Surge in popularity of farm shops 'vital' to sustaining agricultural sector

Rob and Heather Copley pictured in the farm shop at Farmer Copley's, Ravensknowle Farm, Pontefract Road, near Pontefract. Credit: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Rob and Heather Copley pictured in the farm shop at Farmer Copley's, Ravensknowle Farm, Pontefract Road, near Pontefract. Credit: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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The surge in popularity in farm shops has allowed the agricultural industry to engage with a far wider audience to help bolster a multi-million pound enterprise that is now vital to sustaining the sector, a leading industry figure has claimed.

The chairman of the Farm Retail Association (FRA), Rob Copley, has credited the national network with making independent farm retailers stronger and helping build his own success as a farm shop owner in Yorkshire.

Tickets have gone on sale for the association’s three-day conference in March, which Mr Copley claimed will give others the opportunity to visit different businesses and benefit from the experience that he has found so valuable.

It will also be the first conference to be staged under the guidance of its new managing agents, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, which took over running the network earlier this year.

Mr Copley, the owner of Farmer Copleys in Pontefract, has been part of the FRA for 19 years and said having the support network had been hugely important as he worked to build up the business.

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“It is very lonely if you don’t have people to talk to,” he said. “And I can honestly say my business has been built on the advice I have recieved from this community. We all make mistakes and talking to someone who has already had that experience and can help stop you making the same errors can make all the difference.”

The number of farm shops and farm retail enterprises has steadily been on the increase over the past decade as farmers look at ways to diversify and safeguard the future of their farms.

And Mr Copley claimed they provide a platform to teach people where their food comes from.

“It is definitely about education,” he said. “For example, we have a living beehive to teach children about bees and honey. They dress up in bee keeper outfits and make a beehive to take home.

“All farm shops are doing something. The YAS farm shop, Fodder, holds kids’ cookery evenings and we teach them that everything comes from a farm, even a pizza.”

There are now an estimated 1,200 farm shops in the UK, with 89 ventures in Yorkshire alone.

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The FRA, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in November, was previously known as FARMA and represents farm shops, farmers’ markets and pick-your-own enterprises. But Mr Copley said any business connected to a farm could be considered, including what he said is now their biggest competitor – garden centres.

“We are stronger together and as a group we are as big as a small supermarket,” he said.

Mr Copley said the conference, which will be held at the Nottingham Belfry from March 2 to 4 next year, will be aimed at both veteran entrepreneurs as well as the owners of fledgling businesses in the sector.

He added: “During the conference, we do a tour of different farm shops and enterprises. This year we are going to visit a big garden centre which has a farm shop attached, something that is becoming a lot more common and we are there to embrace it.”

And with diversification a key area for agriculture, Mr Copley revealed that he had been talking to business course leaders at Harper Adams University in Shropshire to see where the FRA and its members could provide advice and guidance for the next generation of farmers.