For years now farmers’ markets have provided the perfect place for farmers to sell directly to consumers, without worrying about farm gate prices and competing against imports on supermarket shelves.
Over the past decade, these markets have grown exponentially. They now crop up all over the country in small towns, which become reanimated by a regular market day, and in city centre farmers’ markets, such as the one in Pimlico in London.
However for most buying from farmers’ markets, although preferable where possible, is unfortunately a treat to be savoured rather than a routine means of supplying household needs. Time restrictions on those doing the weekly shop take their toll and many are still reduced to returning to the supermarket for their staple needs.
However, despite this, customers at Sainsburys and the like are becoming frustrated by a lack of choice, overinflated prices and poor quality. As regular food scares continue to frighten mothers country-wide, people are demanding to know where their food has come from, and looking further afield.
And so from the farmers’ market to the comfort of the study or sitting room as people increasingly find they can shop from the comfort of their homes and still source quality, reasonable-priced produce.
The new wave of Internet-based farm shops – effectively farmers’ markets that deliver – is providing consumers with more choice than ever. By offering their products online and delivering them directly to consumers, farmers have the opportunity to cut out the middle man, and as a result fresher, higher quality products are passed on to the consumer with a minimum of fuss.
One of the latest online farm shops has been launched by Eversfield Manor. Its online venture has been a huge success since its inauguration a year ago, prompting the owner, Mark Bury, to revamp the site in April: ‘When we started the site there were only two or three major players, and we thought we could do better,’ he says.
The challenges of selling online
The greatest challenge for Eversfield is to make the shopping experience as convenient as possible for customers. To do this they, like other similar producers, operate a scheme whereby the customer can pay a fee to receive a regular selection box of meat chosen by the farm, along with recipes and some fresh herbs.
Each piece of meat is received individually vacuum packed, ready to store in the ‘fridge or freezer. This way Eversfield does all the thinking for the customer, and once a regular order is set up there is no need to contact them again unless the shopper has a specific requirement.
Another big challenge facing food producers selling online is winning the trust of people suspicious of not being able to see and touch before they buy. As Ben Kennard of Graig Farm Organics points out: ‘A lot of people think they’re going to get their food through the post, and are worried about hygiene and so on, but when they see it come vacuum packed, and arriving by courier, and they see the quality of the stuff we produce, they come back time and again.’
Around 60% of Mr Kennard’s sales are now online, proving that once people are converted they come back, and that word of mouth is also a powerful tool.
Heal Farm is a family-run farmer’s shop and small farm in North Devon. Anne Petch, the owner, started the shop almost 30 years ago. She wanted to provide an alternative to industrially farmed produce, and already had an interest in the conservation of rare breeds and traditional farming methods. She also had a young family and wanted to feed them good nutritional food. The remoteness of her shop meant that, from the start, Heal Farm has operated a mail order service to reach enough customers to survive.
The move online was a natural progression for her, and a recent Independent Best 50 feature listed Heal Farm as the best for fine ingredients and number two overall in the 50 best websites for food.
Mrs Petch thinks people come shopping for fresh produce online because: ‘People are ‘time poor’ due to work and time-consuming hobbies, yet they do not want to live on ready meals, or want their children to eat food with artificial ingredients and additives.’
Courting new markets
Her thoughts also chime with the findings of Ian Miller who runs Jamesfield Organic Farm which as been going for generations, converted to organic in the 1970s and went online about five years ago. Jamesfield, in Fife, is currently in the middle of a huge expansion including building a visitor centre, kitchen and restaurant so that people can literally come and see where their produce is from (for the strong-stomached the restaurant will overlook the working farm when it is complete in October).
Mr Miller is also making a concerted effort to corner a new market: young professionals. He has found that at the farmers’ markets he goes to in Edinburgh and Glasgow there are young people who want to eat good food that is easy and fast to make at home.
He is now offering organic ready-made meals on his site for a more web-savvy generation: ‘Until recently a lot of our customers were still using mail order and tended to be older folk, people who wanted to take their time cooking. But younger people are used to everything happening quickly and this is perfect for those who want good food with a minimum of effort, and this is what we give them,’ he says.
So farmers and local shops that source and sell quality produce are increasingly turning to the web to market themselves and to sell their products. It helps the producer and it helps the consumer. On the day before Burn’s Night supper when Tesco’s is out of haggis you can now simply order your Chieftan online? whether you live in Blairgowrie or Belfast.
Supermarkets may currently still have a stranglehold on the industry but whose to say what the future will bring? We can but hope?
Ainsty Farm Shop
Sheep Drove Shop
Drummond Trout Farm
Westmorland Farm Shops
National Association of Farmers Markets