Huge amounts of passion and a determination to be the best for their customers are what unites our Local Food Farmer of the Year finalists. Three very different farm shops prove that success lies in showcasing the connection between agriculture and quality food. Caroline Stocks reports

Combining impeccable customer service and value with traditional farming skills has enabled Kevin and Milly Stokes to grow a fledgling enterprise into an impressive local food business.

Starting out by growing just three acres of potatoes and selling them from their garage in 1983, the couple have steadily expanded their enterprise in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, to a 220ha (550 acre) farm growing arable crops and more than 40 varieties of soft fruit and vegetables.

A series of expansions over the years, including a £500,000 redevelopment in 2005, has seen the couple’s Farndon Fields Farm Shop grow alongside the farm, with the shop now home to a café, butchery, deli and plant centre.

The couple boast a strong customer base of 3,500 shoppers a week thanks to their work at putting the farm and the shop at the heart of the local community and ensuring the link between agriculture and the food they sell remains strong.

“Our story is the link to the farm,” says Kevin. “We grow what we can and the varieties of what we grow and sell are decided by customer demand and feedback. Anything we can’t produce is bought from local farmers.

What the judges liked
  • – Close relationship between the farm and the business, with a good variety of crops to sell in the shop
  • – Excellent farm shop layout, displays and marketing, as well as a keen focus on consumer service
  • – Strong leadership and management style
  • “We are always looking at what we can add to the shop and how to push the farm connection. It’s dead easy to buy from a supplier, the hard bit is to farm it. Luckily I’m still passionate about growing things, so it all works well.”

    Keen to ensure the farm can supply as much of the shop, deli and cafe as possible, Kevin staggers his planting to maximise the growing season.

    Fruit is grown under polytunnels, while he built an insulated potato store in 2002 to guarantee year-round supply of potatoes.

    Meat sold in the shop is sourced from local producers and is processed on-site into added-value products, while milk, bread and cakes come from local producers.

    “We franchise the butcher and have three guys working there who we have put through an NVQ,” Milly says.

    “All the staff have grown with us – our office manager was a sales girl initially – and we employ eight local people in the shop.

    “They really feel a part of what we do here and we have weekly meetings to analyse our margins so they know where we’re heading and what needs to be worked on.”

    Farm facts
  • – 550 acres split into potatoes, vegetables, Christmas trees, wheat, rape and oats
  • – Sequential planting to ensure crops sold in the shop throughout the year
  • – Farm is in an ELS agreement
  • Having been part of the community for so long, Kevin and Millie understand their market well and conduct regular shopper research to see if they can make any improvements.

    And despite being in direct competition with large supermarkets in the town, they have adjusted their price strategies and the products they sell so customers find it convenient and within their budgets to shop there.

    “The bulk of customers are local, weekly shoppers,” says Kevin. “People are careful with their money now and we have Lidl, Aldi and Tesco nearby, so we have to look at what they are doing. We know if we are not good with our pricing we won’t keep growing.

    “We have changed our mind-set and give offers and value back to the customers.”

    As well as concentrating on customer value, the couple have also embraced low-cost marketing strategies to draw people to the shop, including using social media to talk about what’s happening on the farm.

    “We also keep good relationships with schools,” says Milly. “Kevin goes in and explains how potatoes are grown and we run art competitions which we display in the shop, which brings in mothers and children who want to see the pictures.”

    The Stokes hope the future for the shop will be one of growth, with a possible move into online sales and plans to double the size of the café, introduce cookery workshops and expand the farm.

    “Above all, I want to work at sticking to good quality, price and service,” says Kevin. “We want to be the best value, not the cheapest price. Supermarkets are looking to see what people like us are doing, so we have to make sure we’re the best at it.”

    A word from our sponsor

    More than ever before, our customers are telling us they want to buy local products and Asda has a long-term commitment to working with and developing a wide network of local producers, from individual farmers who have a single product right through to larger regional brands.”
    Pearce Hughes, Asda

    Read more

    Meet the other 2012 finalists

    Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details on how to books tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash