30 years of successful farm diversification

Editor Victoria Galligan visits a family business with a long track-record of farm diversification – the Owd Barn at Bispham, West Lancashire.

The Owd Barn has nearly 30 years of diversification behind it – but that doesn’t mean the Ashcroft family are resting on their laurels. Far from it in fact. As I sit down with the owners’ daughter, Helen Charlesworth, she explains that renovations are planned to further make use of the space in the barn which has become a popular visitor destination over the past three decades.

So when did the family decide to diversify, and what was the catalyst behind the decision?

Helen said: “My mum Brenda Ashcroft decided to diversify about 28 years ago – our family has had the farm for more than 300 years. Our ancestors the Stopforth brothers ran it, then it came to the Owd Barn farm diversification – Helen with a tractorAshcrofts and my mum, dad, brothers and nephew are all involved in the business. 

“It’s a 200-acre farm and we grow potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and sprouts which we sell in the farm shop and to market. We also grow cereals, and harvest hay and straw.”

As farm life can be unpredictable – Helen cites the floods of 2015/16 which ruined crops and left devastation in their wake as just one example – the decision to diversify was made in order to support the business through rough harvests.

Helen said: “The shops became back-up for the farm as it’s not always a reliable source of income. We’ve had a good year this year thanks to the warm weather. As we’re on moss land the soil kept its moisture and we achieved good prices. But it’s not like that every year!

“My mum started a farm shop back in 1990 when she saw a unique opportunity – the farm shop across the road had closed and she saw an opening in the market.

“We’re situated on a busy road and the barn was an ideal place to showcase our produce.”

It wasn’t an easy process to turn the 16th-century listed barn into a place suitable for a farm shop, but Helen’s mum Brenda Ashcroft was determined to make it work. It required the family to apply to the council for change of use to retail, and to work closely with English Heritage to ensure the preservation of the building. Planners and architects have been drafted in over the years as each change has been made, section by section, and the family have taken care to make sure the building has been well preserved.

Mum Brenda said: “The barn became no good for farming use really, as we couldn’t get a forklift through the doors. The modern machinery isn’t compatible with old buildings. But we haven’t changed it from the outside and we’ve kept it in good repair.”

After opening as a farm shop, and expanding the range of goods to include pet food, garden supplies and country clothing, the tea room was opened in 2002. The produce grown on the farm is used to make soups and other meals, and the spuds are a popular choice with regulars. Insta-worthy afternoon teas have led to people asking to hold baby showers and other social occasions, and the success of the tea shop led to the family deciding to change the last section of the barn, the loft (which was used for storage) into another seating area that has just been completed. It’s large enough to accommodate parties and functions, and has pushed the tea room covers up to 65.

The upper level of the barn is used as a furniture and gift shop, making a wide range of products available. In fact, you can get pretty much anything at the Owd Barn – from handbags to fireplace accessories. Owd Barn farm diversification – the interior of the barn in the upper furnishing area of the shop

Helen says the stock changes with the seasons, so in the springtime the log burners make way for planters and garden fire pits.

Outside, the pond (which decades ago was used for the production of hemp to make ropes for ships, and is still sometimes used for irrigation!) provides a great backdrop to a seating area which is a great draw for visitors enjoying an ice cream or lunch in the hot weather.

Family all pitch in with farm diversification

The family members each have their role and Helen is a dab hand at marketing – mum Brenda says the younger generation bring new ideas and a quick glance on the website and socials prove her right.

So what does the future hold for the Owd Barn? Helen admits that they are running out of space and would love to provide another retail space – perhaps for hairdressers and beauty rooms. But that’s a dream, she tells me – for now!

I asked Helen what advice she would give to farmers who are thinking of diversification and she said: “You need to think of something different, and think about your unique selling point. We are near a busy road so we made use of the passing trade. If you’ve got views and are in a gorgeous, quiet location then perhaps try providing a remote getaway.”

Over the years a combination of opportunity, collaboration and sheer hard work has made the Owd Barn a success and diversifying has provided a safety net for the farm in tough times. It’s a great example of a successful business and the continuing demand from customers means the sky’s the limit!

For more information on the Owd Barn at Bispham, visit the website or Facebook page.