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Beef South West Preview: Farming at heart of family retail business

Darts Farm is one of the premier shopping destinations in the South West, but farming still remains at its core, as Jane Brown finds out.

Darts Farm is a food-lover’s heaven. From its master butchers to home-grown vegetables, deli counter and on-site cider makers, it has everything you could dream of for a fine night in.
It is not just about the shopping experience. Farming has always been and always will be, at the heart of Darts Farm. Run by brothers Paul, Michael and James Dart, it marries agriculture, food and the environment to create a complete farm-to-fork culture.
Bought by their grandfather in the 1950s, Darts Farm boasted its first farm shop in 1971, with a pioneering pick-your-own venture.
James says: “It was really successful, so my father Ronald continued to grow the business.”
A large cattle barn and neighbouring general purpose building eventually formed the basis of the farm shop as you see it today, although the development has evolved steadily over the years.
James says: “My father passed away in 1982, and all of us have come back after college to develop the business.”
Many years of perseverance with the planning department finally proved fruitful, and about 13 years ago, with the help of Grainge Architects, the brothers set about a major redevelopment of the site.
This included demolishing the silage clamp and slurry store between the two farm sheds and linking them with a predominantly glazed hallway with views over the market gardens.


This hall now features the gift section and restaurant, with the Aga shop, Fired Earth, and Orange Tree housed in the old cattle shed.
The butchers, florist, deli and fresh food are in the general purpose building alongside Cotswold Outdoor and RSPB outlets.
Although the brothers are all equal partners in the business, Paul runs the farm and general maintenance, while James and Michael are responsible for the retail side. Each enterprise is individually costed and analysed, to ensure the overall performance is robust.
Michael says: “We made sure we had good financial structures in place before we grew, so we could monitor how we are performing.
“If things start to go wrong, you have to know where to look for the problem. I get quite a buzz from turning things around – if you can improve by 2 per cent it makes a huge difference."
In total, the brothers farm about 280 hectares (691 acres) in three main locations – Ebford, Honiton and Kennford.
This includes 24ha (60 acres) of wetland pasture along the River Clyst, which adjoins the 40ha (98 acres) of market gardens surrounding Darts Farm shop.
Here, 40-50 seasonal crops are grown, including salads, fruit and vegetables, alongside sunflowers and a maize maze in autumn.


The farm employs three people all-year-round, with additional seasonal workers in summer. All the main crops are sold through the shop, with maize silage, barley and haylage providing winter feed for cattle.
Paul buys and finishes about 150 head of cattle a year, with the help of master butcher Alastair David. James says: “We like Red Devons, but also get Aberdeen-Angus and Herefords – all smaller traditional breeds.
“Paul predominantly gets heifers because they are slower growing and taste sweeter.”
cows inside
Typically buying stores off Exmoor at 12 months old, Paul grazes them over summer and houses them on straw over winter, with all fattening stock housed for the final month or two of finishing.
As well as his own beef, Paul also sources beef from a nearby farmer, producing to the same specification.
Mr David says: “I like Red Devons. Because they are placid, they taste better. I will go out with Paul to select the cattle I want. An ideal weight is 520kg, as it produces a smaller joint size for customers.
“We do not use the EUROP grading system at the local abattoir. Instead we have a five-star system, and I only want fours and fives.”
Cattle are fed a ration of maize, barley, haylage and swede tops, which are readily available from the market garden.
Mr David says: “It is not a total mixed ration, they just select what they want.”
Carcases are dry-aged on the bone for four to six weeks and he sells about eight cattle a week through Darts Farm, a second shop, near Newton Abbot, and at local farm shows.
To balance the carcase, he sells large topsides, burgers and slow-roasting joints at discounted prices, and trims stewing steak carefully to keep quality up.
He says: “It is a continual challenge to educate the public about buying cheaper, slow-roasting joints, but we have a great following now.”
As the Dart brothers do not produce other livestock, Mr David sources pigs from the award-winning Kenniford Farm at nearby Clyst St Mary, and buys live lambs at Sedgemoor and Exeter market.
He says: “I am looking for lambs at about 42kg, as I do not want them too heavy.”
James and Michael then source as much other produce locally as possible, including Quickes cheese, Chunks pasties, Pebblebed wine and Rodda’s clotted cream.
James says: “Anything unseasonal, such as oranges, we buy-in from wholesalers and use their prices as a benchmark for produce we buy from the home farm.
“Michael and I also go to all the trade fairs to choose gifts, cards and other items we stock.”


Each year, the brothers hold a big harvest supper for their producers, and this year 134 suppliers turned up bearing a little of their own produce.
Michael says: “It is an amazing little community – the snowball just keeps on rolling and we are very proud to be part of it.”
It is clear food means more than basic nutrition to this family.
Michael travelled to America and Italy to study the value of food as part of his Nuffield Scholarship five years ago.
Bigger picture
He says: “This helped shape and enhance what we are doing here. It enables you to step back and see the bigger picture. Food is not just a commodity, it impacts on farming activities, the way people live their lives, tourism – the whole local culture, economy and environment.”
To better educate customers about food and where it comes from, Darts Farm hosts a number of school visits, training courses and charity events.
Michael says: “We have built a bird hide on the wetland and put in a footpath which takes people around the farm. We invite primary school children to pick pumpkins and grow sunflowers for charity, and host a family camping event for parents and their children.”
“We have a host of two- to five-year plans. We chew over ideas for a long time and talk everything through together. We do not want to get any bigger now, we want to get better. You have to continue to evolve or someone will take your business away from you.”


Options include developing an on-site cookery school and micro-brewery, making more of the Green Valley Cyder works, and processing more of the fresh produce into soups and chutneys.
Michael says: “At the moment, anything which is not visually perfect is used in the restaurant, but there is plenty of scope to do more.”
About 60 per cent of the business’ turnover is in-house, with rents from tenants providing the other 40 per cent.
Michael adds: “Most of our rents are turnover-based, which is a good thing, as it keeps us hungry and innovative rather than just sitting back and taking a fixed sum.”
The shop now employs 120 people and has won numerous awards, which is quite incredible considering its humble beginnings. James says: “Our early approach was ‘build it and they will come’, and luckily they have.
“We borrowed a lot of money to do it, but never really thought it would be this successful.”
But no matter how successful the brothers are, they are still farmers, adds Michael.
“We are just not commodity people. If all you produce is a commodity, you are at the mercy of supermarkets and they will play imported and domestic produce against each other to drive the price down.
“Instead, we have gone to the consumer to get their spend straight into the farm.”

Great British Steak Off competition

DARTS Farm is providing beef for the showman’s supper on the eve of Beef South West, with butcher Alastair David also competing in the Great British Steak Off competition.
He says: “It is nice to be providing our beef for the South West’s best cattle breeders. I have selected a six-week matured sirloin for both the supper and the competition.
“I have got one from a Devon heifer and one from a Devon cross Limousin in case the judge is looking for a leaner steak.
“The competition should be good fun and it would be amazing to win. Producing top quality beef is not an exact science, it is about the whole package from pasture to plate – every job has to be done properly.”

Beef South West timetable

  • 9am: Primestock judging commences
  • All day from 10am: Live cattle handling equipment and machinery demonstrations
  • 11am-2.30pm: Speakers’ corner
  • 11am-12pm: ‘Our route to a premium market’ – Ed Green, chairman of Meat South West; Minette Batters, deputy president of NFU and co-founder of Ladies in Beef; Philip Warren, master butcher
  • 12.15pm-1.15pm: ‘Role of AHDB Beef and Lamb – supply chain and export development’, with Dr Phil Hadley, head of supply chain development; ‘Research and development in the beef sector’, with Dr Mary Vickers, senior beef and sheep scientist; ‘Role of AHDB Beef and Lamb going forward’, with new strategy director, TBC
  • 1.30pm-2.30pm: ‘Health and production – beef bull selection for the dairy herd’, with Arwell Owen, Genus ABS; ‘On-farm control of neospora’, with Prof Lee Innes, Moredun Foundation; ‘On-farm control of cryptosporidium’, with Dr Beth Wells, Moredun Foundation; ‘Where now for bTB control?’, with Rupert Dod, National Beef Association bovine TB committee
  • 3pm: Parade of champions and presentation of prizes

Event details

Date: Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Location: Westpoint Centre, Exeter, EX5 1DJ
Tickets: Adults, £10 on the gate or £8 before November 6; concessions, £5 on the gate or £4 before November 6
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