At Abergwynant Farm in the Eryri National Park, Richard Jones is putting the finishing touches to a luxury log cabin, capturing many stages of its creation on video to share with his 10,000 or so social media followers.
Once it gets its final lick of polish, the number of holiday accommodation beds on the farm will hit 30.
The diversification into tourism was started by Richard’s grandparents, Vernon and Doris, when they bought the farm in the 1950s, initially offering farmhouse bed and breakfast and later converting barns into cottages.
They were among the first farmers in Wales to spot the opportunity offered by tourism and there is little doubt that their grandson has inherited their entrepreneurial spirit.
But his first venture into business got off to a somewhat shaky start.
After graduating with a degree in agriculture and working on dairy, poultry and beef farms to broaden his knowledge and experience, he returned to the farm after taking over the running of some of it from his grandmother, with his uncle, Rupert, farming the rest.
Richard arrived home on March 21st 2020 with a £380,000 mortgage and strong bookings for the forthcoming holiday season, bubbling with enthusiasm to get stuck in.
But it wasn’t to be, as two days later Prime Minister at the time, Boris Johnson announced the first of the pandemic lockdowns.
“I didn’t have a business to run,” Richard recalls.
Not only did the farm’s principal source of income vanish overnight but neither did Richard qualify for government business support.
He should have completed the purchase of the farm before the holiday season but the pandemic resulted in a delay of nearly six months. Barely a week later and Wales had its firebreak lockdown.
“I was unable to get any support during the lockdowns from the ‘non-domestic rates’ Covid-19 support schemes as I was classed as a new business even though my grandparents had run the business for nearly 70 years before me,” Richard explains.
Cracks in the system
“I was one of the cracks in the system, similar businesses that qualified were claiming around £26,000.”
But in retrospect, it did have an unexpected benefit. “I think not getting that support in some ways made me more hungry to get going again when I could and to maximise the opportunities.
“A lot of businesses did get complacent because they’d had that safety net and held back when the country opened up again, they didn’t have the same drive as I had to make money because I had a necessity to do that.”
Self-catering establishments, considered less of a virus transmission risk than hotels, were among the first to get the green light to reopen.
“As soon as we could we went for it and clawed back the money we had lost, we grabbed that opportunity with both hands and made a full recovery by working at 100 miles an hour,” says Richard.
Abergwynant Farm has been in the Jones family since 1953. Doris and Vernon, both from farming families, upped sticks from Shropshire to farm there.
When their friends from Shropshire were keen to visit, it sparked the idea of opening their home to paying bed and breakfast guests too, later converting barns, and introducing pony trekking to complement the offering.
Sir Bryner Jones Award
They won the Sir Bryner Jones Award in 1974 for integrating tourism into farming.
The pony trekking business closed in 2006, the year after Richard lost his father, Douglas, suddenly to sepsis at the age of 47, but there are still 35 horses on the farm with the family running a livery and also hosting a Welsh Cob stud.
It is the horses that graze most of the farm’s 430 acres, moving around in a rotational system with a small flock of Welsh Mountain sheep tidying up the paddocks after them.
Until recently there was also a small flock of laying hens, supplying eggs for the welcome packs provided for guests in the holiday accommodation, but worry over avian influenza resulted in the decision not to repopulate when the flock naturally petered out.
The virus came too close for comfort with infection in a poultry flock just half a mile from Abergwynant. “We were in the three-kilometre exclusion zone and had three visits from the ministry,” Richard explains.
“We put in place all the biosecurity measures that were asked of us and managed to escape the disease but we won’t be getting poultry again until the virus has gone or there is a vaccination programme.”
The accommodation diversification is by far the biggest earner. Richard, his mother and grandmother until recently did all the work themselves – they are now helped by a full-time worker who deals with maintenance issues.
When work on the log cabin is finished, there will be seven self-contained units.
The cost-of-living crisis has changed the market, with a greater demand for shorter stays, and there hasn’t been a return of the volume of international visitors they had pre-pandemic.
Although it means more work for the family, they have reduced the minimum stay period to just one night in some of the properties, largely to satisfy Gwynedd County Council’s occupancy rules for properties to be classified as holiday accommodation instead of private dwellings.
“If we fell short of 182 days occupancy a year, we would have to pay 150% council tax – 300% from next year,” says Richard.
In common with other authorities, the council tax premium was brought in with the intention of reducing the number of second homes in the region, but Richard believes it is a blunt tool that hasn’t properly been thought through.
As a member of the NFU Cymru Next Generation Group, he met politicians at the Senedd last autumn and raised this issue with them.
“I spoke to Cefin Campbell MS from Plaid Cymru and he said action had to be taken because the housing stock was needed for local people, but how many people are going to be able to afford these properties when the average wage here is between £15,000 and £20,000?
“He spoke about shared ownership but that policy isn’t in place, there is no joined up thinking.
“And there will always be people who want second homes who can afford to buy them and pay the council tax premium,” he believes.
Going forward, Richard is considering several opportunities for enterprises that complement the holiday business, everything from rare breed sheep to alpaca trekking, to shore up finances from the loss of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).
With a monthly mortgage payment of £2,000 and half of that sum being met by the BPS, he worries how the shortfall will be made up.
“We need to find other ways of drawing people to the area to protect the business should the bottom fall out of the holiday let market.”
Sustainable Farming Scheme
The Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) does have ‘some good parts to it’ he concedes, but there are still ‘many questions and not a lot of answers’.
“Farmers are not getting the clarity they need, the latest consultation document is 14 pages long but there is nothing in there about payments,” Richard points out.
He says the 10% tree cover and 10% habitat requirement is ‘unworkable’ for many farms, including his.
“I keep asking the question of government: ‘have you consulted with the lenders?’ I have a 25-year mortgage with Barclays, they own a stake in the farm, as a lender I wouldn’t be happy if trees were planted on it because it would devalue the land.”
He did benefit from Wales’ Young Farmer scheme, receiving a 25% top-up on his BPS. “That money was very helpful for paying for fencing, machinery, that sort of thing,” says Richard.
He would like to see a similar initiative in the new scheme, to support new entrants.
Social media has been a very important tool in marketing the farm’s accommodation offering.
Some of the videos he has shared have been viewed thousands of times - one capturing a phase in the construction of the log cabin was seen 11,000 times.
“Most of the videos are viewed in America, we can now reach the four corners of the world,” says Richard.
He makes the most of every business opportunity; out of season, the holiday accommodation provides housing for construction workers employed on the Barmouth Bridge project.
“We are a very fluid business, willing to adapt,” says Richard. “We look at every single area of the business and question if it can be done differently.”
He uses some of the lean management strategies he saw in action on the farms he worked on before returning home.
“It is a bit like a dairy farm maximising production from its herd, we apply the same logic to our own resources.”
Richard has already packed a lot into his 25 years but there is a definite sense that the progress he has made thus far is just the start.