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Montgomeryshire barn conversion a spectacular success thanks to business support from Farming Connect

“THEIR resilience shone through and their courage paid off!” These are the words of Mid Wales farmer Keri Davies, a well-known Farming Connect mentor and diversification expert, who supported a Montgomeryshire farming family ‘every step of the way’ when they embarked on their first ambitious tourism enterprise.

Berriew sheep farmers Terry and Lynda Evans never doubted it would be a major undertaking when in early 2019, they first began to wonder if they could transform their 7,000 square foot red brick barn, part of which dates back to the 17th century, into holiday accommodation. The couple hoped to find a project that ‘when the time is right’ will enable them to step back from the daily commitment of managing stock.

Fate was on their side when, during their regular weekly visit to Welshpool market, the couple met up with Owain Pugh, who at that time, was their local Farming Connect development officer. They discussed their plan about wanting to find a new stream of income and vague idea that they should ‘do something with the barn’.

Owain persuaded them to book a Farming Connect one-to-one diversification clinic, delivered by rural business consultant Jeremy Bowen Rees.

“Jeremy visited the farm and immediately recognised the potential of the barn and our spectacular location, which is only two hours from the Midlands,” said Terry.

Mr Bowen Rees suggested converting the barn into one large accommodation unit, rather than dividing it up into smaller self-contained units, something they had not previously considered.

“We undertook more research and having discovered that there are far fewer options for this type of large-scale provision in mid Wales, realised this approach could give us a valuable competitive advantage,” said Terry.

Owain then recommended that the couple apply for fully funded support from the Farming Connect mentoring programme, an offer they took up, selecting diversification mentor, Keri Davies.

“Keri established his own hugely successful holiday lettings business at his Crai Valley farm some years ago so his guidance on not only ‘what to do’ but ‘what not to do’ having personal experience of many similar large-scale tourism projects, was invaluable.”

Keri and his wife invited the couple to visit them and after an ‘intensive’ four-hour meeting and tour of their five star barn conversions and holiday cottages, the seeds of ambition were sown.

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Soon after, the couple applied for business support through the Farming Connect Advisory Service. With the significant incentive of 80% funding, they were able to commission Mr. Bowen Rees to give them strategic business advice and guide them through the processes.

“Planning took longer than we hoped but more significantly, Covid had a dramatic effect on all the high street banks who, concerned about the pandemic’s effect on visitor numbers, were suddenly reluctant to fund new tourism projects.”

But that was not the only daunting issue. The banks all declared themselves unwilling to fund a farming family who had no previous experience of running a tourism enterprise.

“Although we were asset rich, with 100 acres of prime land owned and a further 100 rented, with 200 pure-bred sheep and plenty of infrastructure, the fact that we had never accommodated paying guests was considered a stumbling block, certainly one that we hadn’t foreseen.”

Despondent but determined, they credit Mr Bowen Rees with changing the status quo.

“Jeremy provided a comprehensive business plan which provided detailed facts and figures on the costs as well as a long-term financial forecast, and it was this document which led to us eventually accessing the necessary level of finance to get the barn conversion to completion,” says Terry.

The couple’s only daughter Victoria (26), who works in corporate finance in London, has remained involved throughout, attending key meetings via Zoom, getting involved in all design decisions and taking charge of the ‘Old Cider Press Barn’ marketing, website and Instagram account.

Attending a Farming Connect energy clinic inspired the family to budget for solar panels to reduce energy costs, and Lynda and Victoria also joined an online Farming Connect Agrisgôp group specifically for tourism operators.

Terry and Lynda Evans with Mentor Keri Davies.

“It was so reassuring for mum and I to speak to other farmers facing the same challenges and we received invaluable advice from them as well as the specialist speakers brought in to address the group on issues such as branding and lettings,” said Victoria.

Fast forward three years, with both Jeremy Bowen Rees and Keri Davies providing guidance in the interim. The family all agree that the knowledge, expertise and moral support provided by both experts ‘got us through some pretty hard days and sleepless nights!’ This spring ‘The Old Cider Press Barn’, now restored to an exceptionally high standard, welcomed its first group of 24 visitors. With rave reviews and repeat bookings for 2024 and beyond via a local lettings agency, the future looks assured.

Sustainability has always been a key driver for the project, and the characterful barn still retains many of its early architectural features. These include original beams, some still in situ, while others have been re-purposed as three large refectory-style dining tables and other furniture.

With luxury en-suite bedrooms, spacious living and dining areas, wood-burners, a cocktail bar, games room, hot tubs and a firepit, the barn has already hosted numerous family celebrations with groups of cyclists and walkers – it caters for up to 28 guests – already booked in.

The Evans family clearly have what it takes to bring such an ambitious project to fruition. Terry is cautious but an ‘ideas’ person used to running a successful farm business, Lynda has immense organisational skills and the ability to run a tight ship financially, while Victoria happily stepped up to the role of online marketing.

Local Farming Connect development officer, Elin Haf Williams summarised, saying

“This is a family that did their research, asked all the right questions and thanks to advice and support accessed through Farming Connect, they have turned their dream into a spectacular success story.

“We hope other farmers will be inspired by their journey and find out how the new Farming Connect programme can support them too.”