Kevin Rickard is busy these days. So busy, in fact, that when our photographer turns up on a typically hectic morning at his Castle Farm Shop in Bishton, just east of Newport, he's barely got the time to stop serving customers and talk.

Nestled in an unassuming, wood-fronted building on a small farm, the Castle Farm Shop is a veritable foodie's heaven; shelves packed to the brim with different types of delicately wrapped parcels of cheese, little bottles of sauces of reds, yellows and greens, and rows of tender bacon just waiting to be popped onto a sizzling pan.

Farmer Kevin Rickard, originally from Abergavenny, started the business as a community hub in March 2020 during the first coronavirus lockdown. He said he was initially inspired by the rush for click and collect slots and caution around going to crowded supermarkets he saw in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Read more: Empty supermarkets shelves 'here to stay and will get worse' warns expert

"When the first Covid breakdown [happened] and seeing all the queues outside the supermarkets, no food on the shelves, and people not wanting to go to supermarkets, we started delivering locally," the 36-year-old explained in between handing another happy customer a bag full of fresh veg and meat.

The Castle Farm Shop has been running since last year

"I think my wife was trying to get a Tesco click and collect at the time, and couldn't get one. We thought 'this is crazy'. So we decided we'd do a free delivery."

Kevin said the idea of opening a farm shop had been in his head "for a long time". As well as delivering around the area, Kevin, who runs the shop along with wife Sian and friends Jenny and Ryan Bradford, also ran a kerbside pickup for customers who wanted vegetable and meat boxes.

He found it quickly became popular among those who didn't want to go into busy supermarkets during the period where cases were numbering in their thousands.

"The shop just took off, to be honest with you. So we decided to keep it going.

"It happened almost overnight, because I saw an opportunity where people didn't want to go to supermarkets, or there wasn't food there. I thought, what better way to get fresh food?

"We had over 1,000 customers in two weeks. It's crazy, really."

The shop is a real foodie's paradise

Not bad for a rural community with a population of just 2,137 people, right?

In those difficult, isolating early months of the pandemic, the shop also provided a much needed social outlet for people in Bishton, according to Kevin.

"There's nothing in our community. We're not far from the big supermarkets and the retail park, but there's no village shop, no pub," he said. "They're trying to shut the church down, there's no community thing. We get people who walk to our shop now, and that's their community centre point.

"I've been here for ten years and there hasn't been anything.

"It's a central hub where the community can come. People like to walk here with their dogs, have a chat outside the shop. We're a very rural community, and people weren't seeing much of each other. So it was almost like a meeting point, a place to talk.

"As the Covid eased off, a lot of people were saying they hadn't seen anyone for weeks and it was nice to stand outside the shop and talk to someone.

"We had a lady who phoned in to the radio saying she was afraid of going into the supermarket and how our farm shop was a godsend. You could pull up and we'd put the food in the back of the car for you."

Who wouldn't fancy cracking one of these open?

Before he knew, Kevin was taking thousands of orders over the phone and through Facebook. When demand continued to soar after a few months, he decided to keep the shop going permanently.

They've also found a novel way to reach even more customers.

"I was trying to think of other ways to get out and about, so after about a year we converted a horse lorry, so we've now got a mobile farm shop that goes around Newport and Cardiff, and looking for other places to go.

"A company did it for us down in Swansea. They put freezers, fridges, shelving in it.

"We try to take the mobile shop out Thursday to Sunday. We've been to Belle Vue Tea Rooms, St Mellons garden centre. That's been a real hit.

"We could probably have another one of them, because lots of people are looking for it on the weekends, but you can't be in two places at once."

Kevin has found a novel way of getting to more customers - by converting an old horse lorry

As well as running the farm and mobile shops, Kevin has recently taken up a unit in the Kingsway Centre in Newport, which is set to open in early October.

He has continued to expand the shop's product range, which includes fresh veg, free range eggs and meat from the farm, as well as sauces, cheeses, alcohol and more from local producers. He is also branching into his own pasteurised milk and ice cream.

"April Rymer from the Shepherd's Crook near Chepstow does all our sausage rolls and Alyssia Thomas from My Little Bakes in Caldicot does our brownies and cookies," he said.

"We get everything as locally as we can."

For Kevin, a farmer for his whole life and who has a family farm back in Abergavenny, running the shop has meant an even earlier start to his day.

Sauces galore!

Nowadays he gets up at 4am in the morning and regularly works until 9pm.

"We milk the cows, feed the calves, walk the chickens. We should be all ready by 8.30 or 9am to go out to the shop, or the van," he said of a normal day.

"We finish the shop at 5 o'clock, we finish on the farm when it's finished. At the moment we walk the chickens at night around half 8, 9 o'clock, and that'll be one of our last jobs.

"Most farmers work those sort of hours, it's normal," he said.

"It's my wife's family farm, so her father is home most of the time. He does the chickens, I do the cows, and her brother does the sheep. So it's very much a family farm."

If the shop has proven to be a lifeline for Bishton and the surrounding areas, it's also been one for Kevin himself.

Farming, he said, has become increasingly difficult to make profitable in recent years, something he said was excellently highlighted in Jeremy Clarkson's recent 'Clarkson's Farm' documentary.

The shop is open six days a week, only closed on Mondays

"He summed it up at the end, saying they do all these long hours, and then he had his final balance sheet and they'd only made £15 or something at the end of the year.

"Everyone sees farmers as rich, put all the money is tied up in assets.

"Farming was our full-time thing, but we've had to look forward because they're dropping single farm payments. We've had to diversify.

"You do a lot of hours and a lot of work for not very much pay. At the moment we get a single farm payment at the end of the year to keep food cheap, but they're on about cutting that."

He said the decision made earlier this year to make all of Wales a designated nitrate vulnerable zone, which places restrictions on certain farming practices due to pollution concerns, was also making it difficult for the industry.

"Farming is a very difficult place to be at the moment. You don't get paid much for milk or anything else.

"I suppose a way of me trying to cut out the middle man, it helps farming a little bit."

Kevin added that selling directly to customers meant he also got feedback on his food, something which doesn't happen when you sell your produce in Asda, Tesco or Sainsburys.

"As a farmer you feel really lonely sometimes in your job. Having people coming and buying your produce, it's really nice to have the feedback on how nice the produce is. It's nice to feel appreciated.

"We're getting very good feedback. Rural places are missing central points in their community. It's very difficult with pubs shutting down and all that. It's opened up a lot of opportunities for us."

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