In times of hardship, it’s important to keep sight of the good as well as the bad. Rachel Knowles, co-owner of Trink Farm outside St Ives, is a firm believer in this. Her current reason for staying positive? The recent coronavirus outbreak is driving more people than ever back to local produce.
Trink Farm is a dairy specialising in gently pasteurised, non-homogenous milk. On March 20, Knowles was horrified to find that 62 per cent of the dairy farm’s sales were set to disappear due to the closure of coffee shops, restaurants and schools (as well as supplying a wide range of hospitality businesses, Trink Farm is responsible for providing government-funded free milk for under-fives at nearby schools).
But astonishingly, within just one week, the lost sales had completely balanced out through their on-site dedicated dairy shop, which is set up to run unmanned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We’re now selling the same number of litres in direct retail,” she told me.
What’s more, the farm has seen a reduction in the distance that their milk is travelling. “75 per cent of our milk is now being sold within 1.5 miles of the dairy building,” said Knowles. “Before the outbreak, we only saw 20 per cent of our milk being sold within 1.5 miles of the farm.” It's an incredible shift.
A farmer’s daughter, Knowles met her husband, Chris, a St Ives native, at agricultural college thirty years ago. Five years later, she joined him in the Cornish town. The pair are now the third generation to run Trink, his family farm.
Like many British farmers, encouraging customers to leave supermarkets and return to local farm shops has always been a high priority for the pair. During the dairy farming crisis four years ago, Rachel set up a vending machine in the farm's dairy shop, to help those interested in supporting the business get easier access to Trink’s milk.
“I started looking into vending machines, and we did a pop up shop at our house with an honesty fridge as a trial, to see if people liked it,” she told me. The idea was a success and when the vending machine arrived, it very quickly became a smorgasbord of the best of St Ives’ local produce.
“I’ve always called it [the vending machine] a mini farmers’ market,” laughed Knowles. “There’s chocolate pie made by a neighbouring farm, the eggs are from the closest chicken farm to us, and in summer we have salad that’s grown by a neighbour.”
Now, the vending machine is playing a crucial role in helping locals get essentials during the lockdown. Access is available 24 hours a day, eliminating the need to queue: “I went up this morning, and we’d had quite a few customers overnight.
“We milk our cows every day and can pasteurise every day if we need to, so there’s no panic buying or stockpiling either,” explained Knowles. “People are just purchasing what they need and keeping it fresh.”
During this difficult period, the farm is also working to keep sanitation levels high around the property, particularly in public areas. Hand sanitiser has been made available, and a sink is stationed next to the vending machine so that customers can wash their hands. A one-in-one out policy has been also been put in place for the shop.
As well as donating spare gloves and aprons to the local council for NHS care workers, and doing deliveries to those unable to make it to the dairy – including a number of local farmers who are working around the clock to plant crops – Trink has also been making sure that locals eager to skip potentially crowded supermarkets are able to do so.
Building on the success of the vending machine, a mini farmers market was held at the dairy two weeks ago in collaboration with St Ives Cider. “David Berwick [owner of St Ives Cider] has the local fishmonger come to his door on a weekly route,” said Knowles.
“He asked me, as we’ve got a nice clean car park, if the fishmonger could park there and we could invite people up to support him," she told me. St Ives apple juice and cider were available to buy, as were Trink Dairy products. The mini market had a surprisingly large turnout and everyone abided by the strict social distancing measures in place. Knowles has had so many calls for more that they're planning to host another soon.
This surge of customers to the farm is just part of what Knowles sees as a wider return to shopping local. “All our farm shops are rushed off their feet," she said. "It’s getting people back to appreciating their local shops, and I think it’s been generally positive for a few businesses.”
Inspired by their success elsewhere, Trink recently set up a new community shop, along with two other businesses, out of a donated horse box in the farm’s local village of Nancledra. Stationed in the village car park, it sells locally produced vegetables, eggs and freshly baked bread as well as Trink milk.
Knowles has been delighted with the results. “The local villagers are really getting on-board with it! People are putting their baking in there, someone’s put a box of books in, a bit like a bring and buy. There’s a real community feel.”
The recent shortage issues in supermarkets have only hammered home Knowles’ belief in the importance of shopping local. “It just proves how much control supermarkets have over what we eat, and how much is imported,” she said.
Knowles recalled March 2018’s ‘Beast from the East’, a cold wave that hit Britain and Ireland, when supermarkets also ran out of food. “That was only for two days, and it didn’t last long,” she said.
“Ironically two years later this has happened, and now people are discovering their local shops, their local businesses, their local milkman; our milkman has had to say he can’t take any more new customers!”
But will the recent outbreak be enough to change people’s shopping habits for the long-term? “I really hope so,” Knowles said.
Only time will tell, but it’s heartening to know that for at least one Cornish dairy farm, there’s a ray of light in the cloud of coronavirus worries.
Have you noticed your own nearby small businesses doing innovative, creative and kind things to adapt? Share your stories below or email [email protected] with pictures.
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