Retailing produce direct from the farm is as old as the hills. Before the world ever heard of corner shops, let alone supermarkets, farms would trade eggs, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, apples and anything else they could from the farm gate.
During the past three decades, largely due to poorer prices being offered from increasingly powerful retail chains, farmers have fallen into distinct camps.
There are those who have chosen to “go to bed” with large retailers by increasing their output to provide economies of scale, a phrase that supermarkets use as their mantra as well as a cloak for reducing the amount they pay per litre or kilogram to farmers; there are those who have struggled on by in largely the same old way in the hope that times will change; and there are those who have effectively returned to trading from the farm gate, either opening up as a farm shop or attending a farmers market and who have been able to offer savings to buyers yet a better price than they would receive elsewhere.
This week saw Yorkshire host the FARM & MORE National Conference at the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate. Run by FARMA (Farmers Retail & Markets Association) the event welcomed representatives from right across the UK and abroad. The organisation promotes and assists those who have diversified in this way.
Edward Sykes of The Farmer’s Cart at Towthorpe, three miles east of York, is the Yorkshire representative on the FARMA council and as part of the conference’s activities on Monday he showed delegates around his family’s farm and farm shop business that has grown from humble beginnings since it started in 2002.
The Farmer’s Cart is widely regarded as one of the best farm shop businesses in Yorkshire, a prime example of what can be achieved by following customer demand and finding appropriate niche markets.
“My dad, Geoff, is a fourth-generation farmer and all previous generations had farmed in the Tadcaster area. He moved to Church Fenton when he started out on his own and began selling iceberg lettuce and strawberries to supermarkets. At the time they were quite unique entrepreneurial crops. We also had pigs.”
Edward’s parents Geoff and Margaret took their first tentative steps into selling direct from the farm gate while at Church Fenton, but it was a visit to the United States and Canada plus a logistical problem with the pigs that led to their move to Towthorpe and the birth of The Farmer’s Cart.
“We were based in the centre of the village. There was pressure on us having pigs there and the dykes and drainage needed improving, but the changes required weren’t viable as the pig industry was going through a bad time.
“As part of my degree at Newcastle University I was working with a farm store in Canada. I have always been interested in the agribusiness and direct marketing side of farming and when my parents came out to North America for three weeks we took a look at other farm stores. One of the big things we saw in October was pumpkins and the trade that they brought about. Trailer loads of customers would be shuttled back and forth as they came to pick their own. We brought that idea back with us and now grow five acres of them. It has now developed a cult following.”
The Sykes family moved from Church Fenton to Towthorpe and by 2002 had opened up their new business, Edward having by then completed his studies.
“In 2005 we extended the farm shop and the café to an 80-seater. We now have our own butchery, and dad rears our own Gloucester Old Spot and Saddleback pigs on the farm to sell in the shop. They are traditional outdoor reared pigs that our visitors can see as they drive in.
“My uncle grazes his livestock on our land and that provides lamb and beef into the butchery too. My dad runs the farming side and is passionate about what we are doing here. That means we know exactly where our meat served in the shop has come from and what it has been fed, which is very topical at the moment. The animals reared here go to the abattoir we use at Escrick and come back here two days later, so they haven’t travelled far. That again gives our customers confidence.”
Fruit and vegetables include carrots, swede, parsnips, asparagus, butternut squash, pumpkins and strawberries.
“One of the things we have learned over the years is that if you plant everything at the same time it generally all comes at just the one time too. We now plan so that we don’t for instance have 3,000 cauliflowers all ready at once. We try to maintain a steady flow.
“Asparagus is a highly valued crop but only has a very short season and can’t really be frozen. It needs to be picked and eaten quite quickly whilst still fresh but its success depends on Springtime.”
Farm gate prices are well and truly back – and it’s a win-win situation. Higher prices for the farm, lower prices and total local traceability for the purchaser.
Piglets draws young visitors
In 2011 The Farmer’s Cart, of which Edward is managing director, opened up Piglets, a theme park. “We had visited various other attractions and we took the plunge to open it with an entrance charge.
“Visitors can experience the animals and have fun playing on everything from the Pig Pillow, where they can bounce up and down, to the crazy golf.
“We now operate a membership scheme and currently have 500 members.”