Jennifer MacKenzie talks to Stephen and Tracy Pepper, who have diversified to secure a future for their children.

SECOND generation tenant farmers Stephen and Tracy Pepper have invested thousands of pounds in diversification to help keep their business viable for the next generation.

Windle House Farm, at Lee Lane, Oxenhope, near Keighley, has been farmed by the Pepper family since 1964, and Stephen and Tracy have diversified into camping, glamping and educational visitor attractions to help keep the business viable for their children Jack, 17, Max, 13, Thomas, seven, and Annie, three.

In 2013, Stephen and Tracy took over the Yorkshire Water tenancy of the working hill farm running to 1,200ft above sea level and which had previously been farmed by Stephen’s parents Ronald and the late Ann Pepper. By then, the area farmed has increased from 74 acres to 150 acres.

Stephen who had helped on the farm since he was a child, started the diversification 21 years ago, running his own milk round until recently.

“We have beautiful views down the valley and over Leeshaw reservoir on our land and we neighbour Haworth Moors and, despite being quite remote, we are only 20 minutes from Keighley,” said Tracy, who also works as a dental supply consultant in Yorkshire.

Encouraged by Stephen’s parents, the couple considered diversification and capitalising on their beautiful location, as well as their working farm.

In 2017, the Peppers opened one of their fields to camping and they quickly realised that the families who came to camp were keen to know more about the farm.

“We realised how little people knew and how important it was to get up close to a cow and that inspired us to open up to the public,” said Tracy.

Since then they have invested £150,000 in the venture, including their savings converting an old pig sty into a shower block, creating a cafe with facilities, providing a safe area in a barn for petting the animals, a picnic area, improving stock fencing for safety, as well as buying and setting up a camping pod after a costly and lengthy battle with local planners.

They have also invested in animals from alpacas and llamas, tiny Falabella horses and mini Shetland ponies and other horses, different breeds of sheep and cattle, including Jacobs, Valais Blacknose and native breeds of cattle like Longhorns and Shorthorns.

Campers can enjoy the on-farm adventure and the livestock, as well as being in the outdoors. The Peppers organise events around the camping such as a steak pie and peas night or a tug of war, which all adds to the family experience.

In private groups, visitors can get close up and personal with the farm’s alpacas on a walking experience taking these animals for a stroll around the reservoir land on the outskirts of Bronte country.

The farm is open to visitors from May to September five days a week, attracting up to 150 people a day. A lot of the visitors and campers come from within the locality to enjoy the farm life and the scenery. Birthday parties are also catered for.

The Peppers have also taken their education off the farm. In their Farm to Ewe experience, Stephen takes a Shetland pony and an alpaca to schools in the area and care homes which Tracy says is very rewarding to see the reactions and interest of the people in the schools and homes.

Last year after the season ended in September, the Peppers hosted free of charge visits at the farm from a special needs school every Thursday afternoon because they knew there would be huge benefits for the pupils and, as a result, great satisfaction for themselves.

“The public see another side to agriculture when they come to the farm and I explain how we do things and how we produce food from our fields which doesn’t involve bringing a product like soya from America at a huge cost,” said Stephen.

“There is no one to speak for farmers, apart from the NFU, and I really enjoy explaining to people about farming and what I do. Farmers who take part in Open Farm Sunday will also tell you how eye-opening and satisfying it is to have people on their farms. We have had thousands of visitors a year,” he added.

As well as the livestock kept for the visitors, the farm carries a commercial suckler herd of 20 Limousin Angus and British Blue crosses. Calves are finished along with some bought in store cattle and sold at local markets, including Gisburn Auction Mart and Craven Cattle Mart.

Stephen has always taken a great pride in his livestock and he also runs a flock of Beltex and Beltex cross ewes, having won several major shows over the years.

The farm’s activities have been promoted via a website but social media and a Facebook page in particular has helped create a big following and plenty of positive feedback which the Peppers are delighted with.

After carrying out improvements to the cafe area on the farm, the Peppers were hoping to have a good year and consolidate on their investments during 2020 but have so far been prevented from doing so with the coronavirus lockdown.

Both Stephen and Tracy saw the need to adapt the farming business and not continue to expect to earn an income from the farm as previous generations have done.

“With our working backgrounds off the farm, Stephen and I are both ‘people people’ so we enjoy meeting and entertaining the visitors,” said Tracy. “We work well together as a team and we can make changes to what we are doing overnight if we need to – we can often sit up planning until 1am.”

Now they are often helped by their older children with the livestock, taking an alpaca trek or in the cafe.

“We would like the children to take over and hopefully for it to continue to be a success – this is why we’re doing what we do,” added Tracy.