Adam Henson – everyone’s favourite farmer

The Four Shires were invited to visit Adam Henson down on his Cotswold Farm

adam-henson-5In the October issue of the magazine we were lucky enough to meet Adam Henson at his farm just outside Stow-on-the-Wold. Adam is famous for co-presenting the BBC TV programme Countryfile. Here he gives us the low down on his Four Shires’ business;

When did the business start and how did you start it?

In 1962 my father, Joe, took on the farm tenancy and ran it with his business partner and old school friend John Neave. They grew arable crops, had some beef cattle and a flock of sheep. Many traditional breeds were dying out at this time because they didn’t fit in with the drive for productive farming in the 50s and 60s (which was all about feeding a starving nation after the Second World War). Dad and John started collecting these old fashioned breeds, referred to as ‘antiques of the countryside’, as many were becoming rare and in danger of extinction. They started with two Gloucester cows and two Gloucestershire Old Spot sows. As word spread, Dad was invited to attend a meeting of a working party which was trying to find a home for a collection of rare breeds established at Whipsnade Zoo – Dad would later agree to take almost all of these animals. This wasn’t just a hobby, Dad believed that these breeds held a resource of genes for the future of farming. Thankfully, with the assistance of many other rare breed enthusiasts, these valuable animals have been kept alive to this day. In 1971 the Cotswold Farm Park was opened to the public, becoming the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s first Approved Centre. Dad hoped that the Farm Park would help to publicise the work of the RBST and that admission charges would help pay to maintain the breeding groups at the farm.

Where is it based – has it always been based here?

On our working farm in the heart of the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, not far from Stow on the Wold.

What are the particular challenges facing the business at this time?

As farm tenants we are constrained by the activities within our licence to operate. We also have limited services, as our water comes from a natural spring pumped up from the village, and the electricity is only single phase on an extension from the main farm. To date the ability to expand has been restricted, however, we are currently working closely with our landlord with plans to enhance both the infrastructure and the visitor experience at the Farm Park. Staff recruitment can also be a challenge as we are in a rural area with no public transport, requiring all employees to drive to work. We are very fortunate to have an enthusiastic, dedicated team of 13 full time and 80 seasonal staff.

Have you made many mistakes as you have built up the business?

In an ideal situation my business partner, Duncan Andrews, and I would have loved to have bought our own site, to develop as we wished without any tenancy constraints or poor infrastructure. However, I have always been somewhat ‘risk adverse’ and never rich enough to be able to purchase land, so it would have meant borrowing the money. We were fortunate that my Dad and John Neave had started the Farm Park and gave us a good platform to work from. Duncan and I did invest heavily in the late 90’s just before Foot and Mouth came along in 2001, which almost crippled the business. Thankfully we weren’t too heavily borrowed and survived.

Do you employ people or do you ‘DIY’?

I used to try and multi-task, doing everything from a shearing demonstration, to cashing up the tills at the end of the day, discussing the menu with the catering team and rushing off to the NEC trade shows to buy shop stock. I was doing it all, but not very well. I have now learnt to surround myself with an experienced team and this has made a huge difference.

 Do you have a particular fondness for working within the Four Shires?

I am very fortunate to live and work in the Cotswolds, I can genuinely say that I look forward to every morning and am lucky enough not to have to commute to work.

Did you always want to work within your chosen profession? If not what would you do?

I was born and bred on the farm. Ever since I was a nipper I have enjoyed pulling on my wellies and getting out into the fields – my Dad made it exciting and engaging. From the tractors and animals to the Farm Park, ever since I was small I have loved farm life. I did get an ‘A’ in ceramics at school and at one stage I liked the idea of pottery. Due to my family background I also toyed with the idea of being an actor, my grandfather Leslie Henson was a very famous actor, as is my uncle Nicky.

What lessons have you learnt during your business career?

Surrounding ourselves with experienced people, who we trust, has given Duncan and I, time to develop other opportunities and for me to carry out my television work. We have a comprehensive induction programme to explain to new staff the ethos and working practices of the business, with a strong emphasis on customer service. In comparison to the 70’s, visitors are now looking for an enhanced visitor experience, with interaction, talks, entertainment and refreshments. With the advent of social media feedback is instantaneous and by listening to our customers we can confidently move the business forward.

Is the customer always right?

99% of the time! Customer satisfaction is key to everything that we do and we receive some fantastic feedback on Trip Advisor…

Could you describe a typical working day?

My life is incredibly varied and there is no such thing as a typical day. I film with BBC Countryfile at the start of each week and then do the voice over once a fortnight either in Bristol or Chipping Norton. Thursdays and Fridays are generally clear to work on the farm, although regrettably this time is more office based than I would like, with regular meetings and emails and paperwork to attend to. I also do some corporate work, including for the past six years being Lloyds Bank Farming Ambassador, which takes me all over the UK.

How do you spend your spare time – what are your hobbies?

I enjoy rugby and follow Gloucester, often going to watch. I played centre for Stow First Team for 14 years but nowadays watch my children play sport instead. My son Alfie is a keen rugby and hockey player and I am hoping my daughter Ella, will get into the hockey team at Birmingham University where she is studying English and Drama.

If you could have played sport for your country what would it be?

I am half Welsh and was brought up on rugby during the days of Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams. Up until the age of 12 I wanted to play rugby for Wales, but at around 16 I came to my senses and yes, I would have loved to have played for England.

What book are you reading at the moment and what is your favourite?

I read very few books, but do study the various farming publications. I have however just published my own book – ‘Like Farmer, like Son’ which describes how both my own and my father’s lives have mirrored each other. Look it up!

dsc_thurs22aFavourite film… and music?

As a child I enjoyed a good Western with Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. I love a good action movie like the Bond films or Mission Impossible. I have a wide taste in music. In my teenage years I enjoyed Ska and Two Tone but have now widened my tastes to include Coldplay and Paolo Nutino. I have never been a fan of heavy metal.

Marmite – yes or no?

Yup – love Marmite – try it with jam, it gives a lovely sweet and sour flavour.

Car or motorcycle?

Car. I had a moped as a teenager but don’t think I would be safe on a powerful motorbike.

Is there someone in business you would like to emulate – or someone not necessarily involved in the business world?

I admire those who have become successful whilst keeping a sense of empathy towards others. It is important to treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.

What are your hopes for the future for the company?

To work closely with our landlord to expand the Cotswold Farm Park and to enhance the visitor experience here at the Cotswold Farm Park.

The Four Shires offers amazing opportunities to go out and enjoy the surrounding countryside. People are always very keen to rush off to foreign places to enjoy holidays, but they should try doing so on their own doorstep. The Cotswolds is a beautiful place to be. Look at the adverts in the Four Shires magazine and try to visit one a month!