Like many Welsh hill farmers, the Jones family have kept livestock for generations. Geraint Jones and his brother Gareth took on Glyn Hafren Farm from their father; but unlike many others, they chose to diversify the use of his land in a unique way.
Geraint is one of the most successful Enduro motorbike riders of all time. He was a nine-time British champion during his career which began in 1967.
“It started when some locals asked if they could ride on our land. I had a go and really enjoyed it, so I started competing in local events,” he explains.
His career extended over thirty years and he only stopped competing in 1999. “I had 25 years at the top of the sport and started competing for Great Britain in 1979.” He was able to balance this with demanding farm work and bringing up two sons who also got the bug and became competition riders themselves.
As an accomplished rider he found uses for the bikes on the farm too, using his relationship with world renowned brand Yamaha.
“The smaller engine bikes are perfect for the hillsides here and we have an ATV too which is great for rounding up livestock, especially during lambing and calving,” he says.
“My relationship with Yamaha goes back to my racing days when they asked me to race for them. This was towards to the end of my career and what happened when I retired from racing changed our farm more than I could ever imagine.”
The brand offered to work with Geraint to start an offroad experience on the farm where he would advise and tutor visitors who wanted to enjoy their bikes. “At the time, farming was a real challenge and with the subsidy changes it made a lot of sense to have a second income from the land, so we took on some bikes from Yamaha and started to take bookings.”
The Yamaha Experience started in 1994 and was a pioneering partnership between a small Welsh farm and one of the most recognisable motorcycle brands in the world. A building was completed in 2022 that to act as a reception, bike display area and changing rooms for visitors.
“I never thought it would become this popular. We are high up in the Welsh hills and yet people travel hundreds of miles to come and ride here. The business now outperforms the farm, and my accountant has even suggested that we stop farming because it doesn’t make financial sense anymore,” he says.
His lambing percentages were as high as 190 per cent for the Welsh Mule flock and 170 per cent for a traditional Welsh Speckle Faced variety, with the farm making £105 per lamb from 650 ewes in 2021. However, in contrast, the cost of inputs and the need for infrastructure investment means the farm may move away from keeping cattle. “It is hard to justify a large investment in muck and slurry storage and housing to keep a relatively small herd and I can’t see how it will be sustainable in the future.”
He believes that in the 1990s there was more financial support for hill farmers that were increasing their head of livestock. The switch to a single farm payment still provided a welcome income, but more recently the system has changed again which he says has made hill farming unsustainable for most farms in the area.
“We get a fraction of what we used to, it’s less than half. The current payment, though smaller, is essential to most farms here, so if we hadn’t diversified, we would still be struggling to keep farming.”
Geraint has a good upland farm, but rearing livestock has become very hard work for relatively little money. Recent rises in fuel and energy costs may cause him to reduce the stock by 30 per cent to reduce the amount of fertiliser and feed he has to buy in.
He says: “Creep feeding lambs is an expensive way to operate, but it is what the market demands. We have to take at least £15 off per head for the early lambs because of the cost of feed.”
Some farms have sold up to enable more trees to be planted to offset carbon emissions. These buyers are able to pay a higher rate for land than local farmers which is causing the amount of productive farmland to reduce.
“There was a time when we used to grow root crops and corn to use for feed and we were almost self-sufficient. We were encouraged to move to a grassland system, and then subsequently to buy inputs, and that has led us down a path that is not sustainable anymore. This, the cost and availability of labour, and the changes in climate have made farming here too hard for many.”
By continuing to keep cattle he has been able to reduce his fertiliser costs a little. However, new blanket NVZ rules in Wales have made using the manure harder. “We keep the cattle in for seven months of the year. We are lucky that we can grow enough silage because we have sufficient acres, but others don’t. The winters are longer so the grass takes longer to come through and we have therefore seen the cost of keeping the cattle indoors increase significantly,” he says.
The farm is subsidised by running the Yamaha Experience which provides 60 per cent of the family’s income.
“Back in the 1990s I thought the bikes would be a hobby business, a way for me to extend my passion for the sport and keep up my relationship with Yamaha, but it’s been the other way round. Without the bike business I would be in similar position to other local farmers and my sons would be unlikely to be able to take the farm on and support their families.”
Everyone on the farm is passionate about both aspects - farming and the bikes. It is an odd combination of skill sets, but it is essential to balancing the labour costs. “We can’t afford to pay the same rates as say construction, or other manual labour for farm work alone. This means we have had to find workers who are interested in both farming and helping with the Yamaha Experience. For those who share our passion it is a perfect combination.”
Geraint’s sporting credentials has made the farm a destination. Visitors are offered the opportunity to ride some of the best off-road bikes in the world with advice and instruction from himself and his sons. “We offer the full range from competition spec Yamaha WR 450F to the TTR 125 for younger or less experienced riders. The terrain here is diverse, and everyone can find a route to challenge and improve their skills,” he says.
“People are looking for adventure and the chance to do something a bit different. Social media has been a big driver with those who visit us posting out to friends and colleagues about the experiences. We are almost at capacity, and we have 40 bikes. When I started the business, we had four.”
To further subsidise the farm, the family has introduced renewable energy that helps to offset the cost of running the farm and the bike diversification. “We have a wood chip boiler that we feed with fallen trees, some solar panels and a wind turbine. The turbine has the potential to earn the farm between £40,000-50,000 per year and Geraint will soon have cleared the £300,000 it cost to install in 2015. The boiler heats the water for the farm, and we are able to sell a little solar energy back to the grid too.”
With a grandson and two granddaughters, he is philosophical about what the future holds and whether the family will continue to farm. “My sons want to keep farming. It’s in our blood and we enjoy it. It is hard to know what the future holds, but I can’t see my grandchildren wanting to do what we are now. However, by working with Yamaha I have been shown that the most unlikely partnerships can lead to farming sustainability. There will soon be a move away from fossil fuels and Yamaha has already launched an electric scooter, so it won’t be long before people are on electric motorbikes and wanting to enjoy them here.”
Through a diversity of incomes, he has tried to offer his family the chance to remain farmers on their own land, a privilege that he suggests will not be common for many like them in the generations to come. “It is much easier to find support for renewable energy or planting trees than it is to be a traditional livestock farmer. If farming support is not geared to help livestock farmers, then those that don’t diversify will struggle to continue. I like to think that we have been both lucky and resourceful to build the mixed farming enterprise we have, and I hope that my grandchildren will see it as attractive enough to be part of in the future,” he says.