Small farmers Brexit-proof business with lakeside lodges
PUBLISHED: 07:00 19 July 2019
Two years ago, the Knock family looked into the idea of a setting up a small number of lodges next to fishing lakes in the middle of their farm.
They were concerned about the potential effects of Brexit on their small 250-acre arable farm at Battisford, near Stowmarket, which combines productive cropping with extensive conservation areas.
Manor Farm has a well-documented thousand-year history involving the Knights of St John - a semi-religious order which developed into the St Johns Ambulance we know today.
Chris Knock has managed the farm for 30 years, building up the fertility and improving the soil structure. His daughter Georgina is now helping with new enterprises on the farm, which include Welhams Meadow Luxury Lodges.
Last year, the business won Suffolk Agricultural Association's prestigious Best Alternative Land Enterprise (BALE) award for Best Green Enterprise in East Anglia due to the family's keen interest in integrating renewable energy where possible.
They have a small wind turbine and two Tesla solar batteries which store the energy collected from two sets of solar panels. This reduces energy bills to both the lodges and the overall energy footprint of the farm.
Welhams Meadow is a small development hosting four lodges. Three have lakeside views out onto the two fishing lakes and one has a field view looking out onto the Suffolk countryside.
The lodges are close to public footpaths and cycle routes and have their own entrance, separate from the farmyard which is 200 metres down the road. At the other end of Battisford village there is a community-run pub, ideal for a drink in the sunshine or evening meal.
The site gives people the opportunity to buy something special, as these are hassle-free new builds with very low maintenance - a rarity for holiday homes in the countryside, says Chris.
The lodges provide a countryside retreat for people to enjoy with their family and friends, and are also an investment opportunity, as subletting is possible and can be managed by a third-party organisation, he points out. They have been set into the landscape, meaning access is all on one level.
"There are a series of decision points along the way, looking at the feasibility, the viability and impact of the new enterprise on the landscape and the local community," says Chris.
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"Each of these needs to be addressed in turn, which takes time. As a family we had good discussions around what unique skills we could all bring to this enterprise, which was really helpful.
"Plus, by collaborating with other local businesses in Suffolk, such as the lodge manufacturers based in Brandon, we were able to have a good supportive relationship throughout the whole process."
Welhams Meadow has been a leisure enterprise on the farm for the last 20 years, hosting Gipping Valley Angling Club which keep fish in the two small lakes.
It is home to otters, kingfishers, herons, barn owls, woodpeckers, geese, hares and deer.
"We have recognised an under-utilised asset and created somewhere for people to enjoy and we to hope to benefit their lives in a variety of ways, from being physically active, to relaxing in the peaceful countryside," says Chris.
Chris and Georgina have enjoyed working as a family team on the project, and like meeting the people who visit the meadow.
"It is also a special place to spend time in and we've enjoyed creating a set of lodges which are sympathetic to the landscape and enhances it, rather than interrupts it. Also, it's allowed us to build relationships with other businesses in the area, which has been very enjoyable and we've learnt a lot from the whole experience," says Chris.
"What's important is researching just how to proceed, and that everyone needs to be comfortable with the process from the outset.
"We would encourage others to create what's right for their business and the local community, and which also addresses a recognised need in the market. Speaking to others who had been involved in similar projects was useful and to gain different perspectives."
So far, they have sold two of the lodges, and two are still available, and they're hoping to sell them in the next 12 months so they can progress with the next idea.
"The time it takes should not be under-estimated," says Chris, but they are on track, and make a point of keeping themselves informed by talking to others in the industry so that they can benchmark their progress.
"We're excited to see what the future holds," he adds.