We bake our cakes with eggs fresh from the farm, which gives them a really good colour," says Liz Hedges of Bryngwenyn Farm, who hand-collects eggs from her brood of hens daily. "We believe in proper free-range chickens, which can make it a bit harder to locate the eggs!" she adds. But despite the extra trouble tracking down the odd maverick chicken nest, the resulting cakes have proved a popular seller in her on-site shop. "I always baked cakes and, when we opened the shop, it seemed natural that there would be a cakes offering," says Hedges.
The Welsh farm where Liz Hedges sells her fresh cakes is just one of an increasing number of smallholdings where the owners have turned their hand to retail, as well as wholesale, and are pioneering their own cottage industries of fresh produce and baked goods. In fact, according to this year’s food retail report by The Grocer, farm shops were the biggest expanding category this year - surpassing the big supermarkets with 15% growth.
For the Hedges, returning to the land was the result of them falling in love with a rundown sheep farm of 60 acres, perched on the top of a hill over-looking the Gwendraeth Valley and, as an ex-farmer and ex-miller, it was only fitting that part of their agricultural project involved bread and cake-making, using as many ingredients as possible from their own farm. So their small shop sells fresh cakes, artisan loaves and more direct farm produce, such as eggs, meat and vegetables.
Although Simon is not currently milling, flour is carefully sourced from a local craft producer, and is combined with Liz’s free-range eggs to make her rich, flavourful cakes. Meanwhile, miller-turned-baker Simon has set up his own on-site bake-house, hiring the expertise of a local craft baker, and now runs bread-making classes on a weekly basis. He is also in the final stages of building his own flour mill.
== Growing business ==
But although this may seem like an idyllic story of a couple returning to the land, the Hedges, and farm-shop owners like them, also have plenty to teach other bakery retailers. While farm shops are, by their nature, based in rural locations, the growing desire among customers for locally-sourced products is increasingly prevalent. And although the Hedges turn out a tiny quantity of baked goods, they represent a trend that shows every sign of becoming big. "It’s usually assumed in retail that the big supermarkets are driving out the smaller producers and cottage industries," says Richard Dodds of the British Retail Consortium. "But when small specialist outlets are able to offer something unique and different, they are the biggest growth areas."
According to Dodds, the key lies not in competing with the larger outlets, but in doing something they cannot do. "There’s no point in trying to compete with the supermarkets on price point, because you’ll never do it," he explains. "But farm shops are proving that there’s a growing interest from certain types of consumer as to where their food comes from. Due to their size, supermarkets are less able to meet this need than a local farm shop."
== Farm shops in growth ==
Smaller retailers are also better-placed to be able to source locally and convince customers that this is a passion rather than a cynical marketing ploy. So while farm shops may be able to simply point out of the window when a customer asks about the origin of ingredients, a baker supplying farm shops is also well-placed to explain that they use a particular supplier, because they are high-quality and local.
Yet the key to learning from the success of farm shops is not simply to copy their techniques, but to understand the philosophy behind them. Running a smallholding with a farm shop is not a route to becoming rich, and most who go into the business do it because they have a passion for rearing animals properly and growing crops ethically. The fact that this leads to high-quality food is almost a by-product - but one no less popular for that.
"Using good ingredients is a core part of what we do, and the effect is that what we sell is higher-quality than you’d find elsewhere," says Martin Brown, of Redcliffe Farm in Yorkshire. "We make a steak pie, for example, which uses really good-quality steak, and we also fill the pie right to the top, so you get plenty of meat. Lots of people comment that they’ve never had a better pie."
The Redcliffe Farm shop began by selling mainly meat and cheese, but was able to branch out into baked goods by hiring the services of a local confectioner. It has also expanded into a coffee shop and tea room, where a regular rotation of farm-fresh cakes complements the selection of sandwiches and savouries. Local ingredients are a key aspect of the shop’s popularity, but local specialities also drive customers to the farm. "We have traditional products, particular to the region, such as Yorkshire curd tarts," he says. "People like to see things that remind them of their childhood - or cakes based on local recipes."
== The extra mile ==
But although using ingredients fresh from your own fields might seem like a baker’s dream, there are some real disadvantages to running a farm shop. Unlike a bakery retailer, based in a town or city, the footfall is less-than-assured and popular days might be teamed with times when no-one stops by at all. "It is very difficult to balance presenting a good offering for customers when they come, and not wasting food," says Liz Hedges. "We’re still learning how to gauge how many people are going to show up, but it can be very difficult."
So it seems that, while customers might be looking to go back to basics, they also expect a wide range of locally produced products on offer. "You need to have a core stock of products, which people expect to see" says Redcliffe Farm’s Brown, "but you need to rotate things, so there’s something different for people when they come back."
For other bakery retailers, however, this also presents a valuable lesson - because, in order to balance their erratic footfall, successful outlets are genius at creating reasons for people to visit and buy their products. Bryngwenyn Farm offers bakery classes, for example, while others, such as Welbeck Farm in Nottinghamshire, offer sausage-making demonstrations teamed with competitions to win food hampers, and specially-made gift options for seasonal occasions.
While there’s nothing like a severe location disadvantage to drive retailers to get creative with their offerings, this extra effort, teamed with high-quality products made with locally-sourced ingredients, should be a winning formula for any food outlet.