Maximising land potential through diversification

We hear from CLA member Paul O’Brien who has maximised the potential of his 220 acres, with enterprises ranging from farming, a campsite and business park to hiring out military vehicles
Paul O’Brien - tank man

Many CLA members have numerous strings to their bow beyond farming, but surely few have diversified in as many directions as Paul O’Brien. The beef farmer hires out his 120 military vehicles for film shoots, is a qualified ballroom and Latin dance instructor, and runs or co-runs a campsite, business park, scrap yard, online ticketing platform and solar tech company.

If that didn’t keep Paul busy enough, the cycling and swimming enthusiast also recently built new commercial units, hopes to open a museum and plans to sell venison alongside his beef boxes.

Paul’s background is in telecommunications, manufacturing development and sales, but he has wanted cattle ever since a Highland cow stuck its head into his car in a safari park when he was in his 20s. He realised this dream decades later when he first bought land, and now has 220 acres across sites in Hampshire and Surrey.

He says: “I promised myself then I would have a herd of them, and in 2008 I got my first three Highlands from a local farmer in Petersfield.

“It was a massive learning curve and a monster of a task to start breeding without any knowledge, other than a few books and Farmers Weekly. Nothing is easy in farming and it takes real effort, but away I went and it has taken me up until the last couple of years before I’ve been able to find a way to successfully make some money.

Every day I look at my cows and just love the sight of them, they are my real joy. It’s important to me to have a happy herd – animal welfare is vital

Paul O’Brien
Paul O’Brien - highland cow

Farming ambitions

Aided by his sons and wife Kate, Paul sells his beef to local hotels and restaurants and hopes to increase the size of his herd from 60 to 80 to meet demand. Describing himself as a ‘farming entrepreneur’, he says: “Not coming from an agricultural background, it’s been an interesting journey.

“It does feel like things are against you sometimes, from the planning system to Natural England.”

I thought farming was a respected industry, but it can feel like a bit of a dirty word, which is strange when you consider we’re feeding the world and just trying to make a living

Paul O’Brien

“I’m proud of what we do - we look after the land, and the meat is incredibly lean and tasty. I’d eat it every day myself if I could, which I think is an important statement.”

Military vehicles

Another passion is military vehicles. Over 40 years, Paul has built up a collection of 120 decommissioned tanks, trucks and armoured vehicles and now hires them out for weddings, films, and music and fashion videos. They have featured in everything from a James Bond film to the BBC’s high-octane ‘petrolhead’ series Gassed Up.

He says: “The engineering of military vehicles has always fascinated me, and when I found out I could buy them, away I went, and the collection’s really grown over the years.

“Last year was very poor in hiring them out due to the writers’ and actors’ strikes, but things are hotting up for 2024, and we are expecting at least four sizeable budget films and a few series-type productions.

“We also hire the farm out as a venue, as we’re quite accessible, and rent out props such as uniforms and artefacts. It’s good fun seeing your stuff on screen.”

Paul’s interests stretch from tanks to the tango, as he has a dance group, PaulOB1 Dance School in Alton, teaching ballroom and Latin. He credits it with relaxing him as he juggles his various business interests.

He said: “Dancing is my balancer in life. The school is an absolute pleasure, although Covid destroyed a lot of what I had built.

“It’s one of those amazing jobs where you get paid for doing something you love. It’s an escape, my way of getting away from the world because no matter how I’m feeling at the start of a session, I’m in such a chilled mood by the end of the evening.”

tank in field

Barriers to business success

One of Paul’s main frustrations is the planning system and how expensive, cumbersome and unsupportive it can be for rural businesses. He has spent years and thousands of pounds attempting to gain permission to build his Iron Curtain museum dedicated to exhibiting military vehicles and artefacts, dating largely from 1946 to 1991.

He says: “It’s a really positive thing and would be a tourism boost to the local area, especially as there’s so much military history around here.

“But it feels like the system is against little people like me and it’s destroying livelihoods. It’s nonsense and the UK will end up losing people to other countries. There can be an ‘anti’ attitude, and things can take so long that the world then moves on.”

One of Paul’s main income streams is his seven-acre business park near Guildford, and there is also a scrap yard in Southampton plus new green energy company, GenBatt. He also enjoys running a small campsite and an Airbnb: “It’s nice to have people come to the farm, they come from all over and you meet some lovely people.”

Looking ahead

Plans for the next 12 months include opening another scrap yard, writing a book and pushing on with his museum vision on a different site, using an existing building.

“I’ve said a few times I won’t launch a new business, then something else comes along,” he says. “I just enjoy being busy, and it doesn’t feel like work.”

Land & Business Magazine

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