23 October 1998

Shop-keeping is a vital part of farm business

Keep Britain farm shopping

is the theme of the Farm

Retail Associations

forthcoming conference,

while farm shopkeeping

has enabled two of the

conference organisers

to keep on farming.

Ann Rogers went to

Suffolk to meet them

AGRITOURISM is the topic for the second day of the Farm Retail Associations 1998 conference and among the speakers will be Sally Bendall who will explain how developing a farm trail for children with a quiz and small prizes has boosted trade at Hollow Trees Farm Shop, Semer, near Ipswich, Suffolk.

Sally will be relieved when her public speaking part is over but is happy to welcome delegates to Hollow Trees as part of the farm shop tour that she and her husband Robert have organised. Robert is a FRA council member and both he and Sally are delighted that the conference will be coming to East Anglia this year, highlighting its local food producers and farm shops.

For the Bendalls, who have been farm shop-keepers for a dozen years, the social side of the annual conference is important too. It is a time for meeting and making friends from across the country as much as for gathering information from a line-up of knowledgeable speakers.

The Bendalls began their business by selling home-grown potatoes and eggs from a roadside table. At that time their main farming activity was calf-rearing and they were losing money hand over fist, recalls Sally. Their first farm shop was a 6ft x 8ft hut around which much of their present outlet has developed. This now extends to 3000sq ft stocked with food, horticultural and pet feed products and serving five to six villages which have all lost their shops in the past decade.

"It doesnt get easier, the bigger it gets — just different," say the Bendalls who were supported in their planning application by local people who wrote in on their behalf.

The result was a Section 106 agreement which limited the floor space and the items they are permitted to sell

"We are quite pleased that the final list focused us on local produce," says Robert, "We dont want to sell toilet rolls and cigarettes."

Fruit and vegetables, a large proportion of which is grown on the farm, account for 70% of the business. Sweetcorn was featured on eye-catching posters beside the road when Farmlife called, and preparations were in hand for a pumpkin display.

Roberts father retired recently and most of the 56ha (140-acre) farm has been let out on contract as Robert is already fully occupied with the farm shop side of the business, growing vegetables and raising beef cattle, pigs and lambs which are sold through the shop as frozen meat.

&#42 Free-range hens

They still keep a few free-range hens but gave up large-scale poultry keeping as it did not fit into the operation. Eggs are among the goods they buy in from local producers, as is bread, which comes in fresh daily and sells itself by the smell, says Sally: "We pick up the cakes. We have locally produced icecream and dairy products, and we have a wide range of locally produced apple juices. We spend our life sourcing, meeting people and looking at farm shops," she says, pointing out the importance of keeping in close touch with suppliers, knowing what and how they are producing.

The shop is open seven days a week manned by a dozen people, half part time, half full time. They have another team of people outside growing and gathering vegetables with Robert who also produces cut flowers, bedding plants and Christmas trees.

"He is very, very green-fingered," says Sally. "It amazes me the plants he brings in."

About 90% of trade is repeat custom from the villages. They have "the school rush" in the afternoon when mothers fetching their children from distant schools call by and they stay open until 6pm in order to benefit from commuter trade. While the holding appears to be out on a limb, on a quiet road in a scattered village, it is in fact on a route used by people travelling to work in either Bury St Edmunds or Ipswich.

The Bendalls are always developing new ideas for the business. By conference time they will be into turkey tasting weekends, preparing for the run up to Christmas when they sell locally produced bronze turkeys. The supplier promotes these during the turkey tasting weekends by demonstrating recipes and carving techniques and handing out samples to taste.

"What surprises me is that even after 10 or 12 years you just never stop learning. Every time I come into the shop I see something that ought to be changed," says Sally.

&#42 Village focus

While the Bendalls shop is a focus for the village, each farm shop is different with an individual identity.

"I dont know that there there is one blue print for the farm shop," says Robert who has not only studied UK farm shops but looked at their USA equivalent on Farm Retail Association trips. But what he most appreciates about being a farm shopkeeper is, as he puts it, that "as much as we can be, we are in charge of our own destiny."

SALES ON RISE

Farm shop sales are increasing by 20% or more a year, according to a survey which will be presented to the Farm Retail Association conference which takes place in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, on Nov 8-10.

There will be 14 speakers, workshops on topics ranging from customer care to computerised stock control and a trade show of specialist food suppliers and service providers, as well as a retail farms and vineyard tour.

The event is open to both members and non-members who may attend for the full conference or just a part of it. Details from Farm Retail Association, PO Box 575 Southampton

S015 7ZB; phone or

fax (01703-362150).

Everything has its season. The Bendalls bring in pumpkins from the field and build an eye-catching display at the shop entrance. For half term they plan to have a wigwam of plaited sweetcorn raised at the end of the

farm trail.

Fruit and vegetables account for 70% of business at

Hollow Farm Shop and much

of it is home grown.