The family-run Perthshire farm shop fusing food and farming
How Gloagburn Farm Shop applies joined-up thinking to their farm, shop and home
In an era of supermarkets and brand-led consumerism, farming can seem disconnected from the food on our plates. Sandy Neil met a family doing some joined-up thinking
Driving to Gloagburn Farm Shop at Tibbermore from nearby Perth, past its duck pond and free roaming goats, and into its car park surrounded by fields of cereals, sheep, pigs and horses, you see the beautiful simplicity of Ian and Alison Niven’s family business: their 1000 acre farm, their log-cabin farm shop and café, and their ivy-covered farmhouse. There’s no need, or space, here for middlemen.
Gloagburn is an uncomplicated machine – farm, shop, home – powered by the Niven family’s pride and values, and, ten years on, it’s pulling folk in their droves. This thriving enterprise seemed dauntingly distant during the poor grain harvests and low prices of 2001, when third-generation farmers Ian and wife Alison fretted about how to keep it afloat, and pass it on to their four children, if any of them saw a future in it.
‘We were treading water,’ Ian says, at the mercy of inconsistent crop prices year to year: ‘We wanted to put some life back into the farm.’ The couple were helped by another driving force in the family: their 26-year-old son Fergus, who began selling eggs from his 12 free range hens in the garden shed 15 years ago. The flock multiplied as he supplied village shops, butchers, restaurants, and then the Nivens’ own farm shop and café when it opened in 2003. Today the hens number 4600, fed on wheat grown by Ian, and not surprisingly their eggs are a big ingredient of the baking for the café.
Over the years the farm shop and café expanded from its 15 tables and a menu of soup, sandwiches and cakes, to a spacious new extension fitting 100 covers and employing 35 staff. ‘As a family we expect to work hard, pull together, and operate as a team,’ explains Fergus. ‘It has to work,’ adds Ian. ‘The customer is the focus: we need to get people out of their house, in their car, and drive here for a cup of coffee that would cost them next to nothing at home.’
The Nivens, it seems, have hit the sweet spot. While Ian runs the farm day to day, Alison and Fergus stock homegrown, local and artisan produce that looks good and tastes good: the treats you don’t mind paying a little extra for as gifts for others or yourself. ‘We have control of the end price, and the inputs,’ Ian says, while their reliable cooks bring ‘the same customers back every week, for the same thing.’ Clearly, the Gloagburn set-up possesses both heart and a shrewd head: a canny combo to keep customers happily coming back, at the same time securing the farm for the next generation of Nivens.
Just as Perthshire led the way in Scotland for farmers to reconnect with their customers through farmers’ markets, so Gloagburn was something of a trailblazer for integrated farm shops and cafés showcasing the food of the land around. Successful ventures can now be found in other farming heartlands such as Fife, Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire. Loch Leven’s Larder near Kinross opened in 2006, where a farm shop, café and burgeoning gift shop connect not just with the surrounding Channel Farm, but also the Loch Leven Heritage Trail around the shores of the loch.
Back at Gloagburn wooden crates brim with potatoes, turnips, parsnips, and other local, fresh, seasonal veg and Perthshire berries, while a white-tiled Gloagburn Butchery displays the farm’s own beef, lamb and pork cuts, next to their bags of wholesome oats, and boxes of free range eggs laid within 200 yards.
Showcased like this, it’s hard to disagree with the premise that the natural place to eat, enjoy and source good food is within sight of the fields which produced it. Reconnecting with the land can do wonders for the appetite.