Fresh food locally: Farm-shops in Kent

Fresh food locally

In the past, families got their fresh food locally, from a village general shop or the nearest greengrocer, butcher, baker or a weekly town market, or they grew their own fruit and vegetables in cottage gardens and allotments.

This began to change from the late 1950s when supermarkets began to appear in towns and cities, with all different types of food, mostly pre-packaged and some in refrigerated counters. Customers began to get used to self-service, filling their trolley for the weekly shop and paying the cashier on the way out.

How supermarkets took over

You could see the attraction of having everything in one place but this came at a cost. The quantities the supermarkets needed drove the prices down but this also had a detrimental effect on quality and the amount the farmers and growers actually received in revenue.

Some tried to counter this by selling directly to customers who passed by their farm in cars. They set up farm shops and posted signage with lists of what is for sale in season.

But the supermarkets with their clever marketing and lighting wowed more customers by their impressive displays of fruit and vegetables, together with butchery displays, and the significant price reduction of the weekly shop. The farm shops declined and many just gave up. The consumer was more mobile. Car ownership had increased threefold.

By the late 1980s very few farm shops were to be seen in Kent, and what they had on offer was just the basics.

How customers became disillusioned

In the 1990s customers became more discerning: after the financial slump in the 1980s new businesses were on the increase and improved salaries allowed consumers to seek out a better product. Supermarkets were getting boring with row after row of perfect cabbages, carrots and swedes that had been driven hundreds of miles, or worse, had been flown in from abroad.

A yearning began for something different.

Farmers were becoming disillusioned by the supermarkets needing the perfect product: for every perfect cabbage, three didn’t make the grade. What could you do with a slightly imperfect vegetable? Waste was becoming criminal and eventually the farmers revisited selling produce on site.

The older generation who grew up post-war relying on local produce remembered the ease of purchase and didn’t mind a bit of mud on their potatoes, nor a swede that delivers ten portions.

Farm Shops again

To make them more attractive some farmers added a butchers shop onsite with locally sourced meat. Some went a bit further and added groceries and specialist goods, cheeses, logs, firewood, spices and, most of all, local fresh vegetables picked that morning or at worst the day before. Some obtained licences to serve alcohol and brought in craft local beers and wines, all to be just that bit different.

This was very reminiscent of the old-fashioned village grocers shop such as CA Coombs and Son in the village of Ickham, sadly no longer in existence due in part to cheaper mainstream goods found in the big supermarkets. There you could find wellington boots next to a freezer containing frozen peas, every space utilised for maximum customer exposure. 

There are many good quality farm shops in the Garden of England now, each becoming more aware of the needs of the individual discerning customer base. All across Kent they have developed and changed to suit the consumer needs, with delicatessens, on-site butchers selling their own meat from the farm, and fruit and vegetables obtained within a five mile radius of their premises. 

In Praise of fresh food from Lower Hardres Farm Shop

There are many to choose from so I will select one at random to delve deeper. If you head toward Folkestone from Canterbury on the B2068 Stone Street and turn left by the Granville pub, you will see the Lower Hardres Farm shop set back from the road. They have a large gravelled car park capable of accommodating 20+ cars.

This is a far cry from the muddy car parks of yesteryear when the trip to the farm shops required the wearing of wellington boots! The welcoming signage as you drive in, together with traditional market barrows displaying vegetable plants and a colourful assortment of perennials, are pleasing to the eye. You are hooked before you get out of the car.

They have a ‘pick your own’ field on the bank to the side of the shop with fruit trees delivering raspberries, tayberries and gooseberries throughout their seasons. The onsite butchery delivers the finest local meat. The contents of the display cabinet are always fresh and pleasing to the eye.

It must be hard to go in for a few rashers of bacon and not come out with a ribeye steak, such as the quality and freshness you behold on entering! 

There is local milk, cheeses and artisan bread from a local bakery, with all the usual products you used to purchase from local shops. The display of local vegetables and fruit is on a par with the supermarkets but sourced from just down the road. 

This particular farm shop mirrors many in the area. The supermarkets are losing their grip on this market, and the customer is becoming more discerning and loyal once again. Farm shops were on a decline but, due to some ingenious marketing and vision by the owners, have made a resurgence in the last five years.

Long may it continue and we should all be reminded that shopping fresh food locally is good for the rural economy to sustain jobs, and the sense of community that people of my generation thought had been lost forever. 

The Editorial team of Kent Bylines is Charlotte Mbali, Magdalena Williams, Chris Hammond and Nico Kerr. We are now looking for more articles from people who have studied, lived or worked in other European countries. We are also looking for more book reviewers.