These successful farmers say diversification worked for them

You might not know English crop farmers Gordon and Judy Davies, but if you're interested in land prices, you might have heard of their neighbours.

A short distance away from the Davies' Middleton House Farm, located in the heart of England, their neighbours recently sold 125 acres of farmland for $16,000 an acre, a new record for agriculture in the United Kingdom.

And here's the catch: the buyers plan to keep farming it.

The Davies, who farm less than 24 kilometres from Birmingham, one of the country's biggest cities (pop. one million-plus), were in Guelph last week visiting mutual friends. After a tour of the University of Guelph/Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs' Elora Research Station, they explained how farmers like them and their neighbours are making a living growing food in such an exaggerated economic climate as theirs.

The key, they say, is to introduce non-farm activities that don't rely on weather, politics or global trade. In their case, diversifying into on-farm rental offices has allowed them to keep pursuing their first love, growing crops and raising livestock.

Here's how their enterprise has evolved. Middleton House Farm is a 400-acre, third-generation operation, blessed with good soil and a rich endowment of heritage farm buildings. Among the structures are red brick cow milking sheds that are 250 years old, distinguished by stately oak beams and a deep sense of history.

A few years ago, in Britain, milk production was not profitable. So the Davies sold their herd, making the milking sheds obsolete.

But rather than tear the sheds down, they took some of proceeds from the herd sale and converted the sheds into unique pastoral offices, equipped with modern communication features (especially, a high-speed Internet network).

Then they started courting businesses in the Birmingham 'burbs, looking for those who would hang their shingles at the Davies' on-farm business centre.

It worked. Instead of fighting highway congestion, noise, pollution and high rent, five businesses including food analysts, landscapers and safety and hygiene specialists set up shop at Middleton House Farm.

The Davies were able to offer a unique setting at an affordable price, and realize $200,000 in rental income every year.

This confirmed to the family that diversification was the way to go. Earlier, they had opened a bed and breakfast in the farmstead's six-room farmhouse, staying busy catering to business travellers and developing a local food menu, even before it was trendy.

Along the way, they opened a mini-pub for guests, called the Hungry Farmer Pub, with traditional taps, suds and decor.

But all this has come with a price.

They caution other producers interested in such diversification that some of farming's most valued features, especially privacy, are lost through this approach.

For example, you can't walk out your door without bumping into "townspeople," they say. You can't have any rough-looking farm machinery parked in convenient locations around the yard. And even the farm dog must be fitted with a decidedly uptown look.

So what if it's a great guard dog? If it doesn't look like a cosmopolitan canine when it comes wagging its tail to greet visitors, it too needs a makeover.

This isn't farming in the modern sense. But it does recall the days of the cosy country inn, small, vibrant villages and diversified rural economies, while still producing food on the 350-some acres that are not used for other business activities.

"I'm a farmer, and this gives me the opportunity to carry on the farm and have a decent income," Gordon says.

With gas prices through the roof, and Toronto becoming more and more difficult to reach during business hours, maybe the Davies' template is worth a look here.

Unfortunately, the idea won't go far in Ontario without improved rural Internet access.

The Davies' experience, and any degree of business sense, show how potential entrepreneurial ventures hinge on it.

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