PUMPKIN picking has become one of the hottest activities in Scotland’s calendar during October – a perfect tonic to the cold weather settling in and a great excuse to get out into the countryside and keep the kids entertained.

There are around 25 farms across Scotland opening up their pumpkin patches to thousands of families – a well-thought-out form of diversification which has ensured that farms can spread their incomes into more than one basket, but also a perfect gateway into sharing the story behind Scotland’s larder.

Farming, just like many other sectors, businesses, and households, is under increasing pressure to ride out the economic storm, with soaring input costs casting shadows over its future.

Throw into the mix the fact that farmers are often on the backfoot when it comes to negotiating the price of their produce, often at the mercy of supermarkets and not to mention that for many working farms, paydays can be few and far between, typically taking place at key points of the year when crops and livestock are ready to be sold, meaning cash flow in between can be very low.

Exploring other activities which can run alongside the farm opens other income streams which not only adds resilience to the business plan but is allowing for multiple generations in the family to build a future on the farm. In recent years, there has been a steep rise in the number of diversification activities such as farm shops, glamping pods, cafes, farm tours and off-road experiences – these are just a handful of the ventures which are popping up across the country.

These farm activities are often customer-facing, which alleviates the middleman and means that farmers can become price setters. This has brought much-needed relief, knowing that customers pay for their activities or experiences ahead of time and it also allows them to better plan for the year ahead, be that lambing experiences in the spring or selling tickets for pumpkin picking in the autumn.

Kilduff Farm in East Lothian has hit the nail on the head when it comes to executing a well-oiled diversification portfolio. A working arable farm which didn’t offer too many options for Lucy and Russ Calder's young family to get involved in, but by opening up a pumpkin patch, it meant there was something to keep the whole family interested and Lucy told me that it has been an amazing opportunity to share key messages around food production and farming with members of the public.

Their pumpkin patch was launched in 2018, one of the first on the east coast of Scotland and its soaring popularity in the past five years explains why they have sold out tickets for this October and are expecting to welcome 10,000 people to the farm.

But it isn’t just about increasing pumpkin sales for the Calders, who this year have reduced their size of patch to accommodate for more biodiversity patches to support pollinator populations. They want kids who come to the patch to hear all about how farms are working closely with nature and are even offering an "early pickers" ticket for under five years old, where they can enjoy story-telling sessions.

Like many farms who choose to diversify across the country, pumpkins aren’t the only venture which has been keeping the Calders busy. As well as selling apple juice and preserves from their own orchard, they have also been selling cut flowers – having planted dahlias around the pumpkin patch in the spring – and have teamed up with a local farmer and miller, Angus McDowall at Mungowells, to produce bread flour – supplying him with a special type of spring wheat.

Lucy points out that an appetite for food produced on your doorstep is rising and that farms across Scotland are diversifying their offerings, trying to reduce food waste and cater for growing consumer demand for low-carbon food from local farms.

But diversification isn’t just about supporting local food stories and building resilience into a business plan. For many, opening the farm to the public through various ventures can be light relief for farming families. On its own, farming can be a solitary existence, especially with labour harder to come by in recent years, and with worrying mental health statistics plaguing the sector, diversification offers a great opportunity to break the monotony.

One of the individuals who has been driving the agricultural tourism – "agritourism" – movement here in Scotland is Caroline Millar, who together with her husband Ross runs a successful mixed livestock and arable farm in Angus, alongside her luxury "Hideaway experience" and rural consultancy business.

She told me that the appetite for experience-led stays at farms across the country is soaring and since the pound fell against the dollar, there has been a surge in interest from American visitors, who have already booked up for multiple farm visits in the coming year.

Pop-up food events, farm tours and gift experiences are proving the most popular avenues right now according to Caroline, and farmers are getting more inventive with engaging with the public, with some selling Christmas gift vouchers for experience days, where you can "Become a farmer for the day" or "Give the gift of a lambing experience" – a brilliant idea for families who maybe want to tear their kids away from their gaming consoles for a wholesome day out.

Of the 16,000 registered farms here in Scotland, more than 550 are "officially" running agritourism businesses, but Caroline believes the number might be much higher and hopes for this to increase to 1000 by 2030.

She admits that adding on a tourism arm to the farm business isn’t a silver bullet to the challenges facing the industry right now and it can take time to build up a professional outfit but adds that having a diversity of income streams does make for significantly less stress than having all your money in a single livestock enterprise or arable operation.

With so much negativity swirling around our news channels and farming stories often being ones centred around despair, farm diversification offers a much-needed positive story and picking your own pumpkin is a perfect gateway in to witnessing this fast-changing farming climate.

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