Look for rural opportunities amid momentous time – Susan Briggs

Susan Briggs

In this blog post, Susan Briggs, Director of The Tourism Network, pictured, relays her message from our Women In Farming Network’s recent Autumn Gathering.

 

The last year has certainly been momentous, horrible in many, many ways but I’m determined to find some silver linings and some positives to counteract the terrible losses.

I work with hundreds of small rural businesses, mainly tourism, farm diversification, food and drink businesses. Part of my job is to spot new opportunities, help business owners navigate changes and find new and better ways of working, so they can be more profitable.

I’d like to give a quick round up of some of the positives I’ve spotted. I’m certainly not ignoring or denying the devastation and difficulties but the only way forward is to believe in better times. We can’t control external factors like politicians and Covid but we can grab some control over our own destiny by harnessing some opportunities.

So what have we learnt?

Is there any hope for rural businesses in the future? Thanks to lockdown and enforced changes due to Covid I hope many might now understand some of the things we – as rural businesses – have recognised for a long time.

An appreciation of nature and the countryside has to be top of this list. Of course there are some who haven’t treated the countryside well, but in the main visitors and residents have thought more about the value of green spaces, fresh air and the environment than they normally would.

At some point in the future, I believe we can find ways to get them to pay for more rural experiences.

People talk about a good ‘sense of community’. More now have a true insight into what this means, and its power in practice.  This isn’t just something that means helping our neighbours – higher spending visitors will actually pay to spend time in places that feel ‘real’ and caring. They increasingly want to understand what it means to live in a genuine community.

The farming community has centuries of experience in adapting to difficult situations. We’ve all had to adapt, and some have even found new and good ways of doing business, whether it’s the incredible Banks brothers at Oldstead or setting up a farm gate shop.

You’ve probably seen the rave reviews for the remake of James Herriot. It was such a simple story but enhanced by filming in the Dales, with a huge dollop of nostalgia thrown in. Visitors now want to visit, and the good news is – they’ll pay for things we take for granted.

Some urbanites will even pay for the chance to shovel manure, or other chances to get their hands dirty. The Thornton-Berrys at Wensleydale Experience have seen first-hand the strong interest in farm tours. That’s something that’s set to grow.

In times of uncertainty, nostalgia is a strong draw. You might find that ancient abandoned tractor you’re hanging on to is even ‘instagrammable’…

Forbidden fruits can be some of the most attractive: not being able to meet up with friends, to celebrate and travel freely means many of us are creating ever longer wish-lists of places to visit and things to do, when we’re allowed. Keep sharing those photos of wonderful landscapes.

Susan Briggs, Director of The Tourism Network

The market for family gatherings and celebrations was already strong – post Covid the pent up demand is likely to explode so if you have a farm building where you could throw in some straw bales for seating or corner of a field where you could erect a bell tent, get ready!

The postponed demand for rural wedding party venues will also be huge. No need for any refurbishment plans or budgets – the more ‘authentic’ and rustic, the better. Bizarrely, the more basic get-back-to-nature facilities may be the ones commanding the highest prices!

Extended tourism season and valuing local amentities

For years we’ve talked about extending the tourism season. Covid is actually teaching us to think differently and I’m hopeful some will realise being nesh isn’t necessary and a decent coat, and good boots mean you can carry on exploring Yorkshire all year round – especially if fortified by some excellent Yorkshire food and drink.

I hope one of the positives is that we all really appreciate our local shops and services even more than before. Farm shops and pop up groceries have been hugely popular – we have to find ways to continue and grow interest in shopping local and sourcing locally-made products.

Speaking of which, one of my passions is wool. With the increased interest in natural products, talk of circular economies and eco everything, surely it’s time we all worked together to raise awareness of the wonders of wool and to generate decent revenues from fleeces? This links to all the ways our heritage and landscape have been influenced by sheep and wool.

I believe there’s a huge opportunity for wool, sheep and textile tourism and I’m determined to do something.

This also reminds me of something I’ve really missed – the combination of the manure, hay, livestock and leather and beer scents combined with a good brass band and distorted tannoy announcements of agricultural shows. When they’re back again, let’s get the marketing right and attract visitors and locals who can put some cash into community kitties again.

A momentous year

This has been a momentous year, and much of it has been difficult, especially as I’ve fallen through every government financial net and spent much of the year simply offering free marketing advice and support to those who’ve needed it.

But I’m also inspired by Isaac Newton. He retreated to his country home during the 1665-66 Plague Year, and made pretty good use of his time there: he invented Calculus, discovered that white light is made up of every colour, and wrote his theory about gravity after seeing apples fall from the trees in his garden.
 
So who knows what incredible things you might plan or do next? As my mum would tell you, we don’t really have much choice so we might as well just get on with it…

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