WHEN IAN and Marlene Thompson joined forces with other villagers to find ways of raising funds to buy a defibrillator 12 years ago they perhaps never thought that one day their efforts would have charged up son Jason and his wife Charlotte enough to turn their contribution to the village into a full-blown business.
Bert’s Barrow is now a small but fast growing and beautifully laid out farm shop in the village of Hillam near Monk Fryston. It all started when Bert (aka Ian), Jason’s dad bought a barrow from York Auction Centre, painted it, filled it with local produce and rolled it to the farm gate with just an honesty box in - trusting villagers to put their money in.
The producers were paid for their fruit and vegetables and the profit made, along with noble efforts from others in the village, saw two defibrillators eventually purchased.
“Dad had always farmed,” says Jason. “He worked for Dan Bedford in the village at Rose Tree Farm and here at Austfield Farm for many years. My mum Marlene and other ladies worked hard on fundraising ideas and dad used to love going around all of the growers for produce to go in Bert’s Barrow. He’d have a natter with them all and then come back and fill it to the brim with fresh produce, everything from cabbages to cauliflowers, leeks, carrots, parsnips and potatoes. He’d be off to all the farms close by and further afield like Ryther, Cawood and Saxton and had a great time with all his mates.”
Ian passed away on Christmas Eve 2012 having suffered with cancer for two years, but his barrow lives on.
Jason and Charlotte realised the potential for selling local produce in their area and Bert’s Barrow has now become a colourful farm shop set at the front of what was a cold store at Austfield Farm in Hillam.
Charlotte says: “We opened on 1 November last year so we’re not quite a year old but we’re really excited about what we’ve achieved and what we want to do. We’re delighted that our veg boxes have been shortlisted in this year’s Taste Awards. When we took them over to Harrogate for judging our vegetables were as fresh as it is possible to get. We’d been in the field early that morning, picked the vegetables with our fabulous grower Colin Smith, made the boxes up at 5am and drove over. Absolutely nothing had been anywhere near a fridge.
“Every week I work out what is going to go in the veg boxes because it changes and I’ve become a member of Eat Seasonably which helps with my decision making. I also change things around so that it doesn’t become boring and predictable.”
Last year Jason and Charlotte started with 100 free range laying hens. Demand for their eggs has already outstripped supply and when Charlotte orders their next batch they will be looking to up the numbers.
“Eggs go in with the veg boxes as well as being sold separately and our hens are producing around 50 dozen a week, but we’re selling around 70 dozen so we’re using another local supplier too.”
Sheep came to Austfield Farm in December 2014 when the couple bought seven Texel X ewes. Neither had experience with livestock so they enlisted the help of ‘Eric the Sheep Man’, as Jason calls him.
“Eric’s great. He sold us the ewes that are all between two to four years old and had all lambed previously. We lambed for the first time this year in April and now have 11 lambs, split down as six ewe lambs and five ram lambs. They’re just getting to the stage when we can get them ready to sell in Bert’s Barrow and we’re aiming to sell them as half a lamb in a box rather than smaller cuts.”
Charlotte sees the sheep and next year’s crop of lambs as offering a dual purpose to Bert’s Barrow and the farm’s future.
“We’re looking at offering more than just a farm shop but also activities for children. I’d like us to have pet lambs, a couple of goats and some rabbits so that we can get young children to understand more about farming and food. A petting farm means that children can get close and it teaches them about animals.”
But it isn’t just children that Charlotte is keen to educate about food, it’s all of their customers and both she and Jason have already run a Meet the Producers day where all their suppliers came over and were on hand with stalls of their own to talk about their produce.
“It was a fantastic day. We had hundreds here and everybody loved it. Eighty-five per cent of the produce in Bert’s Barrow is local produce and we’re going to get even more local next year too when we start growing some of our own vegetables that others don’t grow such as purple sprouting broccoli and celeriac. We stock pork from Anna’s Happy Trotters from Howden; Home Farmed Venison from Sherburn in Elmet; Yorvale ice cream from Acaster Malbis; Justin Staal’s smoked duck, salmon and chicken from Long Riston; and have literally dozens of other suppliers.
“We also have flowers from Shona McWhirter’s Red Fox Flowers in Hillam and Sarah Lightfoot’s Bywater Gifts in the shop.
“We’ll definitely be running another Meet the Producer day next year as it provides so much interest.”
With planning permission also granted for a butchery/bakery and tearoom it’s well worth watching Bert’s Barrow as it loads up further.