Alec Marsh

The irresistible horror of the farm shop

Even Kate Middleton would wince at the prices

  • From Spectator Life

Picture the scene; you’re Kate Middleton and it’s Saturday lunchtime. You’re out enjoying suburban Windsor. The Audi is safely stowed – along with hundreds of other cars mostly produced in Germany, the Czech Republic or the West Midlands – in a nearby car park the size of the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman and about as eco-friendly.

The farm shop is a kind of Peppa Pig World for adults

There’s a faux 1950s Citroen van-lookalike with corrugated panels from which a pair of stressed teens in brown aprons are selling overpriced macchiatos, almond lattes and stone-cold hot chocolates, to a lengthening queue of gilet-wearing mums and dads. Most of them are too busy pretending not to watch their children tormenting each other to notice they are being royally ripped off. Somewhere between the car park and the kids’ play area is a principal building that has all the architectural merit of a suburban branch of Lidl.

This is a farm shop, except you’re more likely to see a paparazzo than a farmer. Not only did poor old Kate have her face splashed across the global news media but she was also confronted with a £7.50 price tag for a loaf of artisanal bread.

We all know, deep down, that few expressions in the English language are as inauthentic as the words ‘farm shop’. Strip away the faux agricultural accoutrement – the redundant spreader or mower left rusting among the weeds at the side of the car park or the bowls of water left out for dogs – and you will discover that most farm shops (and their inevitable cafes with their hateful wooden spoon) have absolutely nothing to do with real farms. That is, unless you call charging bourgeois townies extraordinary prices a form of ‘farming’, which I suppose it is; milked – until the udders squeak.

The sad truth is that however it started – with well-meaning agris cutting out the middle man by flogging their fruit and veg directly to the punters – most farm shops now are an elevated and rather rapacious sub-category of retail outlet. The people who visit can probably name more brands of car than species of tree. When faced with the prospect of dropping £20 for a kilo or two of midnight-forced rhubarb or purple-sprouting fusilli in a straw-filled wicker presentation basket, they simply can’t stop themselves.

Because, sadly, most of us live lives so utterly divorced from nature that CountryFile is as close as we get – or perhaps, at a push, Ben Fogle on another of his rather peculiar weekend visit to grubby hermits living on their wits in the back of the beyond. And this is before we’ve even got to the mysteries of what farmers actual plant in the fields that we occasionally notice as we drive from one out-of-town shopping centre to another.

This is why we need these feel-good nature placebo that are price-matched to Fortnum & Mason, even though the rent in Ambridge is a tenth or hundredth that of Piccadilly. Here, in the delightful proximity of this confected rusticity, you’re close enough to nature to smell it, albeit you don’t because where there ought to be a whiff of silage or the dank tang of bovine manure, there’s usually just the rather sweeter smell – of money.

The farm shop is a world that makes Waitrose look like B&M. Where if you’re on a tracker mortgage, forget it. You couldn’t afford the meat counter in 2019, let alone 2024. And those innocent-looking little cellophane bags of chocolates – step back. They are larceny on the tongue, and priced so high they might have been flown in individually from Zurich where they were hand-fashioned by private bankers. Perhaps Kate maxed out the family grocery budget and has had to go to ground again, living off beans in an unheated corner of Kensington Palace.

Of course some places actually sell their own produce – a bit of veg from the walled garden when it’s in season, or some honey from the last bees in the hive – but overwhelmingly the farm shop is a kind of Peppa Pig World for adults. We’re suckers for the marketing lingo that melds an aspiration for nature and sustainability with our unyielding demand for consumerist gratification.

So we go. The kids charge about on go-carts shaped like tractors. We fill them up with organic ice-cream hand-made by yet another artisan from milk drawn from a herd of individually named cows. We buy another gingham oven-glove, in part because they’re the cheapest non-food items in the enormous shop and we might even one day use them. And, then, on the way out, one of you might whisper? ‘Did you see the price they were charging for one of those sad-looking cabbages?’ ‘Can you believe it?’ you reply, glad that your wife didn’t decide, on impulse, to buy one. And then you say, ‘Let’s pop to Sainsbury’s on the way home so we can get a bit of beef for lunch.’