14 June 1996

Multiples bring headaches

"FARM shops are having bigger problems with the multiples than ever before, especially as they are taking out of town sites," says Laurie March, Farm Retail Association chairman.

It was a sentiment echoed by others on the FRAs spring seminar tour of farms in Surrey and Sussex. At Priory Farm, Nutfield, Surrey, Anthony Shinner had no doubt about the effect a Safeway store in nearby Reigate has had on his farm shop sales since it opened about two years ago.

There has been a shop at Priory Farm since 1988, when one was opened alongside the plant centre. But in 1991, when the pedigree pig herd was disbanded, old buildings at the 69ha (170-acre) farm were converted into a spacious and impressive new shop.

"We had two years of considerable growth, peaking in 1994. It has fallen back a bit since Safeway opened and started selling the up-market lines we have. But we are fighting back this year," says Anthony.

The layout of the shop has been changed to give more room for gifts and they will be producing gourmet desserts and adding a butchery and wine area. "A Q-Guild butcher will be running the butchery. The Safeway store only has prepacked meat, so we are testing the market and have room to expand if it is a success."

Anthony finds most of his customers are within a 10-mile radius of the farm, although some drive out from London.

At Tulleys Farm, Turners Hill, Sussex, run by Denis Beare, wife, Marion, son Stuart and daughter-in-law Sara, the cropping programme of the 40.5ha (100-acre) PYO enterprise on this 131ha (325-acre) unit has been streamlined.

"Calabrese is not worth growing now, as it is available all year round in supermarkets and comes from all over the world. We have dropped carrots and parsnips, too, and reduced sweetcorn from 12 to 5 acres," says Denis Beare.

But the Beares have added asparagus and grown extra peas this year, a crop which is very popular with the many Asian families who come to pick.

The shop at the farm is run by Stuart and Sara. "The shop is set up as a separate business but we cross-link on all major decisions as families usually do," explains Stuart. "The shop has grown tremendously in the past three years – 50% the first year and 20% each year since.

"When we started the shop, which is open seven days a week, we did everything with just the help of two part-timers and got ourselves completely tired out and run down," explains Sara, who is expecting the couples second child shortly.

"Now we have two full-time staff, one of whom does one market run – Stuart still does the weekend one – and 10 part-time staff."

All the accounts and stock control are done on the computer and all stock ordering is done by fax. "We dont want companies telephoning us, as it drives you mad and we just havent got the time to chat," explains Stuart.

The couple offer tastings of bought-in produce in the shop throughout the year, which are proving popular with customers and increase sales without extra work or capital. "We just provide the space in the shop and the supplier of the icecream, smoked salmon or whatever, provides the staff and food for the tasting," says Sara.

A pumpkin festival and competition in October and a Christmas evening in December are well attended, too, and keep the shop very much part of the local community. A new, 40-cover tea room in converted buildings is the latest addition to Tullys Farm.

"More and more of our members are diversifying by adding tea rooms, as it makes a visit to a farm shop or PYO enterprise, more of a day out," says Laurie March, manager at Howarden Castle Farm, Flint.

"I feel the public will go to the farm shop because they are looking for something different, and fresher, than they can get in the multiples. They can buy things there that havent travelled half way across the country, or further.

"With PYO they get what they want or they wouldnt pick it. We will never hit the boom time of the late 1970s/early 1980s again but people will never get such a fresh product in what you hope is a good environment, anywhere else," says Laurie.

Tessa Gates

Laurie March, (left) chairman of the Farm Retail Association, feels produce in farm shops

or pyo enterprises has the edge when it comes to freshness.

The shop at Tulleys Farm has grown tremendously in the last three years and is run by two full time and 10 part-time staff.

Left: Stuart and Sara Beare run the shop and a new tea rooms at Tulleys Farm. Right: At Priory Farm, a new shop layout, gourmet desserts and a butchery are intended to fight off the threat of the supermarket.

Members of the FRA toured farms in Surrey and Sussex during their informative spring seminar.

Pictures: Jonathan Page

Priory Farm partner, Francis Hallowes, in the propagating room of the plant centre where 40,000 boxes of bedding plants are grown from seed.