Determined to eat ethically, SUE SMITH grabs her shopping list and heads to an organic farm to see what’s on offer

HAVING ventured into the world of veganism in January after which I vowed to try and eat mainly vegan from there in with a dash of vegetarianism and meat on high days and holidays, the big question then was where to shop?

Turns out I didn’t have to venture very far as The Organic Farm Shop at Abbey Home Farm, just outside Cirencester is right on my doorstep.

Run by managing partners Will and Hilary Chester-Master,,the shop was set up when they took over the farm in 1990. It has been in the family for over 500 years.

The farm grows fruit and veg and produces beef, milk, cheese, yogurt and butter

Previously Hilary and Will had run the much-loved Cargo in the town, selling Indian organic textiles and Fairtrade jewellery and homeware. The shop now inhabits the back section of the shop.

“We were already shopkeepers when we took over here, so it wasn’t that much different for us, said Hilary.

Long-term vegetarians, the couple approached the new business with their heads first and then their hearts.

“We had been vegetarian since the 1970s,” said Hilary. “It was looked upon as a bit hippy dippy in those days.

Hilary says they wanted the farm and the shop to produce food for local people.

That seems a bit of a cliché now,” she says.

“ We wanted a shop where people could see the animals around them. They could see what they were eating.”

A vegetarian café in the shop followed, although they do serve meat On Sundays – with just one choice of either chicken, beef, lamb or pork.

“People said we were mad,” says Hilary. “They said a vegetarian café on a farm was never going to work and to be honest, it was hard for the first three years and was heavily subsidised by Cargo.

“There then came a point when we either had to give up or get bigger so we decided to double the size of the café. We went from four tables to 12 and overnight we broke even.”

Until recently I wasn’t a frequent shopper here. Without any real evidence I had bought into the ‘it’s organic so therefore expensive’ school of thought.

“Well it’s all about perspective really,” says Hilary pointing to a very large chicken for £11. “There’s probably a week’s worth of meals in that. Organic feed is twice the price of other feed.

But she added: “Many people tell us when they start shopping here their weekly food bill goes down – there are fewer distractions and less temptation to buy things they don’t need and less waste throwing away those two for one offers.

But Hilary was already pushing an open door.

I decided to stop buying mass produced meat in a small effort to not support intensive farming after my foray into veganism. I only buy organic meat now, if and when the occasion arises.

An £11 chicken once in a while isn’t going to break the bank and it is satisfying (and important) to know its origins.

Cutting back on meat though meant upping my intake of veg and wandering around the Organic Farm Shop for me was akin the locking a child in a sweet shop.

Laid out like brightly coloured jewels, the misshapen peppers and gleaming tomatoes sat next to the muddy potatoes and carrots. II wanted to buy everything.

“We have found it hard to get cooks for the kitchen because they don’t like working with dirty veg,” said Hilary.

Was she joking?

“No really,” she said. “So much of what is bought in supermarkets these days comes in antiseptic plastic, there’s probably a whole generation who doesn’t know that vegetables come out of the ground.”

The café is the perfect advertisement for the shop with its rainbow salads and dishes created from what’s in season on the farm.

“We wanted to offer simple food, not restaurant food, where the taste and the freshness of the veg speaks for itself.

It’s a winning business model, I can vouch for that.

After my lunch of French onion and cheddar tart with a selection of veg, quinoa, fennel, beetroot, coleslaw and squash I was off like a greyhound out of the stalls with my supermarket-style trolley filling up with a goodly array that I had no idea what I was going to do with beyond washing, cooking it, some anyway, and eating it.

The shop and café see around 1,000 customers a week and it offers employment to 36 people. It stocks store cupboard supplies, alcohol, ice-cream, books, organic skin care and environmentally friendly household products.

There are often queues out the door for the café and they don’t take bookings –except for Mothering Sunday.

“We sell or cook 99 per cent of what we produce on the farm,” said Hilary.

At first they didn’t buy anything in but Hilary says they got to a point where they decided to let the customers choose what they wanted.

“We have all become used to having whatever we want when we want it regardless of the seasons,” she says.

They now they buy in a pallet off fresh vegetables from France every week of things that can’t be grown in this country. And nothing comes by air.

“Everything is 100 per cent organic. I am really passionate about non-chemical food. We offer a good variety of fruit and veg and the customers get a varied choice,” says Hilary.

The shop has just learned it is one of three finalists in the BBC food and farming awards this year.

The farm offers workshops and weekend courses in a variety of subjects including willow weaving and vegetarian cooking, as well as corporate courses.

It also runs The Farm Project for educational visits where children from cities learn about where their food comes from.

“We get them involved in picking and collecting food. It’s sideways learning,” says Hilary.

The Organic Farm Shop is at Abbey Home Farm, Burford Road, Cirencester GL7 5HF. Tel 01285 640441.