How farm shop grew from honesty-box shed to £1.2m turnover
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
The owners of a Norfolk farm shop have revealed the secrets behind its meteoric growth - from honesty-box shed to £1.2m turnover in just four years.
The shop at Old Hall Farm in Woodton, near Bungay, started life in a tiny shed in 2017, selling milk, eggs, pork and asparagus to a few self-service customers.
Four years later, it generates £1.2m of revenue a year and employs 20 local people in the thriving, well-stocked shop, butchery and cafe.
It also runs an online delivery system, launched during last year's lockdown sales surge, and has customers across the country including two Michelin-starred chefs.
Shoppers coming down the drive can see goats, rare pigs and sheep, as well as the herd of Jersey dairy cows and calves grazing on lush "regenerative" pastures aimed at improving the health of the soil.
Owners Stuart and Rebecca Mayhew said it all formed part of an "authentic" offering, combining sustainable, healthy food with a passion for how it should be produced - and the perseverance to adapt to a changing world.
"The best thing about this situation that we are all in is that people are starting to understand that what they choose to eat three times a day makes a massive difference to their health and their lives," said Mrs Mayhew.
"We have real products that are making a real difference to real people. That is why people buy from us."
Five years ago, before the shop, Old Hall Farm was running an intensive livestock operation with 5,000 pigs as well as more than 500 acres of conventionally-farmed arable land.
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But after buying a property on the farm, the Mayhews were looking for more sustainable farming methods, and Mrs Mayhew sought new challenges after leaving her career as a land agent and auctioneer.
When their retail plans started to materialise, she had also just completed treatment for breast cancer - which sharpened her focus on health and nutrition.
"It was also slightly "carpe diem", to seize the day, and if you always wanted to do something, just do it," she said.
Their first cows were bought for the cow-with-calf dairy in November 2016 and, by March 2017, the couple were selling raw milk, milkshakes and free range eggs via an honesty box.
Mrs Mayhew still remembers the thrill of making £25 on the first day.
Four months later, an expanded range was sold through self-service vending machines in a near-derelict shed - later moving into a portacabin to allow the building to be renovated in 2018.
Custom continued to grow, and annual turnover was around £150,000 by the time the new shop and cafe building opened in May 2019.
Less than a year later came a major shock - and an unforeseen opportunity.
The cafe had 300 people booked for Sunday roasts and afternoon teas on Mother's Day 2020 - but they suddenly had to be offered as takeaways as the first Covid lockdown was enforced.
"It was quite traumatic but we all coped with that, the team pulled together, and we pivoted," said Mrs Mayhew.
"We suddenly realised all our catering suppliers had got loads of stuff they couldn't shift, and we had a shop where people were coming and saying what they couldn't get. We did respond very quickly to what was being asked of us."
Mr Mayhew added that the business continues to "reap the rewards" of the online order system launched to meet these new customer demands.
"We have made our own luck by staying open, by serving those customers, and finding ways to keep selling our product," he said.
Although the initial sales surge has subsided, takings are still 25-30pc up on pre-pandemic levels, and Mrs Mayhew estimates the shop has retained about 60pc of the new customers acquired during lockdown.
The next milestone will be next year's first crop of grapes from the farm's new vineyard, which will produce locally-sourced wine for the shop.
Mr Mayhew said: "As direct sales food producers we have only just scratched the surface of what is possible from our 500 acres, and we have lots of neighbours we want to work with."
BRINGING BACK LOCAL EMPLOYMENT
The shop and cafe at Old Hall Farm has reversed the trend of a decline in the workforce during previous decades of mechanisation and intensive agriculture.
Mr Mayhew said having the right people was vital to the success of the business, and there were now more workers on the farm than when he first started farming after leaving school.
Meanwhile, the current turnover of £1.2m is broadly the same as the previous intensive arable and pigs operation.
"In my lifetime we have gone from a dozen employees on the farm, all the way down to none when we got rid of our pigs in 2015," he said. "That is the nature of modern farming.
"Now we have 20, so we have reversed that trend - they are doing different things but the employment is back in the local area, and that is really important to us."