24 August 2001

Closing the farm shop to

avoid foot-and-mouth was

a tough decision for Karol

Bailey, but, as Simon Wragg

reports, it brought the family

together and paid off

IN some ways it was a decision taken out of Karol Baileys hands. With the flock of ewes lambing down in the yard, keeping the farm shop open just yards away was too big a risk.

And none of her dedicated team of helpers wanted to take any risks, especially while Karol and her family were on a rare break and half way around the world in Australia.

Despite no formal agricultural training, a decision was taken to close off the yard to visitors at Holly Tree Farms shop at Tabley, Cheshire. "Foot-and-mouth hit the news big style in Oz. By the time we rang up the yard was fenced off and disinfectant and straw had been put down. The staff all acted brilliantly," says Karol.

The shop – a low slung traditional brick out-house which exudes an airy coolness – is more exposed to traffic than most. Manchester-bound aeroplanes glide in overhead while Junction 19 of the M6 is little more than a field away. Outside the farm, commuters whizz past on the A556 trunk road.

"We got back on March 10 and foot-and-mouth cases were soaring. People werent moving. The M6 was quieter and the A556 was dead; it was eerie," she explains.

&#42 Virus fears

"Trade dropped sharply, but customers were ringing up to say they didnt dare come in case they brought the virus with them. We closed four days later on March 14.

"The Easter turkey trade was done by arranging collection times by phone and handing birds over the farm gate."

The staff went home except Dan Howard, who works full-time mainly with the livestock. It was a period of reflection and as the lambing petered off an action plan was drawn up.

"I walked around our 33 acres with a pen and paper jotting down all the jobs we just hadnt had time to do," says Karol.

Time is a rare commodity in the Bailey household. If Karol is not running the shop then she is off attending meetings as a board member of the Food Standards Agency. Husband, Michael, helps manage another farm nearby. And then there are the three children – eight-year-old Paul, seven-year-old Mark and six-year-old Ruth – to help along.

"Top of the list was fencing – we did the perimeter as it should have been done when we first arrived. Ditches needed to be dug and drains cleared. There were field troughs that needed fixing, bits of scrap and concrete that needed moving out of paddocks. I had five sheets by the time Id done that lot.

&#42 Odd switch

"And then there was the shop. Theres always the odd switch or door than needs mending, but we desperately wanted a new floor in the cutting room and some lighting replacing. The shop had a lick of paint and – in the process – one or two of our staff too as it happened."

But it was not all hard graft. "Suddenly, we had Sunday mornings to ourselves and family meals together. On warm afternoons we could be out in the garden with the children, making a refreshing treat to be together without the need to rush off and open up the shop.

"Even the garden has been made over; it is the first time in eight years I have had sweet peas and runner beans planted out," reflects Karol.

The ladies who help run the shop part-time, trooped through disinfectant to attend coffee mornings. "Weve run through menu ideas, recipe cards and planned promotions. It was like opening the flood gates once we got going."

A newsletter kept customers up-to-date with progress and, eventually, announced that the shop was to reopen. "We had lambing safely out of the way and the number of cases of foot-and-mouth were falling, but it was still a tough decision to reopen on May 23."

Having restocked the chillers and set up the meat room, Karol expected the return of customers to be a dogged affair.

"On our first morning I got to the door and there was our first customer waiting patiently. Hed come all the way from Cumbria for some dry-cured bacon having waited nearly three months; I could have kissed him."

&#42 Head of steam

The business is still building up steam, but with new sign-boards outside and the tempting offer of fresh-made sandwiches to lure in passers-by, hopes are high.

"We have lost a lot of trade by not having the shows or farmers markets to attend this year and I can still feel down when the shop is quiet for an hour or so. But then three cars will draw up and we are busy seeing customers.

"Nobody wanted this disease to be here and I still feel it is out of our hands. But it has given us a two-month break to look clearly at the business. It is in good shape and we are ready to make the most of it," she says.

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