An "unprecedented" surge in shopping local gives farm retailers hope for the future

An unprecedented surge in new customers is giving farm retailers hope that shopping habits changed in response to the coronavirus outbreak will last long beyond the pandemic.

Rob Copley is the owner of Farmer Copley's Farm Shop

With produce at one point scarce on supermarket shelves and people much more aware of how far their food has travelled during the pandemic, research from the Farm Retail Association (FRA) shows many have turned to the network of independent farm shops for food and cupboard essentials.

In its survey, the FRA which is chaired by Yorkshire farmer Rob Copley and managed by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, found following seven weeks of lockdown rules, 92 per cent of farm retailers reported a “significant” rise in new customers.

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“What the last couple of months have clearly shown is that farm retailers can react nimbly to customer demands because of their size, independence and direct relationships with local farmers,” said Mr Copley who owns Farmer Copley’s Farm Shop in Pontefract.

“They have also shown that they are proactive, supportive members of their local communities.

“We have members who prepare and deliver ready meals to local community groups that support the most vulnerable members of society. Others are donating produce to local school hubs, front-line NHS staff and other key workers.

“As well as going above and beyond in this time of crisis, farm retailers are helping to keep the nation fed, offering easy access to fresh, nutritious and affordable British food.

“They are demonstrating that they are both caring neighbours and viable alternatives to the supermarkets, boasting shorter supply chains with lower carbon footprints.”

But Mr Copley said the challenge for farm shops as life slowly returns to some form of normality over the coming months, is to ensure that customers keep coming back. However, he is adamant that farm shops are well worth such lasting loyalty.

“Run by local families for local families, supporting local farmers and local jobs, farm shops are at the beating heart of communities across the country.

“We just hope customers keep coming back to support them and local farmers for years to come.”

Farm retailers play an important role in the rural economy and provide a source of income for thousands of independent suppliers across the country, from family farms to artisan makers.

Some 79 per cent of farm retailers polled by the FRA said they had introduced a click and collection service because of coronavirus, including in the form of completely contactless drive-thrus, while another 67 per cent have introduced home deliveries.

As a result, farm shops across the UK have processed an estimated 1.4 million-plus orders for home delivery or collection since the Government announced its lockdown rules in March.

By adapting this way farm shops have been able to help protect jobs and income for thousands of farmer suppliers in otherwise difficult economic circumstances.

The survey showed that the addition of new services alone has allowed 73 per cent of farm retailers to either hire extra staff or furlough fewer employees than they expected to.

The Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s own farm shop, Fodder, has remained open and continues to support more than 430 local suppliers.

A one-way system is in place with floor markings and ‘one in, one out’ policy on customers in the shop, along with hand sanitiser and till screens.

Heather Parry, managing director of Fodder, said: “We have worked hard to adapt quickly to ensure our customers continue to have access to quality, fresh locally-produced food without disruption.

“The feedback we have received from new and returning customers has been hugely rewarding and gives me enormous hope that they will keep shopping with us, long after the coronavirus pandemic ends.”

With the cafe closed the space has been used to prepare orders for the click and collect and home deliveries service, which Ms Parry said has proven successful, with more than 2,000 orders so far.

The FRA, which carried out its survey in May this year, estimates that the UK’s network of farm shops support thousands of local suppliers and together have a combined turnover of more than £1.5bn, including sales from farm shop cafés.

The FRA was formerly known as FARMA and has been running since 1979.

It celebrated its 40th anniversary last year which also saw it take on the Yorkshire Agricultural Society as its new management team.