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Fresh-food farm sets the standard for local success

In an era of shrinking margins for vegetable producers, I spoke to William Ruiter, a grower who really does deliver from farm to fork.

The Ruiter family runs a 100ac farm near Ashbourne, Co Meath, where horticulturalist William Ruiter has been growing vegetables for more than 30 years, initially specialising in broccoli, scallions and leeks for supply to the major supermarkets.

However, despite his best efforts, in the late 1990s William began to realise that his hard work was not paying dividends. He was producing labour-intensive crops for an ever-shrinking margin. At 100ac, his farm was not big enough to give him the economies of scale needed for a marketplace with impossibly tight margins.

He made the decision to cease supplying to the major multiples and to concentrate on dealing directly with small wholesalers and retailers.

In 2004, he decided to open a farm shop, in the hope that consumers would like to buy vegetables that were sold on the day that they were harvested. His hunch was correct; people loved the idea of buying food that was fresher than anything they could buy in the supermarket.

Unfortunately, planning issues forced William to close the shop in 2006. However, he had seen the potential of the operation, and immediately submitted a planning application for a farm shop and an open farm. The opening of the nearby motorway had downgraded the road outside his gate, making access to the farm much safer. William was back in business.

Today, the business consists of a farm shop selling fresh produce from his own farm and from local producers, as well as an 80-seat restaurant and coffee shop known as the 'Donkey Shed'. There is also a child-friendly open farm stocked with everything from goats and pigs to ducks and chickens.

"It has turned out to be a food destination, with people coming for the experience as much as just to buy their vegetables," says William. "They meet their friends for coffee or lunch and load up their cars with freshly pulled carrots and onions that were in the ground just hours earlier. Mothers like to bring children to see the animals, with the pigs being especially popular."

The restaurant now accounts for half of William's turnover and helps sustain the shop.

"They come for the coffee," says William, "and go away with a boot full of fresh food."

The restaurant's turnover has grown every month since it opened last April, with fresh food being the major draw -- the chef crosses the yard every morning to collect ultra-fresh vegetables and eggs straight from the farm, and the menu reflects the range of farm produce available.

William's son, Andrew, and daughter, Saskia, are becoming increasingly involved in Newbarn Farm, which now employs 18 people. Andrew has just finished horticultural college, while trained architect Saskia intends to take over the management of the growing catering side of the business.

The younger Ruiters share their father's passion for running a business that is as sustainable as it is satisfying.

"You are not just giving customers a good experience," says Andrew. "You are helping to reduce food waste. Our customers don't mind if a carrot has a slight bend in it, whereas the supermarkets wouldn't take it. We can also feed unsold vegetables to the animals, ensuring that very little food is lost."

Newbarn Farm and the Donkey Shed Restaurant are located 200m south of the Ashbourne roundabout on the old N2 Dublin Road (now the R135). It is open Monday to Saturday from 9am-5pm and Sundays from 12-5pm

Indo Farming