Shoppers, it seems, have finally woken up to what farm shops are about, what we offer, what makes us different. The farm shop sector no longer occupies a tiny niche in the food retail market. Farm shops have ceased to be merely the place one goes for the occasional luxury of the Christmas treat. People are now coming to us for all their food shopping, all year round.
I have always taken the view that farmers' markets, laudable though they might be, were only ever going to be a stepping stone to putting consumers in direct touch with the thousands of artisan food producers this country is now lucky enough to host.
These days you can walk into a supermarket 24 hours a day and buy food from almost any part of the world. Rightly or wrongly consumers have come to expect this continuity of supply – and being able to find what they want whenever they want is the key to building the brand loyalty that every food producer strives for.
Telling them they can only have produce from their local area when the market is in town – perhaps once or twice a week, often less – is in reality offering a second-rate service. On the other hand, farm shops which open seven days a week can come pretty close to matching the opportunities a supermarket provides – even though none that I know are likely to be open at 2.30 in the morning.
But farm shops are also tapping into the public mood, a mood which is increasingly rebelling against the uniformity of supermarket goods, the constant bombardment of special offers luring you towards buying things you didn't know you wanted, the unending trouble of checking labels to ensure you are really getting what it says on the packet (I'm not even going to start on the subject of quality).
Shoppers are now turning to farm shops for a variety of reasons. They like the less frenetic atmosphere, the lack of sales pressure. They can find goods that most supermarkets never carry. They can buy local produce, much of it of a quality which would send it straight into the luxury food bracket in a supermarket – with an appropriately eye-watering price tag. And above all they know the money they spend is going to remain in the local economy, not sucked out of the till to swell the income of some anonymous multi-national corporation.
Farm shops, in a nutshell, have arrived. Hundreds of thousands of families are still going to the supermarket for their basics – their washing powders, floor cleaners and kitchen rolls, their store cupboard standbys. But more and more of them are switching to farm shops for virtually all their weekly food requirements.
Few of us, of course, can match supermarkets on the price of many things. But now it is becoming clearer than ever that it is the supplier, rather than the retailer, who has to take the hit for those money-off deals, the two-for-ones and all the other price-based promotions more shoppers than ever are opting to pay the full price, content in the knowledge that at least the person who produced the food is getting a fair return for it.
There is one area where we are considerably more expensive, though it's a matter over which we have no control. While milk prices paid to farmers have remained pretty much static in recent months independent retailers have faced significant increases in what they have to pay for milk and cream – the result of processors trying to claw back from people like us some of the profits they have had to forego in order to secure supermarket contracts.
But in virtually every other commodity the price reflects a fair return for both the retailer and the producer. Farm shop owners are happy to pay what the supplier asks but by the same token there is no endless line of middlemen all with their hands stretched out for a cut of the retail price.
In the coming months, for instance, British pig farmers are likely to find themselves trading at a huge disadvantage, selling welfare-friendly pork against a continuing stream of cheaper imports from EU states which have refused to switch to the higher welfare rearing systems the law has demanded since January 1.
Supermarkets will almost certainly use the excuse of cheap imports to force down the price they pay British farmers on their usual take-it-or-leave-it basis. Farm shops, on the other hand, will not. They will continue to pay the pig farmer what he needs and by shopping with us consumers can reassure themselves that not merely are they helping that farmer stay in business, they are ensuring that British pork will still be available when they go looking for it in 12 months' time.