For many farmers, diversification means opening a camping barn. Nibthwaite Grange has taken it to another level.
John Atkinson’s family has been farming in the Crake Valley, between Ulverston and Coniston Water, for six generations. When his partner Maria Benjamin joined him in 2014 it was the catalyst for change.
Now they provide off-grid eco-holidays, sell meat direct to customers, breed cattle and sheep to sell to other farmers, and supply wool yarn, fleeces and even soaps made from Jersey milk.
John was already running a campsite but Maria, who has a background in the arts, put it on a more professional footing.
She said: “We were having problems with rowdy groups so I set up a website with a booking form, put the prices up and we got a different visitor coming.
“We trade the accommodation side as Dodgson Wood – Dodgson Wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest bordering our land – because Nibthwaite Grange Farm is a bit of a mouthful.”
The couple also offer a camping barn and let the “cottage in the clouds”, a Grade-II listed farmhouse perched above Coniston Water.
There are no mains services. Instead, the house is served by a composting toilet and LED lights powered by solar panels.
Maria said: “The website makes all this clear so people know what to expect.
“There’s lot of emphasis these days on glamping and putting in hot tubs and luxury fittings but not everyone wants that experience.
“It can be really beneficial to ‘detox from technology’ and we find families have a much better time at Dodgson Wood because they talk to each other.
“Our customers are looking for an affordable holiday that’s different. Often they buy meat from us as well. They like to connect with the farm.
Sometimes I think we’re doing too much but there’s so much risk in being reliant on one income stream.
“If you get into glamping and camping pods you have to provide much more on site. You put prices up but have to invest a lot more time and money to make it work. We’re already so busy on the farm, so our ‘back to basics’ holidays suit us. The visitors we attract are very self-sufficient so we rarely have problems.”
The farm specialises in conservation grazing, keeping traditional breeds of livestock including some rare breeds of cattle and sheep. It has 40 suckler cows and 450 ewes.
Rather than just sell at an auction mart, they take some stock direct to an abattoir near Kendal.
Maria said: “If you take a sheep to the abattoir yourself you can sell the meat and skin separately and that way you make more profit.
“We sell rare breed carcasses for £120 and sheepskin rugs for £75.”
She added: “When you sell direct to customers it’s a way to talk about things you’re interested in such as conservation, farming and the different native breeds, including rare breeds.”
Wool is a profitable sideline. Their yarn is spun at Halifax Spinning Mill in Yorkshire and the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall, then sold through the Shear Delight website, through the online platform etsy.com and the retailer Northern Yarn in Lancaster.
They also sell whole fleeces.
“People go crazy for them,” Maria said. “We even ship them to Japan. There’s a massive market among crafters and spinners.”
The move into soaps happened almost by accident.
Maria explained: “We acquired a Jersey cow because I wanted the milk for ourselves – there’s nothing quite like Jersey milk.
“But she produces more milk than we need. At first I thought I’d use the surplus milk to make cheese – it wasn’t that great though.
“Then I hit on the idea of using it to make soap. I knew that goats’ milk is good for the skin and thought Jersey milk would be too as it has a high butter fat content. I had a go and it worked really well.”
She went on a soap-making course and saw that side of the business take off.
“I know I can make half a tonne of soap in a day if I need to,” Maria said.
“I wanted to make a profitable product that was easy to sell and easy to pack. Soap fits the bill. You can ship it worldwide and it’s not going to go off or get damaged in transit.”
There is a dedicated Soap Dairy website. Retail stockists include Westmorland Ltd at Rheged, near Penrith, and its Tebay and Gloucester service stations.
There are also stockists on the island of Jersey, where the novelty of a soap made from Jersey milk is a selling point.
Would Nibthwaite Grange be viable without these extra income streams? Not if the subsidies to sheep farmers are curtailed after Brexit.
Maria said: “The farm wouldn’t be viable without subsidies. If they go, we would definitely need the extra income.
“If we just had the farm we’d have to look at what contributes the most profit and how to reduce costs.
“Is there a way to farm where we don’t need to make as much silage or buy feed for the winter, or reduce the number of animals we have? It’s not necessarily about having more it’s what you have and how you sell it.”
She continued: “That’s one of the reasons for diversification, to get ourselves fit for the future.
“The foot and mouth outbreak [in 2001] was an education for many farmers. You have to have other income streams.
“Sometimes I think we’re doing too much, maybe we should concentrate. But there’s so much risk in being reliant on one income stream.
“And it suits my personality. I’d get bored doing just one thing.”
Maria has made full use of the support available through the Chamber’s Cumbria Business Growth Hub.
She found the courses and workshops invaluable.
“The first course I did was in 2015 on ‘getting more enquiries from your website’. It was brilliant. I thought it might be very basic but it wasn’t and I learned a lot. I was pleasantly surprised.”
She has since attended courses on blogging, sales, exporting and marketing, as well as receiving one-to-one advice from a Growth Hub adviser.
The latest project is converting a former shippon into a workshop for the soap business and accommodation for work experience volunteers.
Once that’s complete, the couple plan to apply for a grant from the Growth Hub’s Subsidy Scheme to buy in marketing expertise to promote the wool and soap businesses. The scheme enables ERDF-eligible businesses – that are looking to grow and create jobs – to access a 40% contribution, up to a maximum of £2,000, to buy-in consultancy to support their plans.
Suzanne Caldwell, Deputy Chief Executive at Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “Nibthwaite Grange is a good example of a business that dips into the Growth Hub’s offer as and when we can help them, whether that’s access to workshops, one-to-one business advice or applications for grant funding. We look forward to working with them in the future and being part of their expansion plans.”
To find out how Cumbia Business Growth Hub can help your business, click here or call us today on 0844 257 84 50.
The funding that supports the Growth Hub this comes from a range of sources including Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, the European Regional Development Fund, Allerdale Borough Council (Sellafield Ltd’s Allerdale SIIF, distributed by Allerdale Borough Council), Barrow Borough Council (FEDF Coastal Communities Fund Supply Chain Initiative, the Coastal Communities Fund is funded by the Government with income from the Crown Estates marine assets; it is delivered by the Big Lottery Fund on behalf of UK Government), Carlisle City Council, Eden District Council, South Lakeland District Council and Cumbria LEP.
The Growth Hub is receiving up to £2,528,767 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund. Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information, click here.