These days, food has become a hot topic. We may be firmly in the supermarket age, but in the background, there is a growing hum of commerce from an altogether more wholesome sector.
Farm shops have mushroomed in recent years, aided by an increasingly food-savvy and environmentally aware public, farmers looking to diversify and reconnect with the consumer and the odd food scare. ‘Local’ has become the loudest buzz word around food. According to the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA), there are some 4,000 farm shops in the UK with turnovers ranging from £1,000 to more than £6 million per annum.
Outwardly, they vary from glossy emporia such as Daylesford Organic to converted sheds with fridges full of home-produced meat, but the ethos is consistent: sustainability, seasonality, traceability and low food miles.
The best examples provide a showcase for regional produce as well as their own, with enthusiastic staff extolling the virtues of the wares: meat that can, in its original form, be seen grazing within a bull’s roar of the shop and fresh fruit and veg- minus plastic wrapping-that you can smell and touch.
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Shopping at farm shops is exciting for consumers jaded by the homo- genising effects of supermarkets. Cook and food writer Jane Lovett sums it up: ‘When I visit a farm shop, I have a feeling of anticipation that I never feel when I walk into a super- market, because you simply don’t know what you’re going to find.’
There’s a feel-good factor, too. Mrs Lovett adds: ‘Farm shops offer original produce that has an assured local provenance, cutting food miles and guaranteeing freshness.’
In 2005, Ruth Kimber opened a shop on the family farm in Dorset’s Blackmore Vale selling home-produced beef, pork, turkey, welfare-friendly pink veal and raw milk. The shop, in a converted garage, has become a beacon in foodie circles and the whole family is involved. ‘We’re all different,’ Mrs Kimber comments about farm shops, ‘and put a different onus on what we do. If you’re in a vegetable-growing area, you’re obviously going to find more veg. We have a mixed livestock farm, so our shop reflects that.’
Farm shops sprang up in the 1970s as fruit farms began opening their doors for ‘pick your own’. These enterprises expanded quickly when they discovered that customers would be equally keen to buy other things, such as cream and bread, while they were there.
Food campaigner Caroline Cranbrook has watched this development with interest and, like many others, recognises the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire as an early pioneer. ‘It was probably she who introduced and popularised the very-high-quality farm shop by opening the now-famous Chatsworth Farm Shop. Beautifully set out, it sold Chatsworth meat, baked their own bread and made many other products themselves.’
She’s made a study of these enter- prises and finds the effects on the local economy are far-reaching. The Chatsworth area has since become a foodie destination and a fertile ground for small, local food businesses, which simply wouldn’t exist without the shop as an outlet.
It’s a model that is being replicated throughout Britain by a new generation of entrepreneurial farmers and estate owners with similarly positive effects. Andrew and Skye Hopetoun opened theirs two years ago on their estate just outside Edinburgh. The shop (which won Countryside Alliance and FARMA awards this year) boasts an in-house butchery selling beef, lamb and chicken produced on the estate, Hopetoun-branded beers and award-winning Scottish produce.
‘One of the things we’ve enjoyed most is discovering all of these wonderful local suppliers who are so enthusiastic about what they do, whether it be an artisan cheesemaker, a baker in Edinburgh or someone who makes tea,’ says Mr Hopetoun.
Edward Jewson would agree – he and his wife, Rachael, have been running Knitsley Farm Shop on their 200-acre livestock farm in Durham since 2008. The Jewsons employ 25 people full-time and sell all of their own beef, lamb, mutton, pork and eggs as well as pasties, pies and delicatessen products.
‘My father made a very decent living from 200 acres, but we live in a different era,’ explains Mr Jewson. ‘I’m quite creative and I love food. If you don’t have a passion for the food you produce, you’re wasting your time.’
As food prices rise and the recession bites, you may wonder how shops selling premium products can continue to compete on price with the supermarkets.
Mrs Kimber points out that value for money may not be always clear until you start cooking: ‘Although our bacon may appear to be more expensive pound for pound, it’s dry cured, so, unlike some mass-produced bacon, it doesn’t contain 30% water, which evaporates when you cook it.’
The best farm shops are also able offer a far wider variety of cheap cuts and offal than the supermarkets. For Mr Hopetoun, education is key: ‘We’re big fans of nose-to-tail eating and our butchers are on hand to help and advise the customer on the best ways of cooking the cheaper, unfamiliar cuts.’
Indeed, many farm shops have enjoyed an increase in sales since the horsemeat scandal broke in February as people wanted to be sure exactly what’s in the food they buy.
Tom Hunt, Sales and Marketing Manager at Ludlow Food Centre, FARMA’s UK Farm Retailer of the Year 2013, reports: ‘We’ve seen an increase in meat sales and homemade ready meals prepared in our kitchen. This is because we have complete control of everything we produce from the day it’s born to the day it appears in the butchery. Supermarkets can’t compete with that.’
As chairman of the judges for the FARMA awards, retired farmer and farm-shop owner Mike Blee has enjoyed visiting member shops. He’s quick to commend the entrepreneurial people making them work, but he cautions: ‘People in the movement are very keen to keep the concept and reason for a farm shop pure and clean. That is why all FARMA members have to have a holding number [a number given to every agricultural holding] to prove that there is a farm in the background, fuelling the enterprise.’
Mr Blee is convinced that the future of the movement is bright: ‘People are getting more interested in the provenance of their food and that attitude is going to grow.’
If you haven’t done so already, discover your local farm shop, expand your culinary horizons and support the local economy. You won’t regret it.