Things have changed at Ardross farm over the years, and with a focus on the local community, the Pollock family has built a successful business since opening its farm shop. Ewan Pate finds out more.
The success of the farm shop at Ardross has been built on basic principles which have not changed since it opened 15 years ago, and the Pollock family has maintained a gold standard operation, based on retailing the farm’s meat and vegetables to a steadily increasing consumer base.
The farm situation is near ideal for such a venture, with its coastal location on the tourist route between the East Neuk of Fife villages of Elie and St Monans.
It also had a traditional cart shed, which made it an easy and attractive conversion.
Starting a shop, however, was not initially in the plan for Rob Pollock, his wife Fiona, and daughters Nikki, Tara and Claire.
Nikki is married to Fife farmer Sandy Storrar, and the couple now have two young children. Claire has been back in the multiple award-winning business for four years, following training in accountancy and finance, and she now concentrates mainly on the farming side. Middle sister Tara is a PE and guidance teacher at Bell Baxter High School, Cupar.
In the early 2000s, about 121 hectares (300 acres) of the 526ha (1,300 acres) they farm in a mix of tenanted and contract farmed land, was down to field vegetables, but after a season where about 60 per cent of the crop in one field was left unharvested, it made them think it was an unsustainable, and in some ways unsatisfying, system.
Fiona says: “We came up with the idea of local food for local people.
“We started in a small way 15 years ago and made a point of listening to our customers. We found out that, above all, customers wanted quality food, so that is what we set out to provide.”
Before long, the family reduced the vegetable area to just 2ha (five acres), but it included 50 different types with sowing staggered to keep the shop fully stocked with seasonal products picked fresh every morning.
By 2005, Nikki, a Glasgow University graduate in geography, was home, and she threw herself into the venture, winning a host of national and local awards.
The farm had always had cattle and thoughts now turned to introducing home-produced meat into the retail offering. This has been a real success, with all progeny from a 100-cow suckler herd and a 120-ewe flock now sold through the shop.
But first, much thought was given to the breeds to be used.
Rob says: “We had a Blonde d’Aquitaine-based herd, but we decided to change to Stabilisers.
“Cows are out all year. Even during the ‘Beast from the East’, they were down on the coastal links with no problem. They are easy calving, fertile and, above all, docile. We have never regretted changing.”
Nikki admits that moving to a more recognisable breed, such as Aberdeen-Angus, would have made the story easier to tell to customers.
But she maintains that once the origins of the composite Stabiliser are explained, people become very interested.
All the home-produced beef and lamb is sold under a ‘Pasture for Life’ brand, and Rob has even managed to ‘convert’ a couple of vegetarians back to eating meat by taking them along in his pick-up to see the cows, and explain their grass-based, high-welfare system.
Nikki says: “Once we started chatting, we found out it was not meat as such that they didn’t like, it was just that they didn’t trust the origins of what they were eating. I am glad to say they have been regular customers ever since.”
From watching Nikki and her sister Claire at work in the shop, it is easy to see they have an easy way with their customers and are only too happy to chat. There are neatly written, and constantly updated, blackboards dotted around the shop too, to help tell the story of all the produce for sale.
Sheep had never previously played much of a part in the farming system at Ardross, but Claire was keen to add them to the mix. Following the same approach as with the cattle, she decided to go for a composite breed and settled on Easycare.
A trip to North Wales to visit the breed’s founder, Lolo Owen, resulted in the purchase of 40 gimmers as the foundation of a closed flock which is bred pure.
Claire says: “We have always been keen to breed our own stock for the shop. I think we would struggle to buy-in at the health status we need. There is a big list of criteria to meet to be a cow at Ardross. Feet, fertility, freedom from Johne’s disease, leptospirosis, IBR and BVD are all essential, as is enough milk for a calf and a good temperament. I have been home four years and I haven’t yet had to calve a cow.
“It is the same with the sheep and I am working towards having to do very little handling during the year.”
Although it is not part of the retail enterprise, Rob and Claire take a similarly holistic approach to the arable enterprise, with ploughing now replaced by minimum tillage and combinable crops sown with a Claydon strip drill.
The meat enterprise has a completely local story apart from the slaughtering process. Following the closure a few years ago of the St Andrews abbatoir, which was only 10 miles from the farm, cattle and sheep have now to be taken to Shotts, Lanarkshire, on a weekly basis.
Service is good, but it involves a round trip of 120 miles. The journey could be shared with other producers, but the Pollocks prefer to use their own transport to keep animal stress to a minimum. The hope is that a more local facility will become available at some time in the future.
Back in the shop, it is Nikki’s job to make sure the beef and lamb makes a tempting offering. She has clearly succeeded with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay recently billing it as ‘the best beef in the country’. Meat is sold fresh and frozen and in a huge array of cuts.
Fiona says: “We are at the stage where we are selling the whole animal by making beef broth from the bones and rendering down the fat to make beef dripping.
“We also have a new commercial kitchen next to the shop and, this morning, we are busy making 80 steak pies. We are also selling beef dripping, beef broth and 12 different soups.
“Mutton is also popular now. About 15 years ago, you couldn’t give it away, but quite a few chefs are promoting it now.”
It is clear that meat is now a major draw in the shop and, to complete the range, Nikki stocks Puddledub pork from local producer Tom Mitchell and poultry from Gartmorn, Stirlingshire.
On the weekday morning of the Farmers Guardian visit, the shop was pleasantly busy with shoppers obviously well aware of where to find their weekly provisions.
Apart from meat and vegetables, they were also picking up freshly baked bread from a local supplier and home baking from the Ardross kitchen.
At weekends, clientele changes subtly, according to Nikki, with customers from further afield making their regular shopping trip part of a day out to the picturesque East Neuk of Fife, with its coastal fishing villages.
Nikki says: “We offer home deliveries once-a-week on a Thursday, and we are now delivering by courier all over the UK.
“Often it is delivered to people who come to the area on self-catering holidays and have liked the produce in the shop. An online shop is currently under development.”
Asked why she does not run a cafe alongside the shop, Nikki says she would rather concentrate on selling really good food.
“I am passionate about that,” she says. “Also, there are plenty of good cafes in the village and I wouldn’t want to take their trade away.”
This sense of community spirit pervades everything the Pollocks do. For example, during the ‘Beast from the East’ storms, Rob took responsibility for keeping the coast road open.
As recognition of this and given it is at the heart of everything the family does, local MP Stephen Gethins nominated Ardross for the All Parliament Responsible Business Awards.
Being awarded runner-up position behind defence technology giant BAE Systems, it shows that scale is not everything and that the personal touch still counts.