Unusual farm diversification: adding a revenue stream with deer herd
24-year-old Rebecca Williams has added extra income to the family farm through farm diversification into a venison production business. She introduced deer to the farm near Builth Wells in mid-Wales in January 2020, and there are now 80-plus hinds, run as two herds. She wanted to capture a health-conscious consumer looking for something different, and venison was growing in popularity due to its leanness.
Farm diversification inspiration
This enthusiasm to find a new revenue stream was partly sparked by Rebecca’s participation in Farmers Weekly’s Farmers Apprentice competition in 2020 – an experience which she calls “life-changing”.
“It really made me step out of my comfort zone and realise change is important. I also came back from it very much aware of the adage: ‘Nothing venture, nothing gained.’ When you’re setting up a new business – especially one where the up-front costs are high, as they are with deer – you don’t do it on a whim, but you have to accept there will be always be some unknowns. I wanted to do something that felt like mine and was new, rather than a bolt-on to something we already did,” says 24-year-old Rebecca Williams.
“My dad’s been brilliant at encouraging and helping me, because he knows the importance of the next generation being able to put their own stamp on a farm,” she adds. “His dad did the same with him.”
Costs and market
Her plan is to sell the animals to Dalehead Foods, which takes cattle from the farm, plus offer some locally via a meat box scheme. The first deer calves – which the family kept for a year before putting them to the stag – cost £250 a head, with the animals expected to be ready for slaughter at about 18 months.
Fencing was a big expense – they put up about 6km at a cost that equated to about £14/m in today’s prices, a figure that would have been much higher had they not done most of the work themselves. The deer venture, she says, dovetails well with other farm diversification businesses. They’ll be calving at the end of May and into June, which is after lambing and the busy time when the cows are calving.
“The deer stay outside all year and can prosper on pretty slim pickings when it comes to grass. Generally, they’re pretty low maintenance and this is one of the reasons we opted to do this. I love farming, but it’s important to have a life off the farm as well.”
Farm marketing will be key to Rebecca’s business plans.
Aware of this, she’s recently been accepted for a place on the Farming Connect Management Exchange programme run by Business Wales – an opportunity she’ll use to learn more about the topic.
“As farmers, we all have to make ourselves ‘saleable’. Farmers have to sell themselves to their buyers, meat processors need to sell themselves to the supermarkets, and supermarkets need to sell themselves to the public.”
Never stop learning
Taking part in Farmers Apprentice was, she says, important in building this self-confidence, as well as her ambition.
“It really put fuel in my engine and made me want to try new things. One of the judges, Robert Neill, advised us to take every opportunity that’s presented to you, and that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do. You can never stop learning.”
Part of Rebecca’s determination to expose herself to new situations has been prompted by her lack of formal agricultural education. She’d originally planned to become an art teacher and even started an art degree in Carmarthen.
“I dropped out of that, though, which made my confidence crash, but doing the Apprentice was the kick-start that made me realise how strong you can be if you have to be. The more people I’ve met, the more I’ve learnt that the world is, on the whole, full of good people and you don’t need to be scared of it.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and how my brain works over the past couple of years. I’ve concluded I’m quite a good listener because I like to figure situations out and think things through before I act. That said, I’m an over-thinker and I’m sometimes too self-critical. Sometimes I still have to force myself to have self-belief, and so I deliberately put myself in situations where I’m uncomfortable because I know that teaches me to cope with difficult situations better.”
When she returned from Carmarthen, everything fell into place. “Working outdoors and with my hands is really good for my physical health and for my head. I love my family and where I’m from, but I also want to be me, rather than just my father’s daughter. I’ve got some very big boots to fill though! I want to make my mark on the ground that has been in my family since 1904, and make them and myself proud.”
Dealing with stress within farm diversification businesses
Rebecca says one of her priorities has always been making time to have a break and do other things – whether that’s socialising with friends or taking trips into town at the weekend.
“Seeing people is really important, but farmers don’t always do this enough. I know, when I come back after spending just a few hours off the farm, I’ll look at things slightly differently and do a better job,” she says.
“There is definitely a lot of stress associated with a new business, and deer can certainly be stressful. I’ll never forget the night a small group of them got out.
“It was horrible but, awful as situations like that are at the time, they teach you that you can deal with them and you’re more able to deal with other stressful situations in the future.”