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Country Matters: A giant leap from farming

On Friday, a posse of neighbours will assemble at Fforest Farm, near the Powys village of Hundred House, for an auction of this year's grass keep. The owner, George Barstow, will let almost all his 430 acres of grazing to the highest bidders, who will then have the right to run their sheep and cattle on his fields until the autumn. His only responsibilities will be to keep the fences in order and to maintain the grass by occasional topping and re-fertilising.

On paper, the arrangement sounds like money for jam; but in fact it is a last resort, a product of the pressures that have been gradually grinding hill farmers down, and represents a traumatic shift away from tradition. After trying long and hard to keep afloat by normal methods, George has finally decided to give up farming animals and concentrate on farming people.

His parents bought the farm in 1947, and over the years did a tremendous amount to improve it, draining fields, putting in roads and planting trees primarily for shelter. Yet the land will never be anything but high, cold and wet; it rises from 700ft to more than 1,200ft, the annual rainfall is more than 40in, and the soil is poor and thin.

When George and his wife Katie took over in 1978, they inherited a fine herd of pedigree Welsh Black cattle and a medium-sized flock of North Country Cheviot sheep. The farm was then employing three people, and, to make any sort of a living for themselves, the couple had to increase output. This they did by putting Blue-Faced Leicester rams on to their North Country Cheviot ewes, which yielded more prolific ewes known as "mules", capable of producing large lambs.

For a while things went well. As George puts it, they "farmed quite hard" and built their flock up to 1,400 ewes. Yet throughout the Eighties labour costs kept rising, while real income fell. George himself was working like a slave, and never knew whether he was going to make enough profit to keep on his paid help from one year to the next.

Then in 1989, with the farm overdraft creeping up and up, he decided to branch out into a new venture, a caravan park and camp site - so he sold all the cattle and more than two-thirds of the sheep. The proceeds paid off the overdraft and enabled him to start again.

Luckily he had an ideal field, close to the main road but hidden from it by a rise in the land, and with a view of the surrounding hills. In creating the site he did much of the work himself, but even so the cost was such that he had to take out a new loan from the bank.

Business was slow at first; and while it was picking up, he built his sheep flock back to 1,300 head. But his problems increased when the Government changed its system of support, from intervention payments - which virtually guaranteed a price for good, heavy lambs - to headage payments, which are subsidies on every female animal. The aim was to help farmers stay on the land, and keep the whole system going; but the obvious reaction of the recipients was to increase the number of sheep on their ground.

Even with a substantial subsidy, Fforest Farm was still barely paying its way; but George and Katie, unlike many landowners, found that they positively enjoyed entertaining the public on their property - and so, when the Builth and District Cycling Club asked about the possibility of holding races for mountain-bike riders on their land, they welcomed the overture.

For bikers, the attraction is the steepness of the terrain. The mountain behind the caravan site rises 500ft at an angle of at least one in two, probably one-in-one in places. Down this precipitous face a narrow course now twists and turns through the wood; an official of the club describes the route as "awesome", and so popular has it become that it is used as one of the sites for the National Points series. Last year more than 800 competitors came and camped for the event.

It was the terrain that gave George yet another idea. He saw that the fields on top of the steep bank, known collectively as the Gwars, would make an ideal launch-point for paragliders, and two years ago he took over Paramania, a locally based gliding-school.

Still, he was working all-out on the farm and making only just enough to pay the wages of a single man. Was it worth the struggle? He and Katie decided not. Last year they came to the conclusion that they should sell all their sheep. Hardly had they taken the decision when the market collapsed, mainly because of scares that sheep, like cattle, could carry BSE. "At one stage," George says, "animals were going not for pounds 1 a head, but 40 to the pound - if you didn't have to pay someone to take them away."

He kept his nerve and went through with the sale, and in the event it turned out pretty well, because his 1,400 ewes looked so good. All the same, he recalls, it was "a heart-wrenching day, because you can't farm animals without liking them, and I was quite proud of the whole bunch".

Now, with no stock, he has in effect become a park keeper running an entertainment business. Does he mind? Not too much. It is an immense relief not to have to worry about fluctuations in the market and in EC policy. His land is tidy, and all summer the fields will still be grazed by sheep. He is proud of the way that the environment has been enhanced during his family's ownership of it.

The paragliding school is now re-located at Fforest Farm, where, for pounds 400 odd, and in stunning surroundings, you can turn yourself into a solo pilot after only 10 days' training from a professional instructor. A more thrilling arena could hardly be imagined, for friendly farmers in the hills around have granted the company access to launch-areas facing every point of the compass.

It remains to be seen whether or not George's new businesses will make him a living. But, whatever happens, he is glad that people in search of recreation in the countryside are enjoying themselves on his property.

Paramania is at Fforest Farm, Hundred House, Builth Wells, Powys, LD1 5RT (01982 570444)