“Our income has definitely more than doubled” – moving into tourism pays dividends for Norfolk farms

Hirsty's Family Fun Park, (from left), Richard, Robert, Ellie and Katrina Hirst. Pic by TMS Media

Hirsty's Family Fun Park, (from left), Richard, Robert, Ellie and Katrina Hirst. Pic by TMS Media - Credit: TMS Media

With many farms seeking alternative income streams in a bid to future-proof their finances, two Norfolk businesses told us how they have diversified to make the most of new opportunities in tourism and leisure.

Lynne and Stephen Harvey from Jex Farm B & B and Self Catering Barn Conversions. Pic by TMS Media

Lynne and Stephen Harvey from Jex Farm B & B and Self Catering Barn Conversions. Pic by TMS Media - Credit: TMS Media

PUTTING FUN INTO LEARNING ABOUT FARMING

The Hirst family's mixed farm took tentative steps into the world of visitor attractions when it launched a maize maze 10 years ago – and tourism has now become the most profitable part of the business.

Hirsty's Family Fun Park at Hemsby, near Great Yarmouth, has since added a dozen play features ranging from pedal go-karts to climbing bales and a wooden combine harvester.

Visitor numbers have soared from 1,000 to 27,000 and the park won the best family-run venture at the 2016 Greater Yarmouth tourism and business awards.


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Owner Richard Hirst said: 'We offer a different kind of day out – where families can have fun and get up close to farming – including learning about where their food comes from, and how farmers care for their livestock and the countryside.'

Mr Hirst said the idea of working in the tourism industry came during a period when farming returns were 'not that clever', so the family, which has run the farm for 60 years, looked at what else they could do to generate income.

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'We are in a good tourist location so we tried the maze which took off in its second year and we have been adding features ever since,' he said.

'We have had to learn new skills, because we were not used to dealing with the public. We put customers first and now tourism is the most profitable part of the farm business per hectare. And it is a quicker cash flow than the two years it can take from sowing a crop to getting paid for it.'

The fun park is lengthening its season, having added 27 days of Easter and Halloween events to its main seven-week summer season linked to the maze. It now employs up to a dozen casual staff.

Mr Hirst and his wife Katrina are helped by their children Robert, Eleanor and Fiona in the family venture.

The farm – which produces wheat barley, beet, potatoes, peas and salads as well as sheep, cows, pigs and runs a livery stable – won a Norfolk Farm Business Award last year, ahead of its recent tourism business success

'The awards are recognition we are getting something right,' said Mr Hirst.

ARABLE FARM ACCOMMODATES TWICE THE TURNOVER

Diversification into holiday accommodation has paid off for a Norfolk farmer who has seen his income more than double.

Stephen Harvey wanted to make the most of the farmland he inherited which had been in his family for generations,

However the business climate at the time meant that running a profitable arable farm was no mean feat.

But after taking advice from chartered accountants Stephenson Smart in Fakenham, Mr Harvey made the big decision to take a change of direction – and he and his wife Lynne have never looked back.

As well as its agricultural operations, the 170-acre Jex Farm at Little Snoring is now home to a thriving bed and breakfast, offering three ground floor rooms in the former dairy, alongside self-catering holiday accommodation in the old stable and barn, which can sleep seven and five people respectively.

Mr Harvey now combines his farming duties with cooking breakfast for his guests. His latest plan is to introduce a five-berth caravan site.

Mr Harvey took over the farm from his father in 1997 and began an association with Nigel Ward, one of Stephenson Smart's partners.

'I've told many people that it all started because of Nigel,' he said. 'He said to me: 'Why do you run a farm? Because you won't be running one for much longer'.

'No-one likes to admit their business is failing, but at that time in 1998/1999 I saw other farms with 400 acres and by 2002 they were all finished. I knew I couldn't make a living from it, I did what I had to do.

'Nigel came out some time later while we were renovating and had a look around and said he could see what we were trying to achieve. Since then bookings have been going ballistic and our income has definitely more than doubled.

'People do give us lots of compliments and many of our bookings are repeats. My wife and I put an awful lot of effort into it.'

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