UNIQUE CHARITY PROJECT BOOSTS LOCALLY-SOURCED FOOD

A UNIQUE farm shop that has forged a new bond between agriculture and shoppers, whilst returning every penny it makes to charity, is marking its fifth anniversary.

Fodder, in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, has blazed a trail for bringing locally-sourced food to consumers direct from farmers and artisan producers – and its example is being followed by farm shops not only from across Britain, but from Australia and Canada.

The shop was set up in the wake of the devastating foot-and-mouth crisis that decimated farming in large parts of the country and led to the mass slaughter of animals.

Turnover is now set to hit £10m, and every penny of profit is returned to the charity that set Fodder up, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, which stages the Great Yorkshire Show – England’s largest rural showcase – every July.

The shop is the only one of its kind in the country and its innovative approach to bringing local food and consumers together is a great British farming success story, being recognised in national awards for both its approach to retailing and the green credentials of its building.

Farmers and Fodder have a mutually supportive relationship, and the shop has boosted the fortunes of rural communities in Yorkshire. It has also forged close community links within Harrogate – all leftover produce is donated to the Harrogate Homeless Project.

The shop and its cafe, at the Great Yorkshire Showground, opened its doors on 17 June 2009 with the twin aims of showcasing the very best of the county’s produce – and proving it is affordable for customers to buy locally-sourced food and support agriculture.

It was born out of the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis, which convinced the Yorkshire Agricultural Society that the region needed a central focus for farming. It embarked on building a £5.1m Regional Agricultural Centre to bring rural organisations together under one roof.

Farmers who backed the plan had a suggestion to make – their produce sold well at the food halls of the Great Yorkshire Show every summer. Would it be possible to give them a year-round outlet?

Heather Parry, Deputy Chief Executive of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, said: “We thought, ‘It can’t be that difficult, we can do that’. A lot of farms don’t have the right infrastructure, the right building, the right location to have a shop. We were building anyway, and it was just a matter of making it bigger.

“Because the Great Yorkshire Show food hall is so busy and because foot and mouth had such a massive effect, we wanted to do more tangible things all year round to help the farming community.”

She and Fodder’s head chef embarked on an intensive tour of farms and producers to decide what the shop should sell, making 12 visits a day.

“We knew what we wanted,” said Heather. “We were very passionate that what we did here was a celebration of absolutely the best of Yorkshire, and the only way to do that was to go and see people and understand what they were making, and how they were making it, where it was from.

“Seeing them gave us a real insight, so we could be real, passionate champions of everything we sell.”

Fodder’s mission was to support Yorkshire producers, whilst demonstrating that locally-sourced food was affordable. It struck a chord with shoppers increasingly keen on knowing where their food comes from.

Heather said: “The beauty about Fodder is that it helps the suppliers and all profits go to help the charity while making local accessible to people.

“There’s a real surge of interest in local food and it’s about people knowing where to get it, and also about making it affordable. There was a perception it was very expensive, and actually it shouldn’t be any more expensive.”

But in that summer of 2009, trade got off to a slow start.

“When we first opened, people thought it was so nice, it looked like Harrods and they wouldn’t be able to afford anything, and that played against us in some ways,” said Heather.

“What happened was that the cafe started to take off, because people thought they could afford a coffee, and that’s what brought people in. The cafe was great, but initially the shop was slow to get going.”

Everything about Fodder was innovative, even down to the building itself, which when it went up was one of the most eco-friendly in Britain, using a timber frame and the wool from 1,500 sheep to insulate it.

Fodder now leads the way for farm shops both nationally and internationally, hosting visits from businesses eager to tap into its experience.

Heather said: “They started coming round undercover, but we said, ‘Don’t be undercover, tell us, we’ll show you round the back, we’ll show you the mistakes we’ve made’.

“We are very helpful, we’re very welcoming. We’re here to help farming, to help local food. The supermarkets are very strong, and we’re as strong by working together as a team of people.

“Working with the community of farm shops, not just in Yorkshire but nationally and worldwide, it’s a nice group of people and we can learn from each other.”

Customer demand took Fodder in some unexpected directions – like selling pasta, added Heather. “When we started selling pasta, meat sales went up hugely, because people want to come in and buy everything they need for a meal, so we’re actually helping more farmers locally by selling pasta. It was those sorts of things – you set off with these golden ambitions, but to achieve the ambitions, you sometimes have to refine the route.”

And it was customer demand for food they could trust that sent beef sales soaring by 47 per cent last year when the scandal over horsemeat in supermarket ready meals broke.

All meat sold by Fodder is fully traceable back to Yorkshire farms, where livestock has been kept to the highest standards of welfare.

Butchery sales are still growing overall, but Heather and Fodder’s General Manager, Jane Thornber, have noticed that some customers have returned to supermarket ready meals.

Heather said: “We’ve got a lot of customers from that period who still come, but a lot have slipped back into going to the supermarkets and that’s interesting. We will never be the cheapest, but we sell the best at a reasonable price.”

Feedback from both customers and suppliers is vital for Fodder. Mystery shops are carried out monthly, and research has been done with both regular and new customers.

Fodder’s rapport with its suppliers is vital for both the shop and those who produce its food. Jane said: “Not many shops deal with 327 suppliers, they will just go to a couple of wholesalers, so a lot of our time is spent dealing directly with our suppliers; we are talking to them all the time.”

Heather added: “We’ve never got complacent. Like any business, you’ve got to keep growing and keep listening. We’re passionate and the suppliers are passionate, and we have them in for the evening and give them food and drink. We want to hear how they’re doing, and they want to know how we’re doing, what our top 10 products are in each area, what profit we’re making for charity, what are we going to do next.”

It’s now possible that a second Fodder will open its doors in Yorkshire, but where and when have not been decided. Heather said: “If we can help more suppliers by doing more in different areas, it’s all to play for, and I think in the next couple of years there’ll be another one, but we need to be very careful because we don’t want to damage any independent shops or farm shops in another area.

“It’s been quite a journey. When I show people round, I always say it’s the best thing I’ve done, but its also the hardest thing I’ve done.”

Fodder is at the Great Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate HG2 8NZ, telephone 01423 546111 and at www.fodder.co.uk

All profits from Fodder go to fund the work of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, the charity at the heart of the county’s rural life. In addition to staging the Great Yorkshire Show, the Society has an extensive educational programme to help children understand where their food comes from and promotes countryside careers.