Turning your farm into a holiday home from home

Chris and Diana Jacobs at Wood Farm Cottages which they let out to tourists.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Chris and Diana Jacobs at Wood Farm Cottages which they let out to tourists.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Growing up as they did, surrounded by fields and with farming in their blood, it is not really a surprise that the first word both of Diana Jacob's children said was 'tractor'.

Stephen and Lynn Harvey run a B&B and self catering cottages at Jex Farm in Little Snoring. Picture:

Stephen and Lynn Harvey run a B&B and self catering cottages at Jex Farm in Little Snoring. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

What she enjoys now, however, is when the children who come and stay in one of the eight self-catering cottages she lets at Wood Farm, in Edgefield, for a week or two also go home with a keen interest in farming.

'It's the perfect time of year for little children at the moment as they love big equipment and the combine is working in the field next to us,' said Diana, who bought the farm in 1993.

'We had a little boy recently who stood watching and then said to his dad 'we have to get all the tractors out when we get home and play farming'.'

It is the experience of being part of farm which she says is one of several reasons why people, young and old, choose to stay with them.

'You are much more in touch with the rhythms and cycles of the season on a farm,' said Diana, whose great grandfather came from Scotland to work the land in Norfolk.

As an extended family they own 730 acres and rent another 700 but Diana says she is slightly different from other farm stays in that she bought a business that had already diversified before adding two more cottages to the six already there.

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'People often say that it's the best holiday they have ever had and I am sometimes surprised because it's so laid back,' she said.

Stephen Harvey, who runs a bed and breakfast together with self-catering accommodation at Jex Farm, near Fakenham, which has been in his family for three generations, agrees.

'People seem to like the fact that generally if you stay on a farm you're in a quieter location and also the properties will have character and might be a bit quirky. I can tell them that in the B&B where the French doors are is where the cows used to come into the dairy. And where their headboard is was a feeding trough before 2009,' said Stephen, who has two sons, both of whom have veered away from farming.

'I've also heard it said that farmers know what a good breakfast is. Obviously farmers are mostly doing physical work so they need to eat well and their guests expect they will be fed well too.'

When Stephen took over the farm in 1997 his accountant warned him that he 'would not be farming for much longer' if he did not look for other streams of income.

He describes the mid to late 1990s as 'a downward spiral' where, nationally, crisis followed crisis and meant by the end of the decade many small and family farms had been forced out of business.

In fact, estimates suggest some 87,000 farmers and farm workers left farming in the UK between 1993 and 2001.

While Stephen's father had the forethought to begin diversifying in 1980/81 by renovating a cottage to use as a holiday let, Stephen continued by steadily converting buildings.

While running a farm stay business was not something he had ever dreamed of, he and his wife Lynne have discovered something – they are rather good at it.

This is backed up by figures which show not only do they have a 95pc occupancy rate for the months they open but also about 85pc of their guests are repeat visitors.

Financially, the tourism side of the business makes more than the 177 acres, of arable farm, which Stephen describes as 'a postage stamp in today's terms'.

Both Wood Farm and Jex Farm are members of Farm Stay UK, which was established in 1983, as a not-for-profit co-operative of accommodation providers set up to promote farm tourism.

The regional Farm Stay group has about 70 members in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex.

Yvonne Silk, who has been managing the marketing and membership for Farm Stay East Anglia for 14 years, said this type of tourism has become increasingly popular, especially in the last few years.

'We have families that book holidays year after year as they like the style of accommodation and they enjoy the facilities and attractions that East Anglia has to offer,' she said.

Many farmers have made use of redundant buildings, which would otherwise stand empty, for self-catering accommodation as well as rooms in farmhouses, where families have downsized, for bed and breakfast.

Others have also introduced small caravan and campsites as well as shops and other visitor attractions.

'Diversification for many has been necessary as another source of income where farming activity has declined,' she said.

'The additional income provides sustainability and for many this is essential.'

But not only it is a good source of income for the farmers, it also has financial benefits for the local area.

'Farm tourism is an important part of the rural economy, and all hosts are passionate about using and promoting local produce,' added Yvonne.

'A B&B couple could possibly spend between £50 - £100 per day if they took lunch, dinner and a visitor attraction. Self-catering guests are also likely to stock up at local farm shops and stores and will also visit local attractions.'

With this type of diversification becoming ever more popular there are some fears that farmers, especially those at the smaller end of the scale, will give up altogether but it is often the extra stream of income that enables them to keep going.

Yvonne said: 'This type of diversification allows the farms to be more sustainable and at the same time provides a boost to the rural economy.'

For more information or to find farm accommodation visit www.farmstayanglia.co.uk or www.farmstay.co.uk.