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Could farm attractions lead the business recovery from coronavirus crisis?

PUBLISHED: 11:00 13 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:00 13 May 2020

Norfolk farmer Richard Hirst (left), who runs Hirsty's Family Fun Park at Hemsby, hopes outdoor farm attractions could lead the business recovery from the coronavirus crisis. He is pictured with his family Robert, Ellie and Katrina Hirst. Picture: TMS Media

Norfolk farmer Richard Hirst (left), who runs Hirsty's Family Fun Park at Hemsby, hopes outdoor farm attractions could lead the business recovery from the coronavirus crisis. He is pictured with his family Robert, Ellie and Katrina Hirst. Picture: TMS Media

© TMS Media Ltd

Farm-based attractions and the “outdoor economy” could lead the hospitality sector’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis while restaurants, cafés and pubs remain locked down, said a Norfolk fun park owner.

Richard Hirst in a previous Hemsby Mega Maze. This year's maize maze, due to open in July, has been planted with wider paths to ensure 2m social distamcing.  Picture: James BassRichard Hirst in a previous Hemsby Mega Maze. This year's maize maze, due to open in July, has been planted with wider paths to ensure 2m social distamcing. Picture: James Bass

The government’s relaxation of some lockdown restrictions this week has opened up more opportunities to visit the countryside, which has been welcomed by rural business groups including the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA).

TFA chief executive George Dunn said with appropriate social distancing measures, hand-washing facilities and people management there is now “no reason why farm attractions cannot be at the forefront of the recovery” for the beleaguered hospitality sector.

“While it may be some time before we see the reopening of restaurants, cafés and pubs, farm-focused attractions based in the outdoors could lead the way in getting things moving again,” he said. “Subject to scientific and practical advice, farm-based attractions up and down the country could provide an early opening of the hospitality sector.”

That message was echoed by Norfolk farmer Richard Hirst, who runs Hirsty’s Family Fun Park near Hemsby, which includes a maize maze, a children’s play area and the “Hunger Hut” serving local food and drink including beef and lamb burgers made using the farm’s home-bred livestock.

The farm still hopes to open its “Summer Mega Maze” on schedule in July, and has planted its maize seeds further apart this year to allow for 2m social distancing within the maze trails.

Mr Hirst agreed that farm attractions could lead a business recovery, but more careful management would be needed to ensure their visitors are safe, and that they are not overwhelmed by too many people attending at once.

“Farm attractions are in a good place to be able to offer some safe areas for people to come and enjoy the countryside,” he said. “But in our view the big challenge is how do we manage to make sure our staff and visitors are safe? It is not clear yet how that would work.

“We have made the maze paths wider, so they are 2m wide with a one-way system so people are safe. It will be more of a trail than a maze this year. But I am not sure how the café area will run. We will probably have to wait at tables rather than have people queueing for food. Maintaining that safe distance at the same time as offering a service is going to be difficult.

Robert and Becca Hirst in the family's farm shop at Hirst Farms in Ormesby, which has seen a surge in local demand during the lockdown. Picture: Richard HirstRobert and Becca Hirst in the family's farm shop at Hirst Farms in Ormesby, which has seen a surge in local demand during the lockdown. Picture: Richard Hirst

READ MORE: ‘Unprecedented’ farmland visitors during lockdown must be warned of rural dangers, say agents

“Another big challenge is going to be running at a level that gets enough people in to make it profitable. It costs just as much to run it for 50 people as it does for 500, but for 50 people it does not work whereas with 500 people it does.

“Also, we have established a reputation for putting on a particular kind of event, so if we open we want to make sure it is something that is just as much fun. Things like bouncy castles will be difficult to manage because of the social distancing requirements.”

Mr Hirst said getting the public safely out to farm-based attractions again could also further enhance the public’s growing connection with local food while cafés and restaurants have been closed – something he believes will continue beyond the end of the lockdown.

“Our farm shop (at Ormesby) has really taken off in the last eight weeks,” he said. “We are probably doing 10-15 deliveries a day around our local parishes to people who are self-isolating and there is no doubt that the local community has absolutely bought into the idea of ‘buying local’.

READ MORE: Norfolk farm shops see huge surge in lockdown demand

“We have provided that, and people are enjoying reconnecting with local food. Everything they want is in the supermarket, but rather than queueing for it there they are coming to us for our own beef and lamb, and we also have pork and chicken and vegetables produced in Norfolk.

“People are coming to the farm shop regularly – a lot of them are worried that we will stop when this is over. They are more worried about us stopping than we are of them stopping.”


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