I grow a few acres of asparagus on my farm in Kent and this year I have looked on helplessly as the asparagus first sulked underground in the rain and cold, refusing to grow at all and then shot up faster than we could pick it as soon as the sun came out. With this small taste of the unpredictability of farming life, my respect for our farm shop partners grows and grows.
I only have to do this for a few weeks a year and, with the team I have at the farm, I only have to do the minimum. But they do this work day in, day out, growing food to sell in their farm shops and I can tell you it's a tough way to earn a living.
The Jubilee celebrations last weekend really got me feeling patriotic and, despite the weather, it was lovely to see so many people out enjoying delicious food grown across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, it felt like a real celebration of all the good things the United Kingdom has to offer and I'm sure it was a real boost for our local food heroes.
And I think they really deserve our support. We have many award-winning farm shops in the Ice programme and I admire them as business people. These are real entrepreneurs and I'd love to see them on The Apprentice, bringing a good old dose of country common sense to proceedings. They know what it's like to be at the sharp end of business, many of them have taken huge risks, putting their homes and farms on the line to invest in their farm shops. And they had to learn how to be successful from scratch. These guys are not just farmers - they have had to learn how to be retailers, selling their own produce, as well as sourcing and stocking produce from other well-loved local suppliers. And on top of it all they have had to learn how to grow and thrive against tough competition from the supermarkets.
So you'd think they would guard the secrets of their success, but not a bit of it. They are amazingly generous with help and advice for new farm shop owners, believing that if their colleagues are successful it will make them all stronger as a whole. At the Farm & More conference earlier this year, an annual gathering, I was astounded at just how much learning farm shop owners were willing to share with each other. To me, this shows that they are serious about working together to build a strong independent food sector that will be here for the long term.
So what's in it for us when we shop locally?
1. The food is excellent quality and good value. The best farm shops are beautifully laid out and full of quality, fresh produce and tempting goodies to treat yourself and your family. When you compare the prices for local produce, they are often cheaper than the supermarkets.
2. You get to see where your quality fresh produce was grown, where else can you see your fruit and vegetables growing in the field or pat the cow that gave you your ice cream?
3. It's a fun day out. Many farm shops have expanded their businesses to enhance the shopping experience: some have excellent cafes selling home produced food; others have well stocked garden centres; Pick Your Own is always popular in the summer, with kids always eating more than they pick and many farms are branching out into even more experiences for the children, with maize mazes and other fun events.
4. You get the satisfaction of paying your money directly to the hard working people who produced your food.
So there really is no excuse not to get out there and celebrate our local food heroes!
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