How the countryside is fighting back

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The fields around Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales are full of new life; it's the height of the lambing season. For sheep farmers, a 3am start and a late-night finish are the norm. At the same time they are keeping an eye open for another important spring advent. At Easter weekend, the tourist season begins. The returns from the labour of sheep farming are uncertain, and hikers, ramblers and holidaymakers provide a very welcome summer influx of money.

The fields around Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales are full of new life; it's the height of the lambing season. For sheep farmers, a 3am start and a late-night finish are the norm. At the same time they are keeping an eye open for another important spring advent. At Easter weekend, the tourist season begins. The returns from the labour of sheep farming are uncertain, and hikers, ramblers and holidaymakers provide a very welcome summer influx of money.

Rural life is changing, and as the closure of 172 local branches of Barclays Bank shows, hardly a week goes by without a challenge to the way of life of country-dwellers. As belts tighten, farmers are increasingly having to supplement their traditional sources of income with others.

According to a survey carried out by the National Farmers' Union, some farmers are now receiving nearly all their incomes from non-agricultural sources; the union has identified more than 150 non-farming occupations carried out by farmers. They include landscaping, farm shops, livestock haulage, caravan sites, bed-and-breakfast accommodation and ice-cream making.

Nearly two-thirds of farmers nationwide are attempting some form of diversification, and farmers in the Yorkshire Dales are no different. Brian and Robert Moore, father and son, have a thriving ice-cream business at High Jervaulx Farm near Masham. Brymor ice-cream is an award-winner; the Moores have expanded their ice-cream parlour and shop three times since they moved to their farm in 1992, and the business continues to do well. They plan to sell milk from their shop as well as ice-cream. They already have multiple bookings every week in the summer for their buffet-supper evenings, at which they show a video about the business, introduce visitors to their herd of Guernsey cows, and offer as much delicious ice-cream as you can eat.

It has not all been plain sailing; the Moores focus on milk production, but when quotas were introduced in 1984, they found they could not make a living from milk alone. Their move into ice cream was carefully thought out and required investment in a suitable property and some expensive equipment; their current state-of-the-art plant cost £250,000 to fit out. But with a canny business sense and good planning, they are making and selling anything between 2,000 and 5,000 litres of ice cream a day.

"We are efficient and we can produce top-quality products, so we can stand a few bad years," says Robert Moore. "A lot of farms round here have diversified. We have already lost industries like coal and steel and car-making - farming seems like the only manual profession left, and perhaps that's going too."

A few miles away, at Blackburn Farm in Gayle - 600 acres that support dairy cattle and sheep - Gill Moore (no relation) runs a trout fishery, rents out a self-catering holiday cottage, lets two bed-and-breakfast rooms in her own home, and oversees a small caravan park - not to mention taking on part-time work at the local creamery. "Sometimes you need to be in three places at once," she says. "We started the fishery 15 years ago when the situation wasn't so bad, but now diversification is the way forward. Husbandry is so difficult and the return is very disappointing."

Blackburn Farm is farmed by her husband Bryan and his two brothers, and has been in his family for three generations. Over the winter, the Moores invested in a new en-suite bathroom for paying guests. "You need to make the investment and provide the extra quality to get the returns," says Mrs Moore, whose guests can look out at towering Stag's Fell over breakfast.

James and Clare Thwaites farm 120 acres at West Shawcote Farm. They have been hard hit by falling milk prices over the past three years, while Mr Thwaites can expect only around £30 apiece for lambs that are selling in the butchers for £80 or £90. Mrs Thwaites has taken a job as cook at a local school, and they have started a bed-and-breakfast. But even with the extra income, life is a struggle.

The Thwaites have two young children, and Mrs Thwaites relies on help from her mother and sister. "If we hadn't opened up the holiday cottage, we would have to sell up, though it would break my heart," says Mr Thwaites, who inherited the farm from his father. "We should be able to run the farm without worrying about anything else. If we have this conversation again in 12 months' time and things haven't changed, the farm could be on the market."

Mr Thwaites sells his milk to Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, the largest local employer, with 135 staff. The creamery pays more than £2m a year to local farmers for their milk, pays out £1.5m in wages, and plays a large part in keeping the local economy going. Alice Amsden, director of the creamery and a farmer herself, says she cannot think of any local farmers who do not have some form of alternative employment. "People are managing partly because of some diversification or because their wives are going out to work, but many are largely surviving on the fat off their backs - their savings are tiding them over. But there will come a stopping point."

Help is needed, diversification or not, she says. "There are still villages here with indigenous populations, generations of family names and strong links to the area, and things like that, as a nation, we have a duty to support. Skills are being lost. Farmers are the stewards of the countryside and the environment."

John Morton, an accountant with Barker Partnership, which has a branch in Hawes, says: "Incomes have plummeted since 1996. We have looked after a lot of farmers in the last 20 years, and in the last few years people who have been in profit as long as we have known them have started making losses - in some cases as much as £10,000 or £15,000 a year. Very few are making enough to cover their living expenses."

There are various success stories; Rosebud Farm jams sell nationwide; there is a new business centre in Nidderdale. But not everyone, says Mr Morton, is able to switch into more profitable ways of making a living. "Most farmers don't have vast reserves, and some have got in too deep to have any spare cash. They're stuck. And older people are very much in a trapped situation. They come and talk to us about alternatives, but alternatives cost money." Many farmers, he says, are using up their savings, and the situation will become desperate in the near future. "The banks have been good - Barclays in particular has been supportive in the local community, despite the bad press they're getting. But sooner or later they will say that enough is enough."

Dr Derek Wilkinson, the National Farmers' Union's senior economist, says diversification can be highly successful - but to tout it as a solution to every farming problem was a "gross oversimplification". Not everyone can raise the capital to start a successful venture, and for some, the income from a small-scale bed-and-breakfast or farm shop, or jars of home-made chutney is simply too little to make much difference. "Diversifying takes money, and it takes new business skills which farmers don't always have," he says. "And farmers don't always look for a new source of income until it's too late and things have gone too far. It's very hard growing a new business when you already have one that is in trouble."

Readily available information and training, says Dr Wilkinson, is vital, and the Government is taking steps to help. "There is a crying need for a one-stop shop with advice on issues like developing a business plan or dealing with planning regulations, and this is one of the things the Government is looking to provide." Even if they would prefer to stick to their traditional way of life, farmers may have no choice but to join in. The whole rural economy is changing, says Dr Wilkinson. "Sometimes, farmers start businesses to help themselves out, and find that the new business does better than their old farming business. There are lots of opportunities in diversification. The key for farmers is to get the right help at the right time."

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