Farmer Copley's: How a tiny Yorkshire farm shop became a major visitor attraction with 100 staff
Farmer Copley’s annual Pumpkin Festival, which finished last weekend, has become a massive attraction and last year was voted most Instagram-able pumpkin patch in the UK by Instagram.
Rob and Heather Copley’s lives have been transformed, growing Farmer Copley’s into a business that now carries a £5.5m turnover and employs a team of 100.
“It was really tiny when we started,” says Rob. “Heather and I had come back to Yorkshire to the farm that my dad Ken had run for many years. I’d got another job as an animal feed rep and on the farm I had my Angus herd and had just thought I was going to sell my cattle direct to the public as beef. I’d thought the same about selling produce from local chicken, sheep and pig farmers. All to create a new, diversified income.
“We were a farm shop butchery and all we really thought at the time was, that’s it, we’re in business. We had no idea it would turn into the beast it has become,” says Rob. “But its popularity, with queues outside of the door, soon made us realise what we had was not big enough and looking back now, we’d probably outgrown it before we’d opened.
“It was always going to be based around butchery, with the other side of the shop always going to be a deli. We just thought the deli would be about buying pies, selling pies, roasting our own meat and making one or two of our own quiches, but never did we have the idea that we would have production like we do today.
“I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to do oranges and bananas, let’s just do British grown veg’. That’s how we set off and we’re still very pure as a farm shop, in fact even more so today as we’ve now moved away from the gifts side that we incorporated for a good few years, but customers said they wanted oranges and bananas because they just wanted to do one shop, so we ended up putting those in for convenience. We don’t celebrate them or push them, but we will put on and push a big display of whatever is seasonal British produce at the time.
Rob says the growth has been continuous, year on year, even given the lockdown times when things had to be done differently.
“We have grown every year since we opened. In 2005 we doubled in size and in 2008 we put what became the café and shop into one whole barn.
“We first started taking people out onto farm when we launched a Maize Maze and started with pumpkins. This has just been our 17th year of pumpkins which doubled every year until about four years ago. We now grow them across 50 acres and this year we grew 350,000.
The other major crop grown for public picking is strawberries. Rob really likes this side of the business and Farmer Copley’s has recently launched a new dimension to visitors with the Jam Kitchen.
“I really like fruit growing and seeing people going out, picking and eating. It’s now all undertaken in polytunnels, which of course isn’t quite so traditional but weather-wise it just made good business sense. We now grow 7km of strawberries.
“Families will pick strawberries and pumpkins and will talk about them. We try to build things in that are educational, such as the lifecycle of the strawberry or pumpkin.
Rob has been involved with farm retail organisations at high level and has travelled extensively, picking up further ideas for Farmer Copley’s.
“While I was over in America it just clicked that I needed to build a separate café, as the existing café in the barn was making the shop too busy. I moved it over to the barn we built next door, called it Moo Café and we made the shop huge, the café huge and made a function room above the café.
“We’ve added The Jam Kitchen this year. It is now Copley’s Kitchen. We saw it 12 years ago in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in a place called Kitchen Kettle Village and there was an Amish jam shop.
“Amish ladies were stirring a big cauldron of jam, putting it in jars and people were tasting it and buying it. I thought we’d build that one day and we opened that in June this year. It also has a Gelato Parlour.
“On weekends the shop was just not big enough for the ice cream and so we now have a separate building for jam and gelato.
Rob says the making of jam has reduced fruit waste and has provided a new income.
“I never realised how much of our strawberry crop went waste. Whatever we have had left, either because strawberries were too soft, too hard or too misshapen, we have picked ourselves and have used them for jam. There’s nothing at all wrong with the fruit. It has made the strawberries really efficient and has brought us a free product of the jam. We can also say, hand on heart that all our jam is made from all our own strawberries, to me that is as sustainable farming as you can get, especially as it is also made with solar power that we also run.
Next up for Farmer Copley’s is another fruit and it’s one that Rob has had a little bet with a Canadian friend who owns a farm shop in Quebec.
“I’ve had a little banter with my friend in Canada, whom our eldest son Jacob worked with this summer. I had bet that if he put in a butchery, because US and Canadians don’t do that, in return I’d put apple trees in.
“We’ve since put in 1000 apple trees that are about to come online, our future is apples. Jacob’s in his final year at Harper Adams and has done his dissertation on cider making. I’ll support him in us doing that. It could yet be apple juice too.
Time will tell whether Rob and Heather’s two boys, Jacob and Harry, also at university, will follow their parents in running the business, but 20 years on the couple are still looking to the future.
“We’re not going anywhere. We just keep adding a year to our rolling 10-year exit plan at the end of every year,” says Rob, who is also chairman of trustees with the Yorkshire Agricultural Society.
“It’s absolutely brilliant, we really enjoy what we do,” says Rob.