No-one could accuse The Co-operative Group of not understanding the plight of farmers. It owns its own farms - 17 of them in fact - making it the largest farmer in Britain.

The Co-op's agricultural heritage stretches back to 1896, when the group's predecessor bought its first farm in order to grow potatoes and supply them to its food stores.

The group manages 70,000 acres of land, producing potatoes, onions, shallots, broccoli, frozen peas, pumpkins, cherries, apples and strawberries for its stores. All are sold under The Co-op's Grown by Us range.

Plans are afoot to extend the products available. There's an own-label beer on the horizon, adding to the Tillington Hills cider already stocked in 2,000 Co-op food stores. And the recent purchase of 1,000 heritage apple varieties will also see own-brand pressed apple juice on the shelves in the next few months. It is all part of a wider Co-op strategy to extend and add value through provenance as much as possible.

"The varieties were in danger of passing into history, but we wanted to keep them alive by finding a commercial use for them. It's an exciting project, with a small first pressing planned for later this year," said William Barnett, head of The Co-operative Farms' fruit-growing operation at its Tillington site.

Food miles are a growing concern for consumers and while other retailers can offer local food, none can boast quite the same home-grown provenance and credentials as The Co-op.

Kate Jones, head of range development, believes there are three things that put the Grown By Us concept ahead of the rest: "It is supporting British farming in its entirety; it has the ability to control quality as it looks after the crop throughout its growth; and it is growing locally across the country to support local community stores."

It all sounds highly altruistic. But The Co-operative Farms is a business in its own right. "It's a business that has its own bottom line and is performing very well," says Jones.