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Farm diversification: a sloe way to a quick profit

Friday 08 October 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard welcomes a diversified farm business which has turned sloe berries into quick profits - and hopes that there are more imaginative schemes in the pipeline

IN RECENT weeks, I have been involved in a bit of a spat with the National Farmers' Union because, giving a talk to the Settle Farmers' Club, I attacked the union's public relations staff for being too downbeat about changes being forced onto British agriculture at present.

New produce from Yorkshire farms

There are plenty of young farmers out there with bright ideas for the future, I believe, and the changes in Common Agricultural Policy subsidy system now under negotiation will give them a chance to put those ideas into production.

Then, this week, came a wonderful story from a North Yorkshire farm where a couple who diversified into collecting sloe berries from their hedgerows to make traditional sloe gin and even sloe-flavoured chocolate cannot keep up with demand (see News).

Now deep purple sloe gin was a traditional Christmas tipple in my family when I was nobbut a lad - and it used to get my mother and grandmother into fits of giggling. Quite what sloe chocolate tastes like I cannot even guess.

But I giggled too when I read the press release (which came, incidentally, from the Country Land and Business Association, not the NFU) because here was such a brilliant idea - an idea which had been picked up and put into action and, hey presto, a centuries-old country tradition has become a successful business.

The Yorkshire countryside needs at many ideas like this as it can muster. But the sloe farmers are not alone in their bright new thinking when it comes to turning a marginal farm into a lively and expanding enterprise.

In the past ten years or so, I have written many stories about Yorkshire Dales farmers trying new businesses. Many of them had diversified along more or less conventional lines - going into B&B or converting old barns into bunk accommodation for hikers - but others were much more daring.

One of my favourites is the horse health farm set up by a young couple at Rathmel, where poorly ponies can be put on a diet and a strict exercise regime which includes their own swimming pool!

People have been breeding strange forms of livestock, including wild boar, ostriches and even buffalo - and you can order meat or cheese from these beasts at many an up-market restaurant these days.

A recent report from Defra recently revealed that Britain produces more different cheeses than France - a fact that did not go down well across the Channel - most of it from small farm dairies. If you don't believe me, try one of the cheese stalls on Skipton market - the choice is bewildering.

And this weekend, there is a local food fayre at Skipton Auction Mart organised by North Yorkshire County Council, which is just one of the local authorities which realises that the times they are a'changing - and farmers must change with them.

The new rules being introduced under CAP reform are designed to encourage news ideas, new techniques, new products. Some of our younger farmers have already grasped them. More must follow - and surely, the sloe way to a quick profit must act as an incentive!


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