A great example of a local farm shop diversifying and encouraging new customers is Downingbury Farm in Pembury. Well-known for its pick-your-own offerings in the summer, the farm itself grows fruit including strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, plums and apples and the shop stocks all kinds of fresh produce and handpicked local food and drink.
Run by Peter Jervis, the main shop was set up 23 years ago and branched out two years ago, opening a town centre sister store called Locality in Camden Road.
“People’s shopping habits have changed,” says Mr Jervis. “I think it’s due to a lot of factors. The recession changed things, for a start. A few years ago, people were doing big weekly shops in the supermarkets, spending £300 a time, but I don’t think they do that any more. There’s always been a niche for farm shops but I think recently people have also become more cynical about supermarkets and cottoned on to the way some of them treat their suppliers. Their trade is really beginning to drop now.”
Mr Jervis is a fruit and vegetable expert, growing his own as well as hand-picking imported produce from Covent Garden market, which he visits three times a week. If anyone knows about the business, it’s him.
“The produce in supermarkets is fine but it looks so uniform and almost like it’s made out of plastic,” he says. “It’s too perfect in a way; it looks like it’s been manufactured. People like a bit of imperfection because it’s real.
“I also think there is much more awareness about local food. It’s fresher and it has fewer food miles, which can only be a good thing. You can get British fruit and veg in supermarkets but what people forget is that it goes through a massive transport system first. Even fruit from Kent will have been picked half-ripe, stored somewhere, then packed and sent halfway up the country for distribution, only to be sent back down to Kent. We can pick something ripe from the tree and have it on the shelf ready for you to buy that afternoon. That’s the difference and people appreciate that.”
He does admit though that the supermarkets have set a high standard. Able to bring in produce from every part of the world, they have opened consumers’ eyes to global food. Farm shops and independent businesses can’t rely on people using them out of goodwill, he says, their products must be of the highest quality.
“One of the best ways to encourage customers, especially at our town centre shop where we get a lot of footfall, is to put things in people’s faces,” Mr Jervis says. “Especially in the summer, with strawberries for example. People love that, as they don’t see them usually – we display the strawberries outside so you can smell them as you walk by.”
One of the other ways the farm shop is branching out is through its new box scheme. Delivering weekly to about 30 customers in the area so far, Mr Jervis assures only the freshest produce makes it into the box and offers a great deal of ﬂ exibility when it comes to the contents.
“It’s going great. We use as much local produce as we can and delivery is free. I usually do the deliveries myself. Nearly all our box scheme members ring up each week and order just what they want and that’s something the national companies can’t offer.
“It’s that kind of personal relationship with the customer that we’re trying to nurture, and we have it with all our lovely local producers too. We’re all in it together.”
Downingbury Farm, Maidstone Road, Pembury, is open every day. Call 01892 824282 or visit www.downingburyfarm.co.uk
Locality is also open every day, at 15 Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells. Call 01892 616632 or visit www.localitytwells.co.uk