You become a farmer for the way of life.
You do everything to the best of your ability – the quality and work we put in is huge. So when the pig crisis happened in 1998 and the price we received was totally out of our control it was horrendous. We had three children under five and my maternal instinct kicked in. We set up a free-range pork business and began setting up farmers’ markets to sell direct to the public.
Our farm name and address was printed on our leaflets and market stand.
After about three years, we knew we needed to open a farm shop when we were having Easter lunch outside one day. A car pulled up at midday, a guy got out in his slippers and asked ‘is this where I get the sausages from?’ It was happening quite a lot, so we decided we would have to have a shop so we could close when we wanted. However, we have a young family and it was our home – we wanted to retain our family life on-farm.
For 15 years, we just had a little outbuilding off our production area, which was six metres by 2.5m (20ft by 8ft).
We could get away with having a small farm shop as we never advertised it. It added to the exclusivity of our free-range pork in a way. We had a mobile counter like the kind you use at farmers’ markets, then if anyone needed anything cutting we could do it because we were in there anyway.
Three years ago, Terry and I decided to go for it...
although I had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about the cost of it all. The new building has been designed to complement the farm. Inside, there is a secret courtyard with a glazed walkway, so visiting chefs can see into the production area.
This is our home, our farm, so I am not going to turn it into a theme park.
I think if you want to be a serious, high-quality producer, the two do not mix. You cannot be churning out cups of tea and slices of cake and expect to win Great Taste awards for your produce. It could take over and we are not interested in that. It would be impractical to try, as we are in between two villages on a B-road, so there is not any passing trade.
Everyone who comes to the farm shop always buys Lincolnshire sausages and our pork pies are quite sought after too.
Our ‘two Debbies’ produce every single pork pie, making the pastry with our own lard, pork, salt and pepper. They are the same pork pies we have been supplying to Lord’s Cricket Ground for five years.
Everything we sell in the meat counter is produced on-farm.
We have British Blue beef, our own cross-breed of lamb and, of course, our free-range pork. We also have chickens and our eggs are really popular because we have different breeds.
We have just finished selling beef until autumn and we already have a waiting list.
Our customers are cooks, so they are not coming on the off-chance and they are not about impulse buys – they are coming to buy.
We have had lovely comments from customers who have been coming to us for years...
since we opened our new farm shop. We did not want people to think that because we were putting this big building up we were getting bigger and more commercial. We spent this money to make our lives better and more organised. It is located away from the house, so we have a private farmhouse for the first time in 25 years. Before, it was yards from our front door and people even had to come into the house to use the toilet.
We have a small footfall – we probably get 20-30 customers on a Saturday and about 15 every other day. Louise, our farm shop assistant, looks after the shop and sorts out all our orders.
Because we only have a small footfall, we stick to stocking things our customers actually want.
When we started, we contacted producers directly about stocking their produce, the same way we would at a farmers’ market – it did not occur to me to go through a distributor. We are very selective about what we sell, from cordials to jam, and we want to make sure whatever our customer buys, it was the best example we could find.
I do not like it when farm shops try to make out they have made everything themselves when they have not.
We want to get rid of all the confusion – we are the only farm shop in the county which only sells its own meat. But when you work this hard and focus as much as we do on quality, the best thing is selling the meat direct to customers.
You do not need everything right at the start.
A lot of what we have done is based on trial and error and listening to what other people do. A lot of people boast about their business, but they are making more money than you because they are cutting corners. This has got to be your point of difference. We can sleep at night, really, really well.
Some of our staff have worked here for more than 10 years.
Neither myself nor Terry had ever managed people before, but we have learned it is best to put personality first and preferably go for people you know through someone else. We just try to be nice, fair and treat people the way we would like to be treated and it has worked so far.
Someone came to see me who wants to start selling beef herself.
In the end, I said she should not come and see me at the farm because it would give the wrong impression – it has taken 25 years to get to this point. You have to start from scratch. I told her not to consider a farm shop straight away and instead to do farmgate sales, tell the local pub, make leaflets or book a stall at a local market. Sell your produce and gauge the reaction before investing in anything.
The great thing is we have a lot of younger people visiting the farm shop.
We were a bit worried when we first started that our customer base was going to die off, as the first group of people who really appreciated our pork and sausages was the older generation, who used to be able to buy quality meat from butchers.
One of my best memories is the nickname we have had...
since our early days at farmers’ markets – ‘the stall with the queue’. We still have the nickname today and I never take it for granted.