Farming family fear being frozen out of Dales if ice-cream parlour bites dust

Gillian Harrison with her father-in-law Maurice Harrison, in front of the barn they want to turn into an ice cream parlour
Gillian Harrison with her father-in-law Maurice Harrison, in front of the barn they want to turn into an ice cream parlour
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Perched on a hillside a short distance outside of Leyburn in the village of Thornton Rust, Adrian Harrison has lived on his farm for all but four of his 44 years and he wants to stay there.

But the exodus from rural communities threatens to engulf his family, as their plans to diversify their business at Manor Farm to ensure they can remain in a part of the world that the Harrison clan have called home for more than 300 years are at risk of collapse.

Relying on his dairy herd of 130 Jersey cows to earn a living for him, his wife Gillian, 47, and their children Annabel, 14, and James, 12, as well as supporting his parents Anne and Maurice and providing employment for his brothers, is proving impossible on sales of raw milk alone.

As is the case for many dairy farmers across the country right now, the price that Mr Harrison receives for the commodity has fallen below the returns he needs to cover the costs of producing milk from his herd. In fact, he is receiving the same milk price he received 20 years ago and has had to lay off two part-time staff to cope.

Mrs Harrison supplements the family’s income by doing two different part-time jobs, running an online retail business and their recent diversification project, but this is not enough to guarantee their future in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

To add value to their business two years ago, the Harrisons set up an ice-cream production unit in a building used as the farm’s office. Using milk from their herd, Mrs Harrison produces Wensleydale Ice Cream and sells it wholesale to pubs and restaurants.

The operation has proved a success but financially the real benefits, they say, would come from selling the ice cream by the scoop to the public from a parlour on the farm.

Having scoured their land for an appropriate building that could be converted into a retail unit, they settled on what they say is the only viable option, a traditional stone barn used by livestock for shelter and sited around 60 yards from the A684 which connects Leyburn and Hawes.

Their cause appeared to be aided last year when the Government introduced relaxed planning rules that gave the owners of certain types of agricultural buildings – including stone barns – the power to change their use from agricultural to commercial without the need for planning permission.

But while the Harrisons managed to secure a change of use, which involved notifying the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) of the proposal, they are facing a race against time to action that change or face it being voided.

The pressure comes after the YDNPA passed a legal direction that will remove the relaxed planning rights from applying within the National Park on January 19. An appeal by Richmondshire District Council and North Yorkshire County Council, urging the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to overturn the YDNPA’s legal move, was rejected.

If the Harrisons are unable to sell ice cream to the public from the farm to boost their income, they fear they will have to relocate and find alternative employment in a town – a move that would crush their dreams of handing over the farm business to their children when the time is right.

Mrs Harrison said: “We want to sustain an existing business in the Dales and make it viable so we can create employment in the area and a future for the next generation – our kids.

“We’ve spent thousands to get to where we are with our plans.

“We are constantly told we must diversify to survive and it’s fundamental to our future. If we carry on like this we will just have to shut up shop and will have to start from scratch elsewhere in a new industry.

“If we stay and the ice cream parlour goes ahead, we will be able to remain here, the land here will remain in agricultural use and the barn will stand for many years to come.”