Quality and high standards the key for Northern Ireland’s farm shops
Audrey Watson talks to four of Northern Ireland’s best-known rural firms about how they are managing to compete with pressure from supermarkets and what they are doing to respond to their customers’ needs.
McKee's, Strangford View Farm, Newtownards
The McKees have lived and breathed farming for four generations, rearing livestock and growing vegetables on their 400-acre farm since 1922.
The farm and farm shop are now run by Colin and Linda McKee.
Specialities include home-reared beef and chicken, and free-range eggs which the younger members of the family collect before school.
The shop also stocks produce from other local suppliers.
"Actually, the biggest growth area in our business at the minute is convenience foods - products we can stand over, that we have made ourselves from locally sourced ingredients - cooked and ready for the busy housewife to take home and heat," said Colin McKee.
"Also there is good trade for red meat at present, again our beef comes from our own farm and of course we can stand over our products.
"The biggest challenges for us are controlling costs and staying competitive in respect of our prices against the multiples.
"However, we are able to work with other local suppliers better than the multiples because our customers want quality products and want to know exactly where their food comes from."
Hillstown Farm Shop
The Logan family has been farming at Hillstown for four generations. The shop opened nine years ago and in 2013, a cafe - The Kitchen at Hillstown - opened.
"Like all farmers, the biggest challenges facing local farms and farm shops is competition from supermarkets," says Alastair Logan.
"We stock as much local produce as we can from ourselves and other local producers including rapeseed oil from Brighter Gold and Abernerthy butter and lots of others.
"Also, in our butchery, we do everything more traditionally, so therefore we are offering a more specialised - and better quality - meat.
"We hang and dry-age our beef which a lot of butchers don't do these days.
"There have been so many scares about food recently that people are demanding to know much more about the origins of their food - especially meat - and how it is produced.
"With a farm shop, you know exactly how meat has been reared and fed and how it has been processed, if at all.
"There is no better place to buy your meat."
Ballylagan Organic Farm, Ballyclare
Ballylagan Organic Farm was the first in Northern Ireland to open a fully organic farm shop selling home-grown produce including beef, pork, bacon, eggs, chicken and seasonal fruit and vegetables.
Officially opened in 1998 by Prince Charles, Ballylagan also sells a selection of homemade jams and chutneys and stocks almost everything you could need to live an organic and sustainable lifestyle.
"My parents bought Ballylagan Farm in1976 and we converted to organic in 1990," said owner Tom Gilbert.
"Turnover is increasing and business is really good at the minute. We have also added a tea room and guest house.
"The shop stocks organic beef, lamb, pork and vegetables from our farm and other trusted organic suppliers.
"Our customers are all ages and come from all walks of life. They all share the desire to eat food that is pure and natural."
Cloughbane Farm, Pomeroy
Cloughbane Farm is a farm shop and agri-food business situated on a working farm in Pomeroy, Co Tyrone.
Owners, the Robinson family, have been farming in the area for 150 years.
In 2004 a converted a former pig house and sheep pen was renovated into what is now the shop.
Cloughbane sell, their own and locally-sourced beef, fruit and vegetables, chicken and pork and other local products.
Lorna Robinson said the supermarket price war was the biggest challenge facing the business. "I can understand that they need to promote continuously so as compete in the market, but for us there is a battle between having to pay extra for good quality local ingredients, while also keeping our ready meals at value for money prices."
Cloughbane also produces ready meals for supermarkets and says they are "excellent" to work with. "Of course they demand high standards, from us, to pass on to their customers, but as we also demand high standards from our suppliers, our staff and ourselves, we have no problem with this."
Its top-selling products are cottage pie, lasagne, Irish stew, savoury mince pie, chicken ham and leek pie and chicken and broccoli bake.