A Northumberland farmer’s five-year vision to open his farm to the public and give them inside knowledge of the industry has finally come to fruition.
Rod Smith outside the barn
Rod Smith farms just over 1,000 acres at Beal Farm, Beal, where around 500,000 visitors a year pass his door on the way to the island of Lindisfarne across the causeway.
He has taken the opportunity to heavily invest in converting a former cartshed with views across to Holy Island into an eco-friendly visitor centre and restaurant serving locally-produced food as well as creating a network of tracks across his arable land where the public can see the area’s wealth of flora and wildlife which has family has been keen to nurture.
A special ‘live tide’ camera means that visitors can even watch the wildlife from the comfort of the barn in inclement weather!
The Barn at Beal which opened in mid-February is the result of collaboration between Rod and Natural England which will enable visitors and school children to see the challenges facing farming today while protecting wildlife and the environment for future generations.
“I started the project five years ago because of the way farming was at the time. Cereals were at around £70 a tonne and I thought if that was to continue I had to do something other than just farming for the sake of our children,” said Rod. He and his wife Vicky have three children, William, six, Jessica, five and Sophie, 18 months.
“Around that time I had also been to Glendale Show and it became apparent that the children who were there knew very little about where their food originated and I decided to look at creating a project here to combine all this.”
The stone built cart shed which stands alone dating from the 1820s then used for storage was an obvious choice for development.
Conversion work began in November 2006 with the 30 metre long cart shed’s openings being swapped to the opposite side of the building to take in the spectacular sea views. A kitchen and classroom/lecture room were built on either end.
“From an environmental point of view the building had to be sustainable. We live in a draughty farmhouse which dates from 1674 and I know what it costs to heat it.
“The barn has been fully insulated and the under floor heating system and hot water are powered by a ground source heat pump which gathers ground heat from 800 metres of pipe which we laid in the field.
“The system was a big investment which we estimated originally to have an eight-year payback but now with the price of oil and energy escalating it is down to five years and possibly soon will be less – and it has proved to be very effective.”
Even the live-tide camera on the shore which relays images to the visitor centre operates on solar power and hydro electricity with a five-day back-up.
From the centre visitors can walk on the four miles of designated permissive footpaths created three years ago which cross-cross the arable land next to the sea and form circular routes.
The farm’s proximity to Lindisfarne and the Scottish Border means it is steeped in history and it is in the Northumberland Coast AONB.
Originally in Countryside Stewardship, the farm is now in the HLS. It has three ponds, two of which are recently created. They are fresh water, salt water and a mixture of both and at them bird watching hides are soon to be built by Natural England.
The farmland is being managed specifically with wildlife in mind from wild flowers to butterflies and beetles.
Wet grassland is maintained for wading birds with seed plots for birds such as lapwings, corn buntings and tree sparrows and six miles of restored hedgerows providing habitats for smaller birds such as finches and yellow hammers.
An integral part of the farm is a goose management project. To feed the large number of Brent gees which over-winter in the area, a field is broadcast in the autumn with winter barley seed provided free by Mcreath Simpson and Prentice in Berwick.
For the first time last autumn, 50 acres was put into the project and, as part of the farm’s arable rotation, the acreage will vary to up to 85 acres in following years. Once the geese have migrated, the field is sown with spring barley and the project has proved a success in its first winter.
All but 70 acres of the farm which is let out to a neighbouring farmer for livestock is arable with 500 acres down to winter wheat selling for feed, 200 acres of malting barley as well as 75 acres of vining peas and 35 acres of beans grown as part of a co-operative.
“The project has been a phenomenal investment. Once we were into the work we decided to go for the best quality we could in the build and, as a result, the grant aid has worked out at about 20 per cent of the total cost,” said Rod.
“Even such a short time after opening we’re getting a lot of visitors, many of whom are local, and we’re inviting constructive criticism and suggestions about our menus and facilities in order to improve on them.
“The project is fulfilling a number of objectives as well as allowing me to better manage the farming operation alongside it in terms of controlling the geese – I had stopped growing winter barley – and allowing the people access along the new tracks whereas previously they would trespass on all the farm land.”
The visitor centre has also benefited the local community in creating 12 new full time jobs – highlighting the changes in agriculture as now only one man is employed on the land compared with six in 1972 when the Smith family took over the farm at Beal.
Once the visitor centre business is established, a next phase to make use of the farm’s remaining redundant stone farm buildings could be their conversion to provide letting units for craft workshops and other local small businesses.
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