Farm Of The Week: Shop led a return to the good old days

WHEN Rob White opened his shop, he thought he was on the way out of farming.

His family was struggling to make a living, after a hundred years on small farms on the edge of Barnsley. They abandoned a cattle fattening business when beef prices slumped after the discovery of BSE. And their eggs business, based on 12,000 hens, was too small to bear the cost of upgrading cages to the standards now coming in. The last shed has just been emptied.

They had an egg round, delivering to local outlets, and decided they could continue that by buying from other suppliers, which Rob’s sister, Kathryn, still does. Otherwise, the last option was to diversify, through the shop, and make what they could selling crops, although the farm was not really equipped to be competitive in the arable market, with 220 acres of heavy land near Worsbrough. It already included 40 acres rented from other people and there was no more to be had locally. The Rob Royd Farm Shop opened in November 2007. It doubled in size in two years and this week, it opened a new cafe and its staff list went up to 25, including counter staff and waitresses, restaurant manager, two full-time cooks, two full-time butchers and their apprentices and a bakery team producing the sort of authentic bread which has a shelf-life of just one day.

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On the way, Rob Royd Farm has moved back into beef, turned the clock back to the old days by keeping pigs just off the farmyard – half a mile from the shop – and done a deal with a local shepherd who grazes the farm’s land and supplies the shop with lamb. Plans are afoot to bring back some hens, laying free-range eggs. The arable land now mainly feeds back into the farm, supplying cereals and haylage for feed and straw for the cattle and pig sheds. And former British Coal fitter and retired school caretaker Steve Sharman runs a market garden on half an acre behind the shop, weeding with a hand-held hoe.

The farm itself employs Rob’s 78-year-old dad, Trevor, one full-time hand, a part-timer and Rob whenever he is free. His mother, Jean, does the farm books. His wife, Lisa, looks after the shop accounts, although she also has a skip hire business of her own.

The whole operation illustrates one of the untold stories of the farm shop boom – the extent to which it has made possible a return to small-time mixed farming. “It was the shop that led us,” says Rob, who is 36. “As soon as we opened, people were asking questions about where the food came from and how it was fed or grown. And we needed good answers. Now, the shop needs the farm and the farm needs the shop. They are intertwined completely.

“We are back to running up to a hundred cattle. We buy them, heifers only, at Carlisle, Kendal and Skipton, and fatten them on cereals, with no additives, until they are not too big – about 320k deadweight is about right for the joints we want. They are killed just a few miles away, at Bramhall’s of Oxspring, and then we hang them for at least 21 days and often 25 or 26. It means a lot of wasted trim and some shrinkage but it is hanging that makes all the difference to beef.

“We hadn’t kept pigs for years. Now we have between 40 and 60 at a time, bought as weaners and fattened to make 70-80k on the hook – mainly standard commercials but we like a pen of Large Blacks when we can get hold of them, because we do have some customers who like the fattier pork. We keep them loose-housed, on straw, and they eat mainly bread from the bakery, spare vegetables, fruit and veg from local markets and cereals from the farm.

“We would probably make nothing sending them off to market but as it is they make a nice fit with everything else that is going on.

“The customers like to know they get a traditional diet. And we make our own bacon, hams and sausages, on the premises.

“I love working on the farm now. There is such a variety of jobs to do and it is satisfying to see the process right through to customers coming back for more, with smiles on their faces.”

The shop is only half a mile from the centre of Barnsley and has to strike a balance between being different and being competitive. Its egg sale is split about 50-50 between free-range and budget, for example.

“This is Barnsley, not Kensington,” sums up Rob.

On the other hand, his customers still want to see some evidence the shop is genuinely connected to the land around it – and the vegetable garden has turned out to be an important element in the mix. People like to see Steve at work there and he has a following who go straight for his baskets in the shop, to see what is on offer. He likes to experiment and over the past year has offered several comparatively unusual varieties of potato – including Anya, a knobbly Desiree/Pink Fir cross for salads, and Home Guard, a wartime staple – as well as beetroot with stripes in it, pink chard, yellow courgettes, and his recommended kinds of cauliflower, cabbage, onions, leeks, peas and beans, all grown without sprays. He does not label his vegetables organic, because he has no certification, but he grows them without chemicals and without any motors except for a Rotovator for preparing the ground.

His wife, Pam, supplies the shop with jams and chutneys, made largely from vegetables from their allotment. Yorkshire Honey comes from a bee-keeper at Hoyland who runs hives on heather all round the Barnsley area. Milk is standard, from Wisemans. Dairy products come from Longley Farm, the Holmfirth-based Jersey specialists, who have a creamery at Ardsley.

The shop is on Genn Lane, Worsbrough, S70 6NW. Call 01226 248662 or see www.robroydfarmshop.co.uk/