A CHALLENGING year of hospitality closures and Covid-19 restrictions may have taken its toll on Scotland’s agritourism industry, but it has not deterred it from undergoing ‘transformational change’ to professionalise its offering, reinvigorate its digital presence and adapt to new market trends.

The second year of the Scottish Enterprise Agritourism Monitor Farm Programme has now drawn to a close and both featured farms, plus a core community of businesses, have worked closely over the past year through monthly Zoom meetings and workshops to share ideas on how to weather the Covid-19 storm, whilst still having the confidence to grow their businesses.

For most, this has involved taking on new members of staff to share workloads; rebranding or launching new websites and developing their social media profiles, as well as expanding their offering to tap into the growing consumer appetite for farm to fork experiences.

Monitor farmers, Bobby and Anne Lennox, and their daughter, Kay and husband, Dougie, farm at Shemore and Shantron Farms, near Luss, on Loch Lomondside – where the family has been since since 1750 – and also run a farmhouse bed and breakfast, a growing farm tour business and glamping barns.

Covid-19 impacted the business significantly, with delays to materials for building the barns and restrictions impacting tour capacities.

However, despite a challenging year, with the support of the Monitor Farm programme the family successfully launched their new brand ‘Lennox of Lomond’, and have now opened their initial glamping barns to the public, with planning permission in place to build up to 10 on-site.

New glamping barns at Shemore Farm opened in September 2020 and work is underway to build more despite disruptions to global supply of wood

The Lennox family launched their first two glamping barns at Shemore Farm, near Luss, in September, 2020

“The professionalism of the brand has really stepped up since we launched ‘Lennox of Lomond’ and our new website has been a fantastic part of that,” said Kay. “It pulls together all parts of the business and our story – we want folk to follow our journey and trust in what we are doing.

“We had hoped to launch our barns in July but with material shortages this delayed us until September,” she continued. “During lockdown, it seemed that everyone decided to do up their garden and decking, causing a global shortage in wood.

“However, when we did finally launch, we were so busy, with a 98% booking rate for the six weeks before the next lockdown hit.

“Part of our focus with the Monitor Farm programme had been to look at how best to utilise our time and we now have a bookkeeper which allows me to manage other sides of the business and we have a bank of five cleaners and gardening staff,” she continued.

“As farmers, we like to do everything ourselves, so it took a wee bit of time to get our head around it. Bringing in a professional company, the difference was 10-fold and really allowed us to maximise the business.”

Drift Cafe owned by Monitor Farmers Jo and Stuart McNicol, of Castleton Farm, North Berwick, is an impressive structure built from upcycled shipping containers resting on a cliff face, boasting sea views.

They had to close for nine months of trading between March, 2020, and March, 2021, but their ‘saving grace’ was an old horse trailer which was converted in to a takeaway unit: “The trailer was able to remain open throughout as it was outside, which allowed us to keep on some staff,” said Jo.

“We cut our brunch menu down to fit with the ‘eat on the go’ message and between January and the beginning of May this year we had sold more than 2500 sausage rolls. We became a lifeline for lots of customers who constantly commented on the fact they were so appreciative that we were actually open in lockdown.”

Through taking part in the Monitor Farm programme Jo and Stuart looked at improving their food offering and have taken on new chefs and bakers to offer a more interesting and complex menu. Staff expansion has also included a manager and supervisors to allow Jo to focus on the business, rather than helping in the kitchen.

Through taking part in the Monitor Farm programme Jo and Stuart have looked at improving their food offering and have taken on new chefs and bakers to offer a more interesting and complex menu.

Through taking part in the Monitor Farm programme Jo and Stuart McNicol decided to take on new chefs and bakers to offer a more interesting and complex menu at Drift

“If I hadn’t got a manager in, I wouldn’t have been able to focus on our new website which has increased our traffic and interest towards Drift. The benefits of getting people in to free you up to do these jobs are really important.”

They have also secured a farm apprenticeship for one member of staff to help with work on the farm and free Stuart up to develop the events side of the business.

From this July, they are opening up their carpark to up to 10 campervans which they hope will encourage tourism in East Lothian and bring in more customers to their cafe, which is now welcoming guests indoors.

As well as those two main Monitor Farm businesses, there are a core number of other agritourism businesses which have been supported by the group to make changes to their offerings.

Lucy and Robert Wilson, of Cowbog Farm, near Kelso, diversified four years ago to run group activities for visiting hen and stag parties. Lucy had previously catered for guests but during lockdown this snowballed into a sought-after takeaway service and the development of Wilson’s Farm and Kitchen.

Lucy and Robert Wilson are keen build on the growing interest in local food production and developing their new Wilsons Farm and Kitchen brand to create a farm to fork foodie destination

Lucy and Robert Wilson want to build on their new ‘Wilsons Farm and Kitchen’ brand to create a farm to fork foodie destination

“Everything came to a crashing halt at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and after a while I got sick of not working so decided to do some takeaways – with curries being my passion in the kitchen.

“I didn’t think there would be much interest, but it has all gone bananas. Everyone seems to be sick of cooking during the various lockdowns.

“First and foremost, we are farmers and passionate about promoting British agriculture and our own produce which for us is primarily beef. We have so many producers in our area and the great thing that has come out of last year is people are more appreciative of what is on their doorstep and are supporting local producers.”

Moving forward, the Wilsons want to build on this growing interest in local food and are keen to develop their new brand and create a farm to fork foodie destination.

The Wilsons converted old grain bins in to bothies and are now welcoming guests to hire them out for events

The Wilson's converted old grain bins in to bothies and are now welcoming guests to hire them out for events

They received money from a Leader grant to help them do up a stable block for dining guests and have recently completed converting grain bins in to on-farm bothies for more guests to hire out for events.

Ailsa Currie runs Bellevue Farm, which overlooks Blackwaterfoot, on the Isle of Arran, and during the last year has really benefited from the Monitor Farm programme moving online for meetings.

Before, she had been trying to solve problems on her own but benefited from the community of support the group offered and has grown in confidence to expand her business offering and to take on three new members of staff to lift some of the load.

As well as running a beef, sheep and arable farm with two holiday cottages, she has started doing farm tours and in the last year received Leader funding to build a large shed designed to host farm tours.

“We are trying to to give visitors the farm to fork experience by selling the Arran food story and how all the little pieces of the Arran food journey fit together.

Aila Currie of Bellevue Farm in Arran has built a new shed to host farm tours and give guest the farm to fork experience whichincludes the Arran food journey

Ailsa Currie of Bellevue Farm, on Arran, has built a new shed to host farm tours and give guests the farm to fork experience which includes the Arran food journey

“There is an area in the shed for machinery, livestock, some food businesses on the island and we are starting to sell our own meat. We are trying to build up a shop of locally produced food and handcrafts that we can sell in the shed.”

A year on from the creation of Scottish Agritourism as the official sector body, there are now 200 individual members and 120 businesses involved and there are exciting plans underway to develop Go Rural – the consumer facing side of the sector – in to a full e-commerce website which will sell farm stays, experiences and food directly from farms.

Monitor Farm facilitator and business consultant, Caroline Millar, explained what this digital expansion should deliver.

“We want to drive £1m in sales through that website in the first 18 months. Austria has €30m going through its agritourism website per annum, so we don’t think £1m is too high a target,” she pointed out.