Farmer made his land pay with 4x4 school
By Nicky Carter - Reporter
FACED with declining income from his dairy herd, a Teesdale farmer took the brave decision two decades ago to use the land for “something other than agriculture”.
Graeme Gill’s decision to turn 20 acres of unproductive land at Smart Gill, Startforth, into an off-road training centre for 4x4 drivers, Deepdale Off Road, may have been an ambitious move.
But he says it proved to be one of the best decisions he has ever made for himself, his farm and the flora and fauna which has flourished as a result. Mr Gill said: “After my father died I was running the farm single-handedly. When I realised I couldn’t make that piece of land work, agriculturally, I suddenly thought what if it doesn’t have to. What if it’s used for something else.”
It was then he hit upon the idea of starting the off-road centre. He added: “There was a point during the 90s when a lot of people were buying four-wheeled drives for the first time. They had no clue what the vehicles could actually do and I saw there was an opportunity.
“At the same time I saw my income going down with the farm and I decided just to go for it. If you believe in something you just have to go for it and don’t let people tell you, you can’t do it.”
Not long after setting up the business Mr Gill decided to sell off his dairy herd to put all his efforts into his new business. Now all but 20 acres of his farm is rented to another farmer.
Mr Gill said Deepdale Off Road was initially aimed at people who “wanted to have fun” with experience packages for birthday and Christmas presents.
Although Mr Gill still offers experience drives where customers get behind the wheel of his Land Rover Discovery to tackle the bumpy, steep curved course, today they only account for about 10 per cent of his business.
Most his business is driver training, something he realised early on there was a market for.
Following the introduction of legislation requiring all operators using machinery to be suitably trained Mr Gill has adapted and became an accredited instructor with the Border Off Road Driving Association (BORDA).
He is now chairman and being a member gives him the ability to issue certificates for those passing courses.
Over the past 20 years about 10,000 people have gone through training with him. His burgeoning client list includes nuclear power facilities, utility companies, telecommunication businesses, St John’s Ambulance, mountain rescue teams, conservation teams as well as
national parks and government agencies.
He added: “No two days are the same. Although I will be teaching on the same course, you’re dealing with different people needing differing things.”
On one occasion while training staff from Natural England who have to use all-terrain vehicles, he had to keep stopping as they spotted rare butterflies and wildflowers.
He said: “The land hasn’t had fertiliser or any chemicals on it for 20 years, so it’s just gone back to the way it would have been before it was farmed. When I had Natural England here we’d keep stopping as they’d spotted something else that was rare. They were overjoyed when they found this really rare cluster of oxslips and orchids.”
Another area of the business which has seen a dramatic increase in uptake is trailer towing training.
“Before 1997 anyone who passed their test could tow a trailer or horse box without a problem. But anyone who passed after January 1997 needs an extra qualification to do this for more than 3.5 tonnes,” said Mr Gill.
The trailer towing service is operated by Andrew Kidd.
He added: “In farming you get a really busy time around harvesting, but this year has been like harvesting all year round and it’s been one of the busiest years for the business.
“Physically this is a much less demanding job than farming, but mentally it is probably more taxing. However I can take a day off now when I want to – with farming you can’t do that.”
Mr Gill said although he misses farming and having a dairy herd, being able to diversify has ensured he hasn’t had to leave the farm he loves.
He added: “I still find it amazing that the most unproductive area of land on the farm is now the most productive and I love it.”