Local Food Farmer of the Year Finalists – Jane and Brian Downs

The Downs aim to sell local food and offer the community a positive meeting place.

Imagine a Fortnum & Mason food hall teeming with aisles of mouth-watering, quality food. There’s limitless space for merchandising well, a roomy restaurant with stunning views and it’s all beautifully lit – a foodies’ paradise and a unique shopping experience.

Jane and Brian Down’s Udder Farm Shop at Manor Farm, East Stour, Dorset, is exactly like that and in a league of its own. It is a haven for local food and a wonderful alternative to supermarkets. The judges concluded that farm shops do not come much better than this.

The secret of their success was to design the shop themselves and build from scratch three years ago using their own investment, plus a DEFRA grant. On a prime site off the A30, the shop boasts over 4000sq ft of floorspace and benefits from a car park for 44 vehicles. It includes a catering kitchen, coffee shop/restaurant and butchery. Planning permission was fairly easy to acquire because the site was a ryegrass pasture with little biodiversity.

The Down family were dairy farmers looking for a less volatile business for the future when they invested in this large-scale shop development. They wanted to sell their own produce and food from other Dorset farmers, as well as serve the local community with a positive meeting place.

Their 200-acre dairy business was contracted out two years ago to Guy and Julie Chandler in a slick move which kept the Down family in farming but freed them up to focus on the shop expansion. The dairy has 220 Friesians supplying milk, which comes back into the shop, to the Blackmore Vale Dairy.

They also own a 45ha (110-acre) beef enterprise at Hartgill Farm next door, but all the finishing is done elsewhere.

They sell beef part-raised on their own farm, plus products sourced locally from over 40 regional businesses and producers. The pork comes from Roy Collis’ family farm only one mile away the lamb is from Graham Taylor at Buckhorn Weston and the beef from Francis Burfitt at Mere.

Manor Farm is on the edge of the Blackmore Vale with Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire on its borders. The Down family have been farming here since 1938. They have realised their dream to create a retail business which would outperform the farm.

In January 2008, they opened a £125,000 extension to accommodate a coffee shop and leave a larger retail space. The first year’s turnover of the whole unit was £756,000, rising to £910,000 and a predicted £1.3m by this Christmas. The shop represents 47% of the turnover, with the restaurant accounting for 33% and the butchery 20%. More than 36,000 cars pass their door each week, with an average spend per customer of £12.50-£13.

“The biggest hurdle has been staffing, but at the moment we have a wonderful team,” said Jane. “We have learned the lesson that one of us needs to be here. We are hands-on.”

“Customer focus is vital,” said Brian. “A good team of staff will generate repeat custom. We do research and hold regular team meetings to discuss where improvements can be made.”

Their courage in thinking big early on has already reaped rewards. The couple have had two serious offers for the business in the past two years, but they are “really on a roll right now” and are not ready to retire just yet.

Good merchandising and a restaurant with stunning views make Udder Farm Shop a foodies’ paradise and a unique shopping experience.

Farm facts

  • 170ha (420-acre) dairy and beef enterprise
  • Farm shop has 27 staff with £250,000 wage bill
  • Shop turnover estimated at £1.3m by year-end

What the judges liked

  • Exemplary large-scale farm shop and restaurant in a perfect location
  • Kept their dairy farm interests but cut their workload by contracting out
  • Significant scope to grow and enthusiasm to go with it

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