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Brexit uncertainty: forging new business models at the farm gate

Poppy Baggott finds out how innovative farm businesses are developing markets for agriculture and local producers as Brexit looms.

Uncertainty over trade deals post-Brexit is top of the agenda for those involved in agriculture in the UK, and the outcome of negotiations will seriously impact all concerned.  It is therefore no surprise that the UK’s farmers and food producers, who have proved themselves time and again to be leaders in innovation and diversification, are not sitting back waiting for the hit. 

Contract farming agreements and joint venture partnerships are on the increase, and these are not just between farmer and landowner, but are also direct between farm gate and retailers.  Large farm shops and other food retailers have the clout and the incentive to make a point of selling food with known provenance, and there is both a premium to be charged and a satisfaction to be gained by all parties concerned, including the end consumer. Larger farm shops, including Balgove Larder in Fife have been forging relationships with local farmers and food producers to  stock their shelves, which, with the continued rise in the popularity of farm shops, opening up new opportunities for producers.  

Galbraith, with considerable expertise in negotiating contract farming agreements and assisting in all aspects of rural management all over Scotland, is well placed to look out for opportunities and aid those who, with an eye to Brexit, are considering a change in how they trade from the farm gate. 

Balgove Larder was founded in 2010 thanks to grant funding from the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) and has developed at an impressive rate, now employing more than 60 members of staff – a far cry from the original team of just seven.  

The Larder is based in a converted farm steading at the centre of a large farming operation just outside St Andrews, and this proximity to the ‘grass roots’ of the farm business very much helped to form the vision of how the business would be established and grown. 

The farming business comprises four farms, Strathtyrum (where Balgove is located), Kippo by Kingsbarns, Pusk by Leuchars and Middleton by Kinross. With a total of about 2,000 acres, these farms are run on an in-hand basis and work with Balgove Larder as closely as possible. The farms are mixed with the arable comprising rape, wheat, beans and barley, and the livestock focusing on traditional breeds, such as Highland, Shorthorn, and Aberdeen Angus cattle; Tamworth and Oxford Sandy Black pigs and Blueface Leicester and Blackface cross sheep, the meat from which is sold through the Larder butchery. There are also about 10 acres of market garden dedicated to growing vegetables and salad for the Larder. 

One of the real keys to the success of the operation has been the buy-in from the farm teams and the willingness to diversify away from just dealing with bulk buyers. It took a lot of work to tie the farm and shop together with efficiencies found in some areas and higher costs in others. Balgove Larder’s founder, Will Docker, said:

We set out to be a farm shop, rather than just a shop on a farm. The products on our shelves are based around what we produce on the farm with livestock coming to the on-site butchery and our market garden working hard to grow salads and vegetables for the shop.

It’s the reassurance around this provenance that appeals to Will and to his customers. Knowing the characters involved in producing the food is paramount. Will continued:

The single link supply chain is the ultimate mark of provenance. We really know where everything comes from and we’re able to respond to customer demand in terms of what we produce. It’s extremely satisfying and it marks us out as a trustworthy food retailer and champion of local produce – something that consumers really value. 

Where the farm isn’t able to supply particular produce, Balgove Larder stocks a huge range of delicacies from artisan producers from Fife and beyond and has forged strong relationships with local vegetable growers, both large and small, berry growers, and free range egg producers. While he’d long worked in the food industry, managing an Essex shellfish company, Will started Balgove Larder because he felt there was a market for a truly traceable food retail and service. He said:

Scottish food and drink is world famous, but in the past it’s often been the case that top quality produce was exported rather than being enjoyed locally, and this is something I wanted to address. In St Andrews we have a supportive local customer base and also huge numbers of tourists that want to experience authentic food on holiday. We focus on keeping things really simple and traditional, which is proving a real hit.

Tourists and the constantly changing population at St Andrews University have affected the way the business has grown too. An online shop was developed to allow Balgove Larder to supply produce to customers who no longer live locally but still crave their favourite farm shop treats. The farm shop itself has expanded several times and there’s now a Home Store, Flower Shed and the popular Steak Barn, which offers a menu based around a wood-fired barbecue in an innovative repurposed shed made from old potato crates. And the café at Balgove Larder has been going from strength to strength, doubling in size this spring in response to the growing queues. 

Innovation is obviously something that Will embraces, with development continuing, from creating a range of ready meals and picnic hampers, to organising seasonal night markets with street food and live music.

The team at Balgove Larder have worked incredibly hard to achieve this level of growth, but this is coupled with the fact that we haven’t strayed from our traditional keep-it-simple and local approach.