Why farms are turning to solar energy, campsites and natural burials
“I‘MY FIFTH GENERATION farmer, although I don’t do much farming now, ”admits Tim Bowles. Instead, he runs Campwell, a trendy campsite on the family farm outside of Bradford-on-Avon, a town in Wiltshire. Young professionals flock to stay in log cabins, yurts, and bell tents – complete with composting toilets – and to enjoy activities like yoga, wild swimming, and sheep herding. “It would probably dazzle my great-grandfather,” says Bowles.
Over the past decade, the number of farms in England has shrunk by a fifth, reflecting declining revenues, consolidation and also changes in definition. To survive, farmers are turning to new ways to earn money. According to official figures, 65% of UK farms now do more than grow or raise livestock, up from 58% in 2013. The phasing out of the Common Agricultural Policy, a EU grant program — provides an additional incentive to find new sources of money. Green grants provide a reason to build solar farms, as many are.
Yet farmers are not only diversifying, they are also doing so in increasingly diverse ways. The covid-19 pandemic has seen them diversify into home deliveries, milk vending machines and vacation homes. A farmer creates a natural burial site. A Shorthorn cattle farm in Scotland now offers speedboat trips on its loch. Another in Norfolk is opening an open-air theater.
Farms are also inspired by their urban neighbors. Many are now opening workplaces, after the success of a farm in Leicestershire called Burrough Court. He opened a 22-acre office park in 2000, along with a yoga studio. “Local agents said my dad was barking like crazy,” recalls Becky Wilson, the marketing manager. Now it is getting bigger.
The average farmer is 60 and resists change. But this is less true for their children. Matt Lobley of the University of Exeter says many shy away from traditional agricultural training by going to college, often to study business or marketing, before starting a freelance career. “They then come back with a whole bunch of different ideas… and are often very innovative,” he notes. Richard Bower is one example. His parents discouraged him from farming, so he went to work in food marketing. He’s now back and spent £ 1.8million ($ 2.5million) to create a cafe, adventure playground and sweet play center. “Historically, farmers used to say ‘Get out of my land,’” says Bower. “Today we say ‘Go to my land’. “
The government wants to encourage this new breed. On May 19, George Eustice, the Secretary for the Environment, launched a consultation on the idea of paying older farmers a lump sum (up to £ 100,000) to retire. Farms would then become more innovative places, according to the theory. Outside of Bradford-on-Avon, Mr Bowles’ father is no shortage of entrepreneurial zeal, running independent cottages. There is however a conflict of styles. Mr Bowles says his father can often be seen wheeling dead sheep across the farm as guests arrive. “He’ll just say, ‘Oh, it’s a farm, isn’t it? “” ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Carry on glamping”