Two sisters, two farms and two successful farming-linked diversification ventures

FIRST and foremost, sisters Eira Edwards and Julie Thomas, and their husbands, Russell and Geoff, are farmers – but only remain so because they have been able to generate additional income by diversifying.

Russell, Eira, Julie & Geoff
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Left to right: Russell and Eira Edwards, Julie and Geoff Thomas.

Both couples have traditional family-sized hill farms only a few miles apart at the southern end of the South Wales Rhondda Valley and openly admit that without their add-on activities making a living purely from livestock rearing would be difficult.

“My parents were able to generate a good living from the farm and bring up two children, but that is just not possible these days,” says Russell.

Not that developing what today has turned out to be a highly successful venture has been without its problems, either.

Having to recover from the restrictive visitor effects on leisure-linked ventures of two foot-and-mouth outbreaks within six years is hard enough for anyone to swallow – but imagine how the Edwards felt when they also had to face up to the country’s second largest outbreak of E.coli breaking out right on their doorstep.

As part of their recovery from the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak they diversified into tourism and set up the Lakeside Farm Park on the family’s 250-acre Hendre-Ifan-Goch Farm, at Glycogen.

They created a two-acre lake on a landfill site and stocked it with the best quality rainbow trout, together with a new building overlooking the lake, complete with a cafe and an indoor toddler play area with a bouncy castle.

The complex opened its gates to school visits in April 2005 but less than six months later the surrounding area was hit by 168 cases of E.coli at 42 schools.

“In our first season we had children from over 30 schools here but the following year, after the E. coli outbreak, we had none. During 2007 we had visits from 12 schools – before foot-and-mouth movement restrictions struck again in August,” says Russell, whose parents, Bill and Jacqueline, bought the farm in 1975.

South Wales Mountain sheep
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Caerlan farm's pedigree South Wales Mountain sheep.

“It has been a hard struggle since the E.coli outbreak but if we had not diversified when we did we would not be farming as we are today.

“I was 11 when we came here to live and when I left school I did some contracting work – bulldozing old coal pits – but since then I have worked on the farm with my parents.

“We started off with 20 Welsh Black cows, 800 Beulah ewes and a Suffolk ram. Throughout the mid-1990s what is now the farm park area was a landfill site for builders’ rubble.

“I already had the bulldozer, so after we had filled in the site and farming returns were beginning to take a dive, we decided to diversify into tourism – covering the rubble with 10,000 tonnes of topsoil and creating one large fishing lake, which we stocked with trout, and another smaller one for coarse fishing.

“We put the building up ourselves, opened the cafe and then added the children’s indoor play area and brought in some small farm animals – pigs, goats and sheep – for the kids to enjoy.

“But then we had to get rid of the animals when foot-and-mouth restrictions meant visitors not were allowed on to the farm.”

During the previous 20 years, Eira had worked as a therapy radiographer at Velindre Hospital, Cardiff, but decided to stay at home and work on the farm in 2005 when rural recovery grants were obtained to help finance a new toilet block and a first floor function room for the farm park building.

“We have reinvested each year, used many recycled fittings and, by doing much of the work ourselves, can now offer a picturesque venue for wedding receptions and many other functions,” she says.

Their son, Rhys, 14, and daughter Amy, 11, help out as much as they can, too, with the visitors to the farm helping to give them a much wider outlook on life.

Broadening youngsters’ minds about farming and where the food they eat comes from was one of the main aims of encouraging school parties to the farm.

“When we have school visits we take the children around the farm – which rises from 600ft by the side of the lakes up 1,200ft at the top of the hill – by tractor and trailer and stop off at the sheep shed, especially during the lambing season,” says Eira.

She is passionate about throwing open the farm gates to children and Lakeside Farm Park was one of only a handful of Welsh farms that took part in the 2007 Open Farm Sunday initiative.

During January, the farm park also hosted a two-day training course to prepare farmers and others for hosting school visits under the Countryside Educational Visits Accreditation Scheme.

Eira and Russell Edwards
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Eira and Russell Edwards in the kitchen at Lakeside Farm Park.

“We also want to get involved with the Year of Food and Farming, which is a Defra initiative launched by the Prince of Wales in September, but so far it has not received much attention within Wales.

“We still lamb 700 ewes – half of them Beulahs and the other half Mules – and Rhys is showing enthusiasm to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as another generation of farmers.”

Versatility, training courses and working with nature

Versatility has been the key to success for Julie and Geoff Thomas. They run Caerlan – a 300-acre hill farm overlooking Tonyrefail – with its flock of over 400 pedigree South Wales Mountain, 250 commercial Suffolk cross-bred ewes and 150 ewe lambs.

Training units
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Caerlan’s training units.

Being one of the first farms in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area to be accepted into the Wales-based Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme, the family prides itself on working with nature.

Having first tasted success in the direct sales field before becoming a registered instructor in management in 1996, Julie decided to set up her own training business two years later – and the Simply the Best Training Consultancy is still going from strength to strength.

“Initially, the business was run from the kitchen before we decided to transform partly-derelict sheds into what is now a custom-built timber office,” she says.

As well as Julie and Geoff, the business also now employs two full-time and one part-time members of staff. This leaves Julie, mother to Rachel, 20, and Rhidian, 15, still finds the time to do some private instructor work for different training providers.

She has also recently completed her MBA at the University of Glamorgan, focussing her thesis on the culture of Welsh family farms and how it affects decision making.

Beulah Speckled faced sheep
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Beulah Speckled faced sheep at Hendre-Ifan-Goch.

She specialises in rural business and is very active within the agricultural industry as a consultant for Agriplan Cymru, under the Farming Connect initiative, specialising in diversification and marketing, as well as beef and sheep systems.

Explaining how the family juggles both the business and the farm, she likes to think the two work as a ‘symbiosis’ by utilising the farm as a practical skills venue.

“Our training clients love to see farming activities all around and the ducks, dogs, horse, geese and chickens are well accustomed to the attention they get,” she says.

Running the farm is still very much down to husband Geoff, who is also in charge of the delivery training courses in dry stone walling, fencing and other agriculturally-related skills.

“Day-to-day planning and long-term management of the farm and its use as a training venue makes my dual role of instructor and farmer challenging, but very fulfilling,” he says.

Geoff Thomas
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Geoff Thomas – one of their current training courses involves animals in transit legislation which came into force recently.

The operation offers a large number of courses, ranging from first aid, health and safety, the environment, conservation, basic food hygiene, chainsaws, ATVs, brush cutters and mowers.

New rules and regulations also mean there has to be a constant review of the courses being provided. For example, at present they are offering farmers training and test facilities on the new animals in transit regulations.

The two sisters have something else in common, too. Both sit on the Farmers Union of Wales national tourism and diversification committee and recently hosted visits to both farms by members of the union’s presidential team as part of a fact-finding mission looking at alternative enterprises.

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Lakeside Farm Park restaurant.

Although the two women are busy taking on extra responsibilities outside the farm gate, their focus is to continue building and developing their two farming businesses.

“Despite the set-backs, the past few years have certainly shown us that if we had not diversified we would not have survived to run the farm as it is today,” says Eira.

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