Dairy Barns Case Study

Dairy Barns

Hospitality is a route that many farm businesses go down when they turn to diversification, but it’s an area which needs a very different skillset to make work, as well as a lot of support both from within the farm business and externally.

Dairy Barns

One such diversification project in north Norfolk is celebrating after being named B&B/Guest House of the Year in the 2023 East Anglian Tourism Awards – the culmination of nearly two decades of hard work and dedication.

Dairy Barns in Hickling is situated on a 360-acre mixed farm which has been in the Deane family for more than 70 years.  Up until the end of the 1990s it was principally a dairy farm, with a herd of more than 150 milking cows.

Ian started working alongside his father in 1994 and they jointly decided to do a full business review in 1999 with the support of consultant Jamie Gwatkin.

Seeing that they were losing 6p a litre on milk at the time, the initial decision was to diversify the farming aspects of the business, moving towards a majority arable operation.  The milking herd was sold the following year.

Just two years later, Ian married Hannah, who was at the time working in HR for the National Trust, and who had previously had experience of the hospitality sector.  Getting married made Hannah realise she wanted to do something different, and in particular be her own boss.

“I wanted to run my own business, but when you marry a Norfolk farmer, you are not going to move,” says Hannah.  “The farm had lots of Norfolk brick buildings, but they were too small and too low for modern agriculture.  So, the question was, how to combine my desire to run my own business with the assets we had.”

The idea was formed of creating a bed and breakfast, converting those attractive farm buildings into something which would both bring in an extra income for the farm and fulfil Hannah’s entrepreneurial dreams.​  

Ian’s father Bruce, who despite being in his 60s and having recently passed on the running of the farm to his son maintained both an enthusiasm to see it succeed and a forward-thinking attitude, was enthusiastic about the idea, but urged Hannah and Ian to seek professional advice from Jamie Gwatkin and Lovewell Blake before taking the plunge.

Enter Douglas Young from Lovewell Blake, then the agricultural partner (he has since retired, with current agricultural partner Chris Solt and his manager Carla Daniels stepping in to continue the support to the Deane’s business).

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the help of Lovewell Blake and Douglas Young,” says Hannah.  “The farm had always had a good relationship with Lovewell Blake, and they were able to contribute all sorts of advice, from finding finance to building a business plan.”

With the aid of a £100,000 Rural Enterprise Scheme, the proceeds from the sale of a couple of barns, and borrowing, the couple raised £350,000 to undertake the conversion.  With further work undertaken since, the business now has nine top-quality rooms, along with a breakfast and function room in the traditional Norfolk red brick barn, and two holiday cottages on the edge of the village of Sea Palling.

If getting the conversion done was a challenge, then opening was an even bigger one, because by that time (December 2005) the couple had an 18 month old toddler.

“Running a B&B is full-on and trying to do so with a toddler even more so.  But so is running a dairy herd, and we had done that.  I suppose we were young and enthusiastic, but we had no doubts we could make a success of it,” laughs Hannah.

With Ian still running the farm, it was down to Hannah and her mum, along with a ‘shoestring’ staff, to do everything at the start.  But it was successful: the business turned a profit in year one and has done so every year since.

With advice from Lovewell Blake, the business was quick to take advantage of online marketing, embracing the (at the time) emerging platforms of TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Expedia to find customers.  But they also knew that the key to ongoing success was building repeat business, something which can only come from excellence in customer service and the personal touch.

The couple have also boosted the B&B business by making use of the converted barn to host weddings, marketing them as ‘Rustic Norfolk Country Weddings’.  Deliberately limiting the number, they take on “give us the opportunity to get to know the couple and be able to help them have the best possible day.”

Being part of a farm certainly helps attract visitors.  “People do stay with us because we are a farm.  They love to see the animals, and they love the authenticity,” says Hannah.  “They want to think they have a little bit of your rural life.  But you constantly have to improve and refurbish, constantly reinvest.

“As a rural business, one of the most difficult things is offering quality of service.  For example, all holidaymakers expect good quality broadband nowadays, which is difficult in this area.  We have had to invest in WiSpire technology to ensure our customers have what they need.”

So, to what extent has the diversification changed the nature of the overall farm business?  Ian, who still runs the farming side of thing, suggests it has been transformed.  “I wouldn’t describe us as a farming business anymore, we are a multi-faceted rural business.  An important part of our income comes from the accommodation side of things.

“Farming is changing, especially with the end of the Basic Payment Scheme, and we have to be prepared to adapt.  We are lucky in that we decided to do so a long time ago, and in that we had the right advice and support to do so.”

Hannah reflects on what made the move possible.  “We were lucky to inherit the asset, our responsibility was then to maximise it.  Ian’s dad’s enthusiasm for the project really encouraged us, and the support we received from Lovewell Blake – and still do – was instrumental in allowing us to see it through and make a success of it.

“Lovewell Blake are very involved in everything that we do, from business planning to finance.  I am not accounts trained, but the cloud accounting package which Lovewell Blake introduced us to (Xero) makes our lives much easier.  I love that they can log in and do things like our payroll remotely, which takes a lot of the hassle of running the business day-to-day away from us.”

Looking to the future, further expansion is limited by the fact that all of the suitable buildings have now been converted, but that does not mean that Dairy Barns will stand still.  The focus is now on energy efficiency and green energy, as well as the ongoing refreshing of the rooms to ensure the reputation for quality is maintained.

“Dairy Barns is a great example of how to undertake a very successful farm diversification,” says Chris Solt, agricultural partner at Lovewell Blake.  “It was a great initial idea, and Ian and Hannah were sensible enough to seek advice and support from experts, not just for the physical work in creating the B&B, but in the financial and business aspects as well.

“Actually, delivering on a great initial concept requires a lot of energy and enthusiasm, a serious amount of commitment, and the nous to seek advice on those aspects on which you are not an expert.  Hannah and Ian have created something very special at Dairy Barns; we are very proud to have played our part in making it happen.”

More details about Dairy Barns can be found here.

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