19 December 1997

Its Farmer Christmas in his element

Farm shops have much to offer the community

– entertainment and education along with quality produce

– and at Christmas time they really comeinto their own.

Ann Rogers reports from Bingham Park Farm

THE weather turned cold the day that Father Christmas paid his first visit of the year to Bingham Park Farm, Water End, Hemel Hempstead, Herts.

There was a sprinkling of snow on the rooftops but this did not deter St Marys Toddler Group from nearby North Church.

Forsaking the warmth of the extensive farm shop they climbed on to the next best thing to a sleigh – a people-carrying trailer behind a tractor – and set off for the woods to see Father Christmas at his workshop and receive gifts of toy farm animals.

They found Father Christmas – Jim Masters – or Farmer Christmas as they prefer to call him at Bingham Park Farm – with his elfin helpers. The elves are small scarecrows and the route to the wood is dotted with other scarecrow figures. Close to Father Christmass workshop – a new mobile construction modelled on a shepherds hut but with a verandah on the front – they passed nativity scenes with scarecrow figures of the shepherds, kings and holy family.

There are always scarecrows in the woods, says Jims wife Gil. Here children can tackle a nature trail and a treasure hunt and have fun.

Scarecrows are also a regular feature of the farm shop and childrens farm enterprise on this 182ha (450-acre), mostly arable, holding, and Gill includes scarecrow workshops among the childrens craft courses she runs in a nearby barn.

She teaches weaving and corn dolly making as well and aims to educate youngsters about farming and the countryside at the same time. She explains to them how the materials they use – timber for the scarecrows frame, straw for stuffing, wool for its woolly jumper – can all be traced back to a farm.

&#42 Scarecrows inform

The succession of scarecrows that appears in or around the farm shop is used to inform adults and children alike. For example, scarecrows representing Isaac Newton, Snow White and Eve all had roles to play over the Apple Weekend, while perched high up in the hop-hung roof beams is the store detective scarecrow.

While scarecrows have become something of a trademark, they were introduced as the solution to one of Gills worries when the farm shop was established. In the run up to the opening she began to fear that they wouldnt have enough stock to fill it so she decided that scarecrows could fill the space and serve as decoration.

"We opened just before a bank holiday Monday so we got the children to come along and make scarecrows and held a scarecrow festival," recalls Gill who benefits from having previously worked in sales and marketing.

At first glance the shop appears to have been established in a centuries-old barn, but that is not so. Jim and a couple of carpenters built it between Jan and Apr 1996. It follows the style of a medieval king post barn and is constructed in square cut, green oak timber from Norfolk.

While construction was speedy it had taken the Masters five years to get planning permission and another year to negotiate the terms which control the type of goods that they may sell.

"We believed at the time that these terms were going to be flexible," says Gill, "but that is not the case."

The Masters family, Jim, Gill and Jims parents, now wish to include non-food products in their range, but only items which have a farming connection.

"We want to keep the shop as farmy as possible so that children and their parents understand that farmers are really necessary; that farmers are important people and not those bad people the Press makes them out to be," says Gill

"But we cannot stand still. We need to keep coming up with new products to stimulate business," she says, adding, "I wish that planning departments would employ someone who has been to agricultural college and understands farmers needs."

&#42 Finished last year

The shop construction was finished just in time for the 1996 pick-your-own season. For the Masters this begins with asparagus and runs through to sweetcorn and pumpkins. In between comes the full range of summer soft fruits, says Jim.

Most of the other foods on sale – meat, game, dairy products, green grocery, preserves, bread and cakes – are sourced from local producers, principally fellow farmers. The Masters, who are members of the Farm Retail Association, look to the regional food producing groups for new suppliers and Gill wishes that the local Chiltern area had a group of its own.

The Masters in-store promotions include cheese tastings – the shop features a special British cheese each weekend – and game tastings. "People really do want to try it but they are afraid to buy it," says Gill who has game recipes ready for the inevitable: "How do I cook it?"

A childrens play area leads off the coffee shop section and the childrens farm is approached from the back of the shop. This is an extensive area housing a vast miscellany of pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, poultry and a succession of borrowed calves. At the centre of it all is a traditionally styled open fronted barn. Again this is a new construction built by Jim with the help of local craftsmen, this time using pine.

Handwashing facilities occupy one end wall for hygiene is a matter of great concern to the Masters family. Large notices warn visitors to wash their hands after touching straw or animals and no one is allowed to eat anything when in the farmyard. Another house rule is that no one who is looking after animals can work in the shop too.

Publicity is essential to maintain the flow of visitors and shoppers alike. Gill feeds news of happenings at the childrens farm to the local papers. Editors are often happy to hear of a seasonal photo-opportunity and Father – or Farmer – Christmas fills the yuletide bill.

Inquiries: (01442-232373).

There is a wholesome country look to the shelves of preserves, as farm shop assistant Lynn Jones points out.

Father Christmas hands out the first toys from his sack to little children from St Marys Toddlers Group.

Scarecrows feature in the nativity tableaux. The first one represents a shepherd tending his goat herd.

A horse-drawn trolley is the basis of the display that catches the eye as customers enter the shop.

Hygiene rules: Hand-washing is a must for young visitors who have stroked the animals at the farm.

Father Christmas and his toy-making elves wait in the woods for the children to arrive.

Jim and Gill Masters with the plaque that marks out Binghams Farm Shop as one of the Farm Retail Associations top 25 shops. The Les Routiers accreditation scheme was launched last August as part of a marketing development programme supported by a grant from MAFF. So far 25 FRA shops from Kent to Scotland have received the accreditation.

Les Routiers inspectors make unannounced visits and exacting examinations. Quality, service and value is their criteria. All the FRA inspections were carried out by Les Routiers managing director Gordon Wilson who was fascinated by the different styles of farm shop that serve to meet the highest consumer expectations.

"We are delighted to have won accreditation as we have worked hard to ensure that every part of our business meets the highest standards," says Gill who recalls the hot summers day the inspector arrived and the thorough way in which he checked out the enterprise.