Farming does not stand still, and to thrive, more and more farmers are diversifying. We caught up with our client Andrew Nicklen, who farms at Creathorne Farm near Bude on Cornwall’s north coast about the highs and lows of his diversification story.
Andrew and Alison Nicklen run a 200 acre farm, near Bude in North Cornwall. Andrew’s parents bought Creathorne Farm in 1966, after moving from Hampshire where they were tenant farmers. The farm started as a mixed farm with crops and 30 dairy cows. Fast forward to 2017, and the cows have gone, replaced by free range chickens, DIY livery horses, solar PV, holiday lets and a small touring caravan site.
Andrew is clearly not afraid of change and taking risks. Where does that come from? “I didn’t like school, but
I have one vivid memory, which has stayed with me. A teacher gave a slide show on Australia when I was about 15 and I’ve never forgotten it. It made me think that there is a wide world out there, and that I should go and try other things.”
After going to Bicton College where he excelled and graduated with a distinction, Andrew fulfilled his ambition of going to Australia. “I spent a year working over there and I saw a very different way of farming. It also opened my eyes to the importance of valuing work-life balance and making time for family life.”
When Andrew started working on the family farm full time they had 90 cows, but with a quota for just 35 they were leasing a lot of quota and the family made the tough decision to sell the cows.
They invested in two chicken sheds in the mid 1990s to farm free range chickens. This was at a time when the free range market was still in its infancy and very niche. “It was a risk – the sheds can only be used for chickens, so this really had to work for us – thank goodness it did!”
One of their first customers was Sainsbury’s and Andrew is still proud to be supplying them today. “Sainsbury’s and our other customers really value our emphasis on protecting the environment. We’ve planted 50 acres of woodland, which is now well established and attracting owls and other wildlife and we’ve got several bat species on the farm too.”
A diversification which did not prove to be so successful was the introduction of goats Andrew explains: “The goats did not work – but they should have. The timing was against us. Foot and mouth hit, and almost crippled us. After that we got caught up in a price war and were undercut. We were being offered 12p a litre and as it cost us 22p a litre to produce the goats milk, the finances didn’t stack up. We were too young in the industry to ride it out, so we cut our losses and sold the goats.”
It was clearly a tough time for the family – with a toddler and new born twins to look after. “/ was a/most done with farming then and I‘d looked into retraining as an electrician, but I thought we should stick to what was already working for a little longer.”
Andrew is clearly someone who does not stand still for long. “Standing still is like going backwards in farming. As free range became standard, rather than niche, there was less profit in the business, so we expanded and doubled our capacity for free range chickens.”
The family also started offering DIV livery, and still run that part of the business, with 13 horses stabled at the farm.
Andrew and Alison also converted two traditional farm buildings into holiday accommodation in 2010, taking advantage of their great location close to the A39 and beautiful north Cornwall coast. They have also established a small touring caravan site, for up to 5 caravans.
Another diversification idea, which did not work out for the family, was the introduction of a wind turbine.
The planning application was refused, but Andrew was undeterred. “We have opted for solar PV instead and now have 10 acres dedicated to that. I run sheep under the panels, and that works really well for us. Solar has been performing well – I see it is just another type of farming.”
Another move towards sustainability was the introduction of two wood chip boilers. The boilers produce enough heat for the farm house, as well as providing the right kind of dry heat that the chickens need – and when Andrew and Alison pluck up the courage to dig up their lawn it will supply their holiday cottages too!
A miscanthuscrop will be ready next year, which will be used to fuel the boiler – making the family self sufficient for heating. “I’ve been growing concerned by the cost of wood chip going up, so miscanthus seemed like the best way to go. It is also another way to reduce our environmental impact, which we value ourselves, but is also really important to the customers of our free range chickens.”
Andrew clearly has an innate entrepreneurial spirit, which has given him the courage to try new things. He has also relied on professional advice and support. Paul Hockaday from Barclays has worked with the family
for a long time. “I’ve been Andrew’s bank manager for 15 years, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know his business and supporting the family through good
times and bad. Just as farmers have to learn new skills when they diversify-bankers do too and I’ve enjoyed learning new skills which in turn will help support other customers looking to adapt their operating model.“
When the family started looking into renewable energy Paul introduced them to Scott Mitchell, partner and rural diversification expert at Stephens Scown. Scott adds: “It can be incredibly frustrating to lose out on a renewables project at the planning stage and I really felt for Andrew and his family, as they had such high hopes for wind power. However, the move to solar has been a good one for the farm, and it was great to work with him on this project.”
Family is clearly of paramount importance to Andrew and Alison. Their 16 year old son Will looks set to follow in his father’s footsteps into the farm and he is already enjoying looking after the family’s herd of sheep.
So what does the future hold for the Nicklen family? It seems that Andrew is still abiding by the lessons he learnt in Australia and putting family first. “As we‘ve got older I’ve started to question how much work new ventures
will take – we have four children and I want to be able to spend time with them while they are still young. My twin daughters are horse mad and I learnt to ride three years ago, so we can go out riding together now.
“Although I still hanker after the cows we had to give up all those years ago, the chickens and other diversifications on the farm offer us a lot more flexibility than running a dairy herd would have – and I’m very grateful for that.”
Does Andrew have advice for other farmers? “That is a hard one, as what could work for us may not work for someone else – every farm and farmer is unique. However, I would say that looking at what works for you and playing to your strengths is always a good place to start.”
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