Farm diversification: Jason Gathorne-Hardy’s ‘art farm’ at White House Farm, Great Glemham, Saxmundham, helps revive countryside culture

Jason Gathorne-Hardy, curator/director of the Alde Valley Spring Festival, standing outside the Seas

Jason Gathorne-Hardy, curator/director of the Alde Valley Spring Festival, standing outside the Seasonal Reception Room, and next to a sculpture, Bull's Head, by his Aunt Juliet. Picture: JASON GATHORNE-HARDY - Credit: Jason Gathorne-Hardy

In the late 1990s, Jason Gathorne-Hardy was using a fishing net tied to a hazel branch to try to catch a dove stuck in a barn used to store sheep food.

It struck him that there was no future in this, and that something more should be done to revive a range of old farm buildings allocated to a sheep business making (or losing) about £1,500 per year.

Jason, who is also an artist, of White House Farm, Great Glemham Farms, near Saxmundham, decided to launch The Alde Valley Spring Festival.

From small beginnings at an Easter retreat art exhibition in 2003, he now runs a series of seasonal events celebrating the coming together of food, arts, writing, music and traditional craft skills in a working farm environment. They include farm nature walks, open access and information about Entry Level Stewardship and Higher Level Stewardship farm conservation projects, woodland management and a farmyard classroom.

The autumn programme, !Cornucopia!, focuses on curated solos art shows by invited artists, farm suppers, writing residencies, poetry and workshop residencies.

White House Farm is around 60 hectares but is part of a larger family partnership business. Arable land is contracted out to F S Watts & Sons and a sheep flock and grazing is subject to a pasturage agreement. Other aspects of the business, including environmental management, property, open farm events, educational access, footpaths and a small meat brand are all managed in-hand.

A key reason for diversifying was financial, says Jason, but another was the absence and loss of jobs and people from the old farm buildings and the desire to give them a new lease of life.

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“In the walls were etched the names of men who had tended the horses in the 1930s,” he explains. “And all around were the signs of past use. It felt sad – a loss that the barns were not full of voices or the floors well-trod or the wood work (old or new) being worn smooth by touch.”

When diversifying, flexibility is very important, he believes, combined with a low risk approach, testing out ideas with relatively low capital risk. You also need to have the humility to understand or notice when you have got it wrong, he says.

If he was starting from scratch, he would do more market research. “Many aspects of the events in the past were what I would call action research, in which the event or part of the project becomes the test,” he says.

The autumn programme is still growing, handling sales of £25,000 to £30,000 over two to three weeks, significantly outgrowing the direct income from grazing and livestock.

Now White House Farm could not survive without diversification, he says, and it has become woven into the fabric of the farm. One visitor called it an ‘art farm’. Running it has transformed his life, he says.

“Working with the public has been the greatest pleasure and reward. It feels a great honour to be able to live where I do and to be able to share that with visitors when the farm is open to the public,” he says. “The greatest pleasure and aim is to somehow share and celebrate the blessedness of being alive and being able to live in such a beautiful part of the world; and in a farming landscape that is so deeply productive in every sense.”