11 December 1998


Farm shopping in Northern

Ireland is getting a boost

through the farm retailing

movement which was

launched last January.

Ann Rogers went to

Balleymoney to visit the

farm shop run by the

movements chairman

FRESH? Delicious? The smell that greets customers entering Robert and Judith Allens farm shop at Bally-money, Co Antrim is hard to describe and even harder to define. Delightful, is the best description but it is impossible to trace it back to source.

It is a unique blend of fruit, vegetables and provisions topped with a dash of spice and a few flowers that Robert and Judith and staff at The Market Garden are so used to they dont even notice.

While much of the produce is grown or prepared on the 15ha (37 acre) holding, Robert visits the fruit and vegetable market in Belfast several times a week and also stocks goods from other small local producers. Cakes, biscuits and pies, for example, and table decorations, while farm quality assured meat comes from Harry Marquess, of Marquess Meats at Muckamore, Antrim, a fellow member of FARM, Northern Ireland, the farming and retailing movement for the province which Robert chairs.

The weather has not helped trade this summer. It put a further dampener on tourism, in addition to that engendered by political uncertainties. Robert recalls the boost business had in 1995 after the ceasefire had taken effect and many visitors from overseas began coming to Northern Ireland once again.

The weather has been tough on crops, too. Robert grows potatoes, turnips, swedes, carrots, cabbage and broccoli and ornamental crops, including pumpkins. He also keeps commercial sheep plus some stock for visitors to enjoy – ducks and hens, Gloucester Old Spot and Tamworth pigs, Highland and Aberdeen Angus cattle.

Home produced goods sold at The Market Garden include the jams, marmalades, chutneys and pickles made in the Allens commercial kitchen by cook Kate Ferguson who also prepares coleslaw and packs of peeled vegetables and would like to expand into ready-made meals.

&#42 Started in garage

The Allens have been on the holding for seven years and began trading from their garage. They transferred to a portable building and then established the shop. Formerly a piggery and a byre, it has been open for four years. It is an attractive building which seems to be built of old, irregularly shaped stones, but its appearance is the result of skillful exterior plastering.

Potatoes form the biggest part of their turnover. The Allens offer eight to 10 varieties. Floury ones are customers preferred choice. "Self peeling," quips Judith who has also noticed changes in customer taste even in the short period that they have been trading. Carrots are increasing in popularity. Cabbage is losing its appeal though Savoys still hold their own. Sales of fresh Bramley apples have declined but sales of apple tarts have increased. Television is a great influence, says Judith, and has stimulated interest in fresh food.

&#42 Christmas rush

At the height of their Christmas rush, which occurs on the day before Christmas Eve when they open from 8.30am to 8pm, they expect to sell around 120 nets of sprouts and do a brisk trade in gift packed baskets of fruit and preserves. The couple and their regular staff, shop manageress Gwen McQuitty and Laura Bartlett, will be assisted by students and part-timers while the Allen children, Fiona (9) and her brothers John (11) and Stuart (7) will lend a hand where they can.

But the recession in farming is hitting hard. Though close to Ballymoney – but unable to advise their presence along the Ballymoney to Ballymena road since this is a protected route where advertising is banned – the Allens are in a rural situation and the shop draws much of its trade from the farming community. Nowadays farming people think twice about what they buy and what they really need. "It would help if people could feel that the worst is over, but they fear things could get even worse," says Robert.

People are not eating out as much as they once did, so caterers orders are down too. "Unemployment is not so high compared with what it was 12 or 15 years ago," Robert says, "but generally people now are very, very conscious of their money."

Inquiries (012656-66701).

Local food for local people is the slogan of FARM Northern Ireland, the farming and retailing movement which was launched in January with the support of the Agri-Food Development Service of the Department of Agriculture of Northern Ireland.

"Survey work carried out by a colleague showed there was a need for a forum where retailers could discuss problems and through which they might lobby for things like signage which has been a very big problem," explains Arron Wright of the Agri-Food Development Service.

The retail group currently numbers about 20 members with a two or three potential ones. It has developed links with the Taste of Ulster group which comprises hotels, guest houses, restaurants and other catering establishments, and FARM NI members have taken a trip to England to visit a range of establishments run by members of the Farm Retail Association.

EC funding through the LEADER II scheme is helping FARM NI promote itself and it has already produced a

comprehensive leaflet identifying members, their product ranges and specialities. Members exhibited in the DANI hall at the Balmoral Show and have also exhibited at local shows. "But we need to identify consumer shows where the group can exhibit," Arron says.

Christmas at The Market Garden means a rush on fruit and vegetables. Left: Robert Allen displays some of the fruit juices. Above: The regular shop team (l to r) Robert Allen, Laura Bartlett, manageress Gwen McQuitty and Judith Allen with locally made Christmas decorations.