A Norfolk farm is swapping traditional sugar beet and pigs for car parking and pumpkins in a bid to safeguard its financial future.

Diversification has become a key strategy for the 100-hectare farm run by Henry and Victoria Cushing at Thursford, near Fakenham.

Their popular Pumpkin House, launched in 2018, is due to reopen for Halloween visitors today - part of a policy of "farming the road" to take advantage of the busy A148, which brings a steady stream of potential customers past their door.

Fakenham & Wells Times: Victoria Cushing at the Pumpkin House in ThursfordVictoria Cushing at the Pumpkin House in Thursford (Image: Archant Norfolk 2018)

That idea also inspired the creation of a 100-space car park to bring even more people onto the farm, after knocking down a dilapidated 60-year-old pig shed.

Aided by free advice via the government's 'resilience fund', the couple are now exploring future options to fill their car park and optimise income from public visitors.

Having already started a seasonal maize maze and Christmas tree venture, future ideas include a children's play area and a nature walk.

Mrs Cushing said it was a "slightly scary decision" to halve their pig numbers from 2,000 to 1,000 by demolishing the old building - but the £250,000 replacement cost forced the couple to look at other income options.

"Now we have a car park to ramp up the diversification side of things," she said.

"We built the Pumpkin House five years ago purely as a diversified income stream, with the priorities being low set-up costs, and the need to improve cash flow. It has grown year on year.

"By next year, hopefully, the pumpkins, maize maze and Christmas trees will equal what we make from the pigs, if not more.

"It is about offering our customers added value. We have not yet decided what the long-term plan is. We got a grant to help dig out a pond and build a nature walk, and we have talked about doing maybe an indoor play area, or maybe a petting farm.

"We will never not be a farm. Henry loves it too much. But from a financial point of view it does not add up."

Fakenham & Wells Times: Victoria and Henry Cushing with harlequin and polar bear pumpkins at their farm near ThursfordVictoria and Henry Cushing with harlequin and polar bear pumpkins at their farm near Thursford (Image: Archant)

The couple expect to sell at least 4,000 standard pumpkins this year, as well as novelties such as crown prince, harlequin, and polar bear varieties.

But Mr Cushing said the traditional arable part of the business had become increasingly financially risky.

"Growing wheat and other crops is a massive risk, more than it ever has been, and it is not like there is a big reward at the end of it," he said.

"This year will be our last crop of sugar beet. It is a huge risk to grow the crop and a big financial output for not good enough reward.

"We've got to be realistic. We cannot carry on doing what we are doing and expecting the next year to be better.

"We have diversified a fair bit in the last few years. Our accountant said for years we have got to farm this main road, because it is one of the busiest roads in Norfolk."

Mr Cushing hopes there could also be opportunities to host seasonal markets while thousands of people are travelling to the Christmas Spectacular at the nearby Thursford Collection, run by his uncle John Cushing.

"It is about tapping into that potential market," he said.

The couple recently took advantage of free one-to-one consultancy funded through Defra's Future Farming Resilience Fund, to help businesses with budgeting, planning, technology, grants - and identifying new income opportunities.

Mrs Cushing said: "This has helped us by reinforcing that our ideas are good ones.

"They go through three years of accounts and they benchmark you against what other people's standard is, which was also really useful.

"They give you targets. They challenge you. They said we had the capacity to have another 1,000 pigs, so why are you not doing that? That was useful as well - things that we had ruled out, they were bringing them back to the table.

"I cannot see a negative in doing it. Like everything, it is no magic solution. But it does not cost you anything, it either confirms what you already know, or it puts new ideas on the table, or it challenges some of your decision-making."

The farm's audit was carried out by Andrew Spinks, an agri-business consultant at Brown and Co, one of the agencies offering the funded resilience advice.

"The next round of this scheme is open now," he said. "It is a development from the previous round, and as well as looking at business resilience, there will be a bit more in-depth analysis.

"It is free and it is a fresh pair of eyes - everyone has found something from it to think about."