Quarter of a century after Cannon Hall Farm opened its doors as a visitor attraction, the family behind the South Yorkshire farmyard have revealed the stick in the spokes which nearly stopped their journey before it began.
Farm director Richard Nicholson still remembers what Cannon Hall Farm was like when he was a boy.
The 47-year-old – who was not even born when his grandfather bought the place back in 1958 – recalls: “There was a lot more mud everywhere, chickens roaming the yard, it was a proper old-fashioned farm.
“There’s no doubt things are far more efficient these days but, in a way, I think all farmers hanker for those good old days.”
Today Cannon Hall Farm, off Bark House Lane, Cawthorne, Barnsley, welcomes 300,000 visitors a year, employs a staff of 150 and features a farm shop, deli, restaurant, gift shop and one of the biggest outdoor play zones in the North of England.
It is run by the Nicholson family – primarily dad Roger and his three grown-up sons Richard, Robert and David.
They have watched in amazement for the past two-and-a-half decades as their working farmyard has grown into a booming commercial business, attracting visitors from all over the country.
But it nearly was not to be.
Dad Roger, now aged 71, remembers a visit to his bank manager in 1989 where he first broached his idea of farm tourism and was shot down in flames.
Richard says: “My dad has told us the story many times.
“The bank manager brought in a specialist agricultural advisor and, together, they told my dad ‘Face it Mr Nicholson, you’ve never been able to support your wife and family with that place. You need to sell up while you still have some equity left in the business’.”
But Roger refused to take no for an answer and took his business to another bank, which agreed to back the scheme.
Richard says: “Thank goodness somebody listened.
“When I look back at what we have done over the past 25 years, it fills me with pride, but there’s still lots to do.
“We are committed to making Cannon Hall Farm the best farm tourism destination in the UK and want to continue to raise the profile of this beautiful area we live in.”
The idea to open the farm to the public was born out of necessity as, at only 126 acres, it was struggling to earn the family a living.
But it recently acquired an extra 50,000 sq feet of land –1.15 acres – as part of a £4 million investment which has already seen the creation of a new farmyard, a demonstration milking parlour and a rare breeds barn where Britain’s rich agricultural heritage is showcased and celebrated.
Seven new farm buildings have also been erected, with purpose-built viewing galleries which allow visitors an insight into the day-to-day workings of a modern farmyard, where they can see farm machinery in action and cows being milked.
Richard says: “The children love watching the tractors as much as the animals.
“It’s fantastic for families to be able to see what we do as we’re doing it – a real working farm.”
The next stage of the regeneration, which will take place over the next 12 months, is the building of an indoor play centre, new educational facilities and an animal contact barn.
And the family are quick to compliment the team working around them every single day.
Richard says: “The farm employs 150 people and none of what we do would be possible without the special people who form that dedicated workforce. My mum said recently she always hoped the farm would provide work for the three of us, her children, but she never would have imagined it would provide for 147 others too.”
And that workforce is still headed up by pensioner Roger who is showing no signs of retiring – or even of slowing down.
Barnsley lad Roger was just 16 when his dad died, 12 months after buying Cannon Hall Farm, meaning the young farmer had to drop out of school to take it over.
Richard explains: “It was a tall order, a lot of responsibility for a young boy, but he did it.
“Years later, my dad is still the first one up and the last one out. He likes the idea that people come and visit us and enjoy seeing what we do, but he’s an old-fashioned farmer first and his main focus is still on the animals.
“He’s still the hardest worker and, when our newborns are being delivered, he’s on 24-hour call attending to then – farming really is in his blood and we’re very proud of what he’s achieved.
“When we think back to the stress and pressure he must have felt 25 years ago, as he dared to imagine what Cannon Hall could become – even as people told him it wasn’t possible – it makes where we are today all the more remarkable.”
* Visit cannonhallfarm.co.uk for more information.
* Cannon Hall Farm is celebrating its 25th anniversary today by charging 1989 prices.
Today only, adults can visit for £1 and children for just 75p.
Robert Nicholson, farm director, said: “It seems like only yesterday we took the plunge and embarked on a life centred around farm tourism and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute.”
The farm is about to embark on stage two of a £4million investment that has already seen the creation of a new farmyard, milking parlour and rare breeds barn.
The next stage is a play centre and café.
This year the farm hosts its first music festival, and has just had its most successful early lambing ever, with almost 300 more ewes due at Easter.