A growing appetite for local food is triggering a sales boom at farm shops across Britain as more people seek an alternative to the bland aisles of their local supermarket.
Farmers are predicting that sales at their shops – which enable small farms to bypass supermarkets – will grow by 5 per cent this year, confounding fears that the sector would slow down during the recession. Some of the UK's 3,500-plus farm shops are reporting that business has doubled this summer compared with last year as bumper harvests lure even city dwellers into the countryside to do their weekly shop.
Figures from Farma, the National Farmers' Retail and Markets Association, show that 33 per cent of households regularly visit farm shops, with a similar number buying their groceries at one of the 800 farmers' markets across the UK. More than half of UK households buy some produce direct from the farm, including pick-your-own and box scheme sales, the survey found.
The growing popularity of buying direct from the farm owes much to a new crop of shops, modelled more on department store food halls than muddy shacks. "Think Selfridges in a field," John Farrand, director of the Guild of Fine Foods, said. "There has been an explosion of smarter, well-designed, purpose-built and wonderfully lit farm shops."
One of the doyennes of the new chic scene is Lady Bamford, wife of the JCB multimillionaire Sir Anthony, who opened Daylesford Organic, near Kingham in Gloucestershire, back in 2003. Another stalwart shop is that at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, which is Farma's farm retailer of the year. It opened in 1977, initially trading out of what used to be the carriage-horse stables. It now includes a restaurant, deli and butchers.
The National Trust is tapping into the farm shop boom. It has just opened its first at Polesdown Lacey, in Surrey. A second is expected to follow at Fountains Abbey, in North Yorkshire, with another 10 in the pipeline.
Shops such as Daylesford and Chatsworth have raised the bar for farmers everywhere, including Jeremy Jagger, a sixth-generation farmer who opened Battlefield 1403, near Shrewsbury, 15 months ago. "It was a bit of a gamble for us because it was a big capital investment but it's been unbelievable," he said. "We panicked at first that we couldn't cope with the demand."
Shoppers – from retired locals to young families who bring their children at the weekend – flock mainly for the butchery counter, although the ready meals made at the on-site kitchen also sell well. Mr Jagger ascribes the success of his and other farm shops to their ability to do "gate to plate" in a way that supermarkets can't. "People like to know where their food has come from because they are much more aware of what they eat."
Mr Farrand added: "A pound spent in your local farm shop is better than a pound in your local supermarket. Circulating money locally provides a feelgood factor, which can't be underestimated."
Farm shops are most popular in the South-west, where nearly one in two people have visited at least one this year, a recent Farma poll showed. They are also popular in the East Midlands and the South-east.Reuse content