people come because they drive past the farm every day and want to know what goes on. Some people want to see a lamb up close, and some have done this type of experience before. Visitors have varied expectations – you’ll get someone who saw a lamb being born five years and have never eaten one since, and I find this quite challenging because they know where their food comes from and have made that decision. I don’t try and change opinions, they’re just here for the tour.
“But last year I had the biggest wake up call and toned it down – I was going into details about the number of stomachs and where the milk was going into. Because I did that as a degree, I was working towards my own interests. So, it was a big learning curve, and this year has flowed a lot better. We’re also aware of not making animals too personable. We don’t really have a food focus because it’s always in the back of my mind that we could be counteracting the message.”
Farm diversification within the core farm business
The core farming business is still the main focus. The family lamb in three batches, beginning in the middle January and ends at the end of March, with lambs taken to local abattoir Blacklidge. And they set up their approved finishing unit in 2019.
Mike says: “It was due to lower calf prices for restricted calves, and Cheshire being a high bovine tuberculosis area, there was a need for an outlet for these calves.”
But they also run a successful turkey enterprise, with about 1,500 turkeys coming on to the farm as day old chicks in summer.
Social media has become a key part of the process – their lambing video last year had over 10,000 views. And they are strategically placed – it is five minutes from the M6 and is very residential. In fact, the farm comes upon you quite suddenly as you drive down the main road, which, says Alison, encourages passing trade.
The sisters have combinable skills and work well as a duo – Fiona works for Genus, and Alison works in marketing in London, able to work from home much more after the pandemic.
Alison says: “Lockdown has allowed us to pivot and working from home allows us to do the tours. Succession is not a conversation we’ve had yet, but as me and Fiona have become older, these side businesses have now become more established. I see my role on-farm being part of the farm diversification.
“There’s a lot of potential to set up a business here – a farm shop as we’re on the side of the road, for example. We get so much satisfaction from educating and talking to people about where their food comes from. We have such a personal story and it’s nice to have that influence on children and help bridge the gap between the public and the farmer.”