Brought up in London and trained in interior design, Anna never imagined she’d become a farmer. Then she met her builder husband whose parents needed help running their soft fruit farm in Staffordshire, so in 2016 the pair moved there and Anna became an overnight expert in growing strawberries and running a busy café and shop.
As its name suggests, Canalside Farm stands on the banks of the Trent and Mersey canal, hemmed in on the other side by the railway. Its 26 acres (10 hectares) hold a large glasshouse plus around 20 poly tunnels planted with strawberries and raspberries which are sold in the farm shop and via Pick Your Own (PYO). The farm also grows vegetables (such as rhubarb, tomatoes and cucumbers) and seasonal plants, which are sold in the shop too.
Originally, the farm sold its produce to local businesses, but it soon became clear that to survive it needed to add value by selling direct to the public through a shop and PYO. Canalside’s best seller is strawberries – mainly Elsanta and Malling Centenery varieties – which are harvested between the end of May and late September. “They are the sweetest you will ever taste,” says Anna, adding that her young daughter has become an expert at quality control.
Once the farm shop and PYO were going strong, a canalside café followed, and then, more recently, a Pick Your Own pumpkin business too. The family plant around 20,000 pumpkins in one of their fields, which then opens as a pumpkin patch in October. “With the drought conditions we’ve been having in summer we were worried the pumpkins wouldn’t survive, but they’ve done brilliantly,” says Anna. “We also grow squashes inside the glasshouse and sell those with the pumpkins.”
Anna’s background in interior design has proved useful in running themed events. At Halloween, she runs pumpkin-based events, and during the rest of the year there are other activities such as an Easter Egg Trail. “The farm is too small to run purely as a commercial fruit farm, so we run events to make it more accessible and to add value,” she says. As a mother of a young child, she is passionate about teaching youngsters where their food comes from, so the farm runs seasonal workshops for children too.
After 40 years in the driving seat, Canalside’s owners Chris and Wendy are gradually handing over the reins to Anna and her husband’s brother Geoff. It’s a process Anna finds both exciting and daunting. She still gets satisfaction from producing fruit from ‘almost nothing’ and from the fact that no two days are the same. But there are challenges too, like the unpredictability of costs of materials and labour, and managing around 50 employees. Oh, and the weather.
As a Londoner with no background in farming, Anna realises that she, like many city-dwellers, used to have stereotypical views of what farmers are like. “When people said the word ‘farmer’ I never imagined that could be me. But now I realise that farmers can come from all sorts of backgrounds and that farming is just about getting your hands dirty and working incredibly hard.”
Member of National Farmers Union and of Farm Retail Association
Local press, after being named Large Retailer of the Year in the Midlands, in the 2023 Farm Shop and Deli Retailer Awards