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Humble farm shop with honesty box is hit in Aberdeenshire

Heather and Charles Black of North Mains Farm Shop.
Heather and Charles Black of North Mains Farm Shop.

Cows are grazing peacefully in the field opposite North Mains Farm Shop, and customers have already started to trickle in.

There’s a strict one person at a time policy, and people are arriving with canvas bags in hand – ready to pack their goodies away.

A bucket of freshly cut rhubarb is sat by the doorway, a hint as to the array of fresh produce within.

There are no jostling checkout queues, stressed staff or even a card machine.

For this humble family business is reminiscent of how things used to be, a world away from the shopping experience we have become accustomed to during the pandemic.

Modest owners Heather and Charles Black say they have no plans to take on retail giants, and their home grown venture won’t make them millionaires.

But they are happy and content in their way of life, as the Black family have been farming the land out at Pitmedden for generations.

North Mains Farm Shop started off as a means of diversification, with fresh veg available to buy from a small shed.

Fast forward a few years and tasty creations from producers across Aberdeenshire are now available to buy, with products neatly arranged on shelves inside the remodelled summer house.

During the first lockdown, Heather and Charles saw business sky rocket, with their Red Duke potatoes particularly in demand.

Society caught up with them on a sunny morning, and found out why they’ve swapped dairy farming for alcohol infused jams and chutneys with a difference.

You can’t get more fresh than Heather’s home made jams.

Charles is quietly spoken, but none the less proud of the business which he and Heather have created.

“My family have farmed here since 1953, it was a dairy farm for a long long time,” says Charles.

“We went into beef cattle, and then we started doing caravan storage around 2000.

“We are caravaners ourselves, and you’re not always allowed to put your caravan on your drive.

“Around the same time, we decided to put up a polytunnel so we could start to grow veg.

“We thought it would be a good idea to have a wee farm shop, with people coming and going due to the caravans.

“It started out as fresh veg, jams and chutneys were next.”

Heather also makes her own chutneys.

Each jar is home made by Heather, who has come up with some delicious concoctions.

From tipsy raspberry jam which contains vodka, to the popular strawberry and prosecco jam, the boozy conserves have proved a hit.

“I made strawberry and prosecco jam at Christmas one time, and the ladies in particular loved it,” says Heather.

“I’m not sure where I get my ideas from, but I really enjoy experimenting.

“I tend to measure it by looking at the berry to alcohol ratio.

“My strawberry and raspberry jam alongside my plum chutney is used by Coffee Apothecary in both Ellon and Pitmedden.

“It’s really tasty on their scones.

“When we stopped doing beef cattle, we had a spell of virtually no income.

The family have farmed at Pitmedden since 1953.

“The farm shop was part of our plan to diversify, but from the start we wanted to keep things simple.”

There is charm to be had in simplicity, and the couple don’t need to be present in the shop in order for customers to buy produce.

They instead decided to operate using an honesty box policy, trusting customers to pay for their goods in cash.

“It means we don’t need to be in the shop ourselves, and touch wood we’ve only had one incident of someone not paying,” says Heather.

“I really do believe that people are good and honest, ”

says Heather.

“We deliberately kept things very basic, we’re not fancy here and there’s no technology apart from the fridge and freezer.

“I remember one time we had this couple who were here, and they lived in London.

“The chap couldn’t get over the fact that we had a honesty box, he said that would never work in London.

Charles grows Red Duke potatoes, which are then sold at the farm shop.

“But it has worked here perfectly fine, I think you have to believe in people.

“During the pandemic, we also decided to offer people bank details.

“So if you didn’t want to be handling cash, we could arrange a bank transfer instead.”

The system clearly works well, and the couple have also made sure to support local business.

The shelves are filled with producers from across Aberdeenshire, including punnets of strawberries from Barra Berries in Oldmeldrum, and gorgeous bouquets of flowers from Paper and Petals based at Udny Green.

The fresh produce is a hit with customers.

“We have milk from Invercamey Dairy, and we also stock things from Bare Zero Waste in Ellon,” says Heather.

“Then there’s oatcakes made by Diane Ingram of Bogton Farm, now they really are delicious.”

You’ll also find Beaton’s Eggs, which are served in some of the top hotels and restaurants in the north-east.

“We’ve got Mackie’s ice cream as well, they come along every so often and stock the freezer,” says Heather.

If you’re searching for produce with low food miles, well you won’t get much better than North Mains Farm.

Charles can often be found in the polytunnel, which is currently filled with Red Duke Potatoes.

The tasty tatties are dug up, bagged, and taken just a few short steps to the farm shop.

Heather never misses a beat, and excuses herself to serve a customer – who has doubled back having been reminded of the Red Dukes.

Lockdown was crazy,” says Heather, “we couldn’t get the potatoes out the ground and into bags quick enough.”

“For a lot of people, I think they liked the fact that they could come into the shop and there wouldn’t be any other customers in here.”

Cucumbers and tomatoes are doing well in the green house, and there is also a fair trade stand in the shop.

“We consider ourselves very fortunate and lucky to have this way of life,” says Heather.

“We are not rivals to the likes of Aldi or Tesco, and we’re never going to make a fortune.

“We are providing a service, that’s what we feel this is all about.

“We’re providing something that people truly want.”

Round of Questions

What’s a staple in your cupboard?

That would have to be flour. I don’t make bread, but I really love cooking and baking. My granddaughter loves making banana and chocolate muffins, and I do a lot of sponges and swiss roles.

If you were a drink, what would you be and why?

Well Charles loves a rose wine, but I think I’d be a cranberry gin. I make it for the family, although it’s not sold at the farm shop as we don’t have an alcohol licence. I like making elderflower cordial as well, depending on what’s in season?

If you had to serve one product to a politician, what would it be?

Oh, well it might have to be a chili jam, something a bit nippy. I couldn’t possibly say who we would serve it to.

Any inside secrets to the farm shop trade?

Well in our eyes, we’re all about serving good quality products. We don’t use additives, and we only use fresh ingredients. You won’t find me adding apple juice to my jams for example, everything is as fresh as possible.