Starting over at 87 – smiling and looking to the future

A disaster has made a new man of a farmer in his 88th year. Chris Berry reports on a farm shop that this weekend rises from the ashes.

Television programmes like 60 Minute Makeover cannot touch what is happening just outside Netherton, near Huddersfield this weekend. If ever there was a tale of indomitable Yorkshire fortitude this is it.

Hinchliffes Farm Shop caught fire last July, gutting the butchery, farm shop, restaurant and storerooms and killing more than 200 chickens. "It was the worst day of my life," says Charles Hinchliffe.

"But getting it all back up and running again has made a new man of me. I'm really enjoying the challenge of starting all over again.

"I started off selling eggs and potatoes as a kid and it's been just like going back to those days. What has been extra special and the greatest pleasure this time around is to have all the family with me too.

"My two grandsons Ben and Simon, my daughter Susan and son-in-law Les, as well as all the rest of our staff have been marvellous. We are determined to make sure that we are in the new place for this last week before Christmas, that's why it all has to happen this weekend."

The way Charles talks you would think he was a lot younger than his 87 years. But having lived nearly a quarter of a century beyond the official retirement age he isn't about to let the prospect of becoming a nonagenarian get in the way of his latest set of ambitious plans for the future.

"I was excited about the business when I started with nowt – and I'm excited again now. My father died when I was 17 and I had three younger ones to bring up. That was a real challenge. I have no hobbies. I love farming, particularly breeds

of cattle. You can get something out of breeding cattle by selling the end product.

"At present my favourite choice of beef would be that produced by using a South Devon female with an Aberdeen Angus or a Limousin sire."

Charles's father, Allen, set up the farm shop at Sunnyside Farm in the 1920s selling fresh eggs and chickens. Today the farm still includes poultry and cattle across its 600 acres.

"When my father died in 1940 I already had a nursery growing tomatoes and vegetables. Everything has always been home-produced here and things have just evolved.

"Our hen manure brought about lovely grass, so we then bought beef cattle to eat the grass. That's still the basis of the farm.

"I've always been a wheeler-dealer. I used to sell sweets to my grammar school friends when I was 11. I wasn't allowed to and they chucked me out in the end because I was selling them at half the price of the tuck shop and I practically put them out of business."

Within days of the disastrous July fire, the indomitable Charles was back in business selling eggs and chickens out of a big cattle trailer. The next purchase was a step up but hard to come by – he was after a truck converted as a travelling butcher's shop. "Do you know how difficult it is to get one of those? We tried everywhere in this country with no joy.

"Then we went on-line and found one in Hungary. These two Hungarian lads came over with it. It was cash on delivery. They couldn't speak a word of English but they knew how to count their money!"

Charles possesses a great sense of humour and his smile is never too far away. "You've got to be like that otherwise you might as well not bother carrying on. If you didn't laugh you'd cry. It has definitely helped me get through what we have endured this year."

After the converted truck they moved up again to set their stall out in a huge marquee erected in front of where the old timber-framed shop once stood.

"The business has grown week on week as customers have returned. It is now coming back really fast.

"We're not on a main road but our customers have always come for the quality of our meat and the service they get.

"We're getting our restaurant back up and running as well. We simply couldn't fit everything into this marquee anymore,

that's why we need to move – and quickly – this weekend."

The existing marquee and a newly-designed larger version were buzzing with activity this week.

Workmen were everywhere racing against the clock to get the interior finished. Every time Charles walked around there was another offer of a hand of congratulation.

"We're not stopping at this either," he adds. We're planning the brand new building on our old site as soon as we can.

"We've been through BSE, salmonella and all manner of things but this has been our biggest challenge. The thing is I'm enjoying it more than ever."

Growing influence of farm shops

Hinchliffes is reputed to be one of Yorkshire's first farm shops, opening in the 1920s, but in reality many farms have always traded as retailers.

During the past two decades the number of farm shops in Yorkshire has grown markedly as farmers have often grown tired of supermarkets paying them less for their produce than they feel they deserve.

There are now over 1,000 farm shops in the UK and there is a national trade body which represents farm shops and farmers markets – FARMA – the National Farmers' Retail & Markets Association.Today's farm shops are often housed in modern buildings and many also offer restaurants and tea rooms. They have become visitor attractions and a pleasant way to

spend an afternoon in the country.

Two Yorkshire-based farm shops won awards in the Farm Retail Stars awards earlier this year (run by FARMA): Beadlam Grange Farm Shop, near Helmsley and Farmer Copleys Farm Shop, near Pontefract. Cedar Barn Farm Shop, near Thornton-le-Dale has also scooped major awards over the past two years.

Despite the recession, farms shops and farmers' markets have seen business hold up well.

One expert says the emphasis needs to be on the 'theatre' of food, telling interested customers all about its provenance, how it was produced and showing them the farm and livestock.

CW 18/12/10