Nigel Akehurst visits Perry Court Farm just outside the village of Wye, Kent, to meet the Fermor family and learn more about their successful farming and food retail business.
Perry Court Farm is located just off the main A28 Ashford Road and not far from the picturesque village of Wye. Arriving at the farm mid-morning on a Tuesday, I am impressed by the number of cars already in the car park. I find a spot in front of a polytunnel and make my way over to the farm shop, located in what appears to be an old oast house.
By the entrance is a lovely display of pumpkins and fresh veg. Inside I am struck by the size of the shop – it’s huge, rustic and filled with fresh produce. Eager to see the new shop extension, I walk past the bakery section and arrive in a modern double height barn space with polished concrete floors. Housed in the light-filled, steel framed extension is a dedicated UK cheese and cured meat deli, a butchery counter selling freshly cut locally sourced meat and a large café looking out onto a farm courtyard.
It’s the sort of retail space most farm shop owners dream of, and wouldn’t look out of place on a Grand Designs show. It’s buzzing with people, too – a group of walkers from nearby Wye is enjoying refreshments in the cafe. Jess, one of the family, is busy serving customers behind the counter. A few more family members are on their way, she said.
I look around and check out their display of heritage apples, all grown on the farm. Blenheim Orange, Adams Pearmain and Belle de Boskoop were just a few of the dozens of heritage varieties they grow on site that you won’t find in the supermarket. Each box contained a description of taste and a brief history of the variety’s origin.
The rest of the family arrives on the scene. I meet Martin and Heidi, their youngest son Tom and his girlfriend Torty Gordon. The only members not present were Cherry, who was on a Royal Horticultural Society training course, and Charlie, who runs his own business locally.
We had a brief discussion about their favourite apple varieties. Heidi favours Court Pendu Plat, the wise apple, and Jess likes Pitmaston Pineapple, a small golden apple (they give me one of each to take home).
With the rush over, eldest daughter Jess joined us and, after a quick group photo shoot, we sat down for a chat over some coffee and cake.
It’s been a busy morning, said Heidi. They’ve had one school group visit from the local Wye Primary and are expecting another one after lunch. There’s also a man from a chocolate company who’s come to talk about their plans to create a chocolate deli and a new member of staff on a trial day.
It’s also all go in the orchards and fields, said Tom. They are busy harvesting the last of the Marii red apples and also drilling wheat, he explained. Any spare time is spent clearing up from the annual Apple Fayre at the weekend.
Perry Court Apple Fayre and new shop extension
Martin and Heidi started the Apple Fayre in 1987 to showcase British apples and added to their number in 1990s to reach more than 200 apple and pear varieties. The fayre has grown year on year and in addition to their fruit displays they have craft stalls, games and tours, steam engines, morris dancing, refreshments and more. All the proceeds are donated to the Pilgrims Hospice in Ashford.
This year they had over 6,000 people through the gates at an event that also marked the unveiling of the new shop extension, said Jess. The original plan was to open in September, but this was pushed back due to a few delays and meant they had to pull in a few favours to get it ready for the weekend.
History of the farm
Martin’s parents Lionel and Jessie Fermor purchased Perry Court Farm in 1951 and started the company L J Fermor Ltd. Initially they specialised in growing strawberries and rearing pigs. At their peak Lionel grew about 200 acres of strawberries, selling into the London open markets. Thousands of people from Ashford came and picked strawberries through the years, he said.
Pre supermarkets, strawberries provided a lucrative income, allowing them to buy extra land nearby as it came up for sale. They now own around 800 acres, with arable accounting for about half the acreage.
During the late 1980s and 1990s they supplied the supermarkets with strawberries. Initially the relationship was acceptable but after a couple of years things became more restrictive, said Heidi.
The packaging requirements were crazy, and towards the end perfect fruit would be rejected in favour of cheap imports, she said. In addition, fruit would be picked under-ripe for increased shelf life, so the desired flavour was not being reached.
In 1997 farmers markets started in Bath, soon followed by Wye, where they were organised by Richard Boden, and Islington, run by Nina Plank, an American who started the London Farmers’ Market group. Initially they sold their fruit to customers and quickly realised they could expand their range by growing vegetables too.
Martin had worked his middle year from Hadlow College for local veg grower Tony Redsell and began growing a wider range of his own veg on their own Romney Marsh ground. It proved to be an ideal site due to its silty loam soil.
“We try to follow our customers’ feedback, focusing on flavour, whereas the supermarkets are only interested in looks and shelf life,” explained Martin.
A lot of their fruit and veg is now sold via the 15 London farmers’ markets they attend every weekend.
“It’s non-stop selling,” said Martin, who loves the interaction of dealing directly with the public. He still takes his produce to the same weekly Islington market he helped start 23 years ago.
In addition to the London farmers’ markets they sell at a few local farmers’ markets in Kent and from their own farm shop, which has grown substantially over the years.
To begin with they started selling from a stall and honesty box by the farm gate. The next step was a shop housed in a small shed. As demand increased, they converted the oast and expanded their range of products.
“We’ve always been a farm shop, not a shop on a farm,” said Martin, who added that they took pride in selling all their own fruit and veg and sourced local meat.
With the opening of the new shop extension, Perry Court now has a butcher’s counter selling fresh meat sourced from local farms next to their British cheese and cured meat deli counter.
Multi-generation family farm
The farm and shop employs 25 staff, explained Heidi, including three of their four children.
Jess, their eldest daughter, is responsible for running the shop as well as looking after her own pedigree Southdown flock, which includes 115 Southdown ewes, with all the lambs sold in boxes to shop customers. In addition there are a few Berkshire and Oxford Sandy and Black sows which rear piglets for sale, mainly as sausages, a couple of donkeys and a few egg layers.
Before joining the family business, Jess trained as and practised architecture for 10 years, a skill that came in handy for the design and build of their new shop extension.
After studying and working in computer science, their youngest son Tom now works on the farm full time with his girlfriend Torty Gordon. Together they make all the fruit juices, pressing and processing the fruit on site into litre bottles to sell direct. Tom and Martin handle all the day-to-day farm management, from harvesting fruit and veg to planting and arable work.
Cherry Fermor, Martin and Heidi’s youngest daughter, graduated with a degree in graphic communication and worked in London on many of the top magazines, including Country Living, BBC Good Food and Cosmopolitan before returning to the farm to start up a successful veg box delivery business.
On the day of my visit she was not at the farm as she has recently started a Royal Horticultural Society course in horticulture and is developing a new venture in cut flowers, on top of being responsible for the graphics for the farm and assisting the various enterprises.
Their eldest son Charlie set up a pioneering, successful fruit crisp brand and currently runs Freddie’s Farm, making healthy fruit snacks.
Innovating and working as a team are key drivers of the success behind Perry Court Farm. Instead of grubbing up orchards in response to falling farm gate prices, their direct sales model has allowed them to invest in new disease resistant ‘organic varieties’ of apples such as a recently planted 15-acre orchard of Red Windsor.
This year they also planted a small acreage of grape vines on some of their chalk ground, an exciting new project spearheaded by Howard Fox, Jess’s husband.
There is more about the farm, shop and events at www.perrycourt.farm and on social media, @perrycourtfarm on Instagram.
Farming policy and the environment
I asked what the family made of the Government’s farming and food policy?
Half joking, Martin replied: “Have they got one?”. Heidi added: “There’s no long-term vision and everything farmers do is very long term.”
Martin admitted he felt fortunate to have developed a niche market but said it wouldn’t work if all farmers sold their produce direct.
Without more clarity and support from government, the reality for a lot of small family farms looked bleak, he suggested.
On the environment, he thinks traditional mixed rotational farming is the answer to declining bird numbers. They have noticed many more birds on their chard crop compared to their bird seed strips.
They carried out a bird survey with Natural England five years ago and found a huge diversity of birds, including many migrating species
On their own vision for the future
The farm business will continue to be led by their customers, said Martin, who hoped the new farm shop and cafe would enable them to grow their on-farm customer base and “trim the fat” on some of their farmers’ markets.
With our chat over, we headed out to the nearby orchard to take a few pictures of the team apple harvesting. Then it was time to go.
Leaving Perry Court, I felt inspired by my visit and determined to learn a few more heritage apple varieties. I can also confirm that the Pitmaston Pineapple apple was delicious and I look forward to eating my Court Pendu Plat at Christmas.
- 800 acres of land owned, including 400 acres of arable, 55 acres of apples, 32 acres of pears, 30 acres of cherries (with some under nets) including pick-your-own in the summer, 15 to 20 acres of strawberries on tables in tunnels, 42 acres of veg, nine acres of potatoes and four acres of asparagus; the rest is pasture.
- Recently planted 15 acres of organic Red Windsor apples
- Planted a 3.7-acre vineyard in 2022
- Soil types range from brick earth to sandy loam, silty loam (Romney Marsh ground) and chalk
- Grow over 200 varieties of apples and pears
- 600 tonnes of top fruit storage space on the farm
- Started selling their fruit and veg direct at farmers’ markets in the late nineties in London and Wye
- Attend 15 farmers’ markets in London plus a few local ones.
- Carried out a bird survey in 2018/2020 with Natural England
- Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier
- Run their annual Apple Fayre since 1987
- 25 staff on the payroll plus a few seasonal pickers (mainly from Ashford)
- Just completed a new modern farm shop and café extension at a cost of £200,000
- 115 South Down ewes; all lambs sold direct in boxes
- Berkshire and Oxford Sandy and Black pigs
- Veg box scheme set up by youngest daughter Cherry with customers and area increasing
- Work closely with Wye primary on farm apple trail visits; the children make crumbles with the apples