Nicholas Lander on the struggles for business of the quality-conscious British meat producers
19 Jun 2002 by JR

Tales of British farmers setting off merrily for market used to meet with a happy ending. It is a reflection of the problems facing those who are trying desperately to deliver better and safer quality produce, particularly meat, that even post-BSE and foot-and-mouth, the following two stories end very differently.

The first concerns a Cumbrian farmer who, faced with a unit price of £21 for his 200 flock of sheep at auction, ie, an annual income of £4200, decided to go direct to the customer. Fortunately, he knew a local abattoir that would butcher his meat professionally (an obstacle for many farmers now that over 1000 have been forced to close across the UK) and with high hopes he set up a stall in Carlisle market. His expectations were raised further by the comparable prices on offer at the local supermarkets which he was going to match and which would show him a return of £128 per animal, a six-fold increase on the auction price.

After two hours his sales were zero. There was interest, discussion but no takers and, faced with the prospect of no income at all, this farmer decided to take another leaf out of the supermarkets' book. He went into a local stationers and bought white boards and marker pens and wrote up a series of signs which read 'Cumbrian lamb half price'. By the end of the afternoon he had sold out.

This farmer was initially very happy. He had secured £64 a head - triple the price offered at auction. But he had learnt, as so many others are realising, that despite all the food scares of the past decade there is still only one route to the hearts and minds of the British consumer and that is via price. Cheap food still rules.

The second tale was recounted to me early one Saturday morning by Peter Gott, another Cumbrian farmer who goes to market, although his weekly round trip is 550 miles to sell his own wild boar and the Herdwick lamb from 20 other farms in the Lake District at Borough Market in London.

The day before Gott and I had sat on the bench in the market as it filled with customers and he extolled its particular charms. 'Borough works for a variety of reasons,' he explained, 'but principally because there is nothing fancy and there is a roof over everyone's head. We all enjoy shopping at open-air markets in France, Spain or Italy when we are on holiday because the sun is shining and the wind and rain are not lashing in your face. My son goes to the farmers' market in the centre of Manchester and although the location is central it is very exposed, and not very conducive to browsing.'

Gott phoned to reinforce that point. His son was just about to set up his stall when builders arrived on a site directly opposite. Although there had been an agreement with the council that there would be no building works over the weekend this had obviously not been disseminated to the right people and pretty quickly the market was covered in dust and encased in building noise. Not ideal conditions for selling fresh meat that has been considerately raised over the past 18 months, but the ideal conditions for sending consumers back to the sterile warmth of the supermarkets.

A year ago with the country gripped in the angst of foot-and-mouth the prospects for organic and quality-minded meat producers looked promising. Professional commentators believed that finally we had turned the corner, that suitably chastened the British consumer would seek out only reassuring quality and buy discriminatingly. The last six months have seen these hopes unrealised and although there are many contributory factors, price and access to the market remain the most fundamental.

Signposts along this route include the premature demise of Sundance, Naturally, Sense, Pimhill Farm Shop and Deli-Organic as well as the curtailing, temporarily, of Planet Organic's expansion plans. In their place supermarket shelves are given increasingly over to organic produce but to produce that comes increasingly from outside the UK. The UK imports 70 per cent of its organic produce (France a mere one per cent) with organic yoghurt from Germany, beef from Austria and pork from Denmark. Supermarkets have recognised organic produce as high-profile and high-premium which, when allied to price wars on biscuits, washing powder and teabags, presents an unbeatable offer to the British consumer. But, regrettably, this approach does nothing for the quality-driven British farmer.

Hence the frustration of Charlotte Reynolds who with her husband Bill runs Swaddles Green Farm in Somerset. The Reynolds may not choose the easiest professions - they were remedial teachers before turning to farming - but no one can deny their passion, quality or professionalism (over the past 18 months they have invested £650,000 in infrastructure, partly through a clever bond scheme using grateful customers as investors).

But for the first time in the decade that I have been buying meat from her, Charlotte sounds despondent. 'There is an understandable reluctance among folks like us to admit to hard times but it continues to be a very small minority, niche market. Our sales have remained static for the past three years, fuelled initially by BSE but foot-and-mouth surprisingly had no effect on the non-converted.'

'Every week we're approached by more and more producers looking for an outlet as their existing ones fold or drop prices below a reasonable threshold and the fundamental problem returns to cost. In this country, very few and not even the really wealthy or judging by a recent survey, 18-30-year-olds who should be most aware and concerned, are actually prepared to pay the true costs of producing food properly in the UK.'

Because of the high cost of land in this small, overcrowded island, British produce will never be the cheapest and this is compounded in the case of quality meat producers by the fact that if they want their meat to taste as it should the animals have to spend longer grazing over expensive grass. 'We could meet the supermarkets' price points,' Gott explained, 'but it would mean shortening the food chain by up to six months and feeding them growth-promoting drugs which I am convinced are the cause of the growing number of food allergies. And, anyway, it simply would not taste as good so why bother?'

These producers have also been frustrated by the general economic slowdown which has made many more conscious of price and not just domestic but professional chefs, too. Barry Clark, an accountant turned farmer, crossed several breeds of duck to produce the Trelough, an English duck as flavoursome as any French bird, and one greatly appreciated by many top chefs and restaurateurs.

'We have found the market in all sectors to be difficult and unpredictable and many of our really regular customers are buying less than before. The typical best restaurant in a small to medium-sized town has almost disappeared as a customer type. I built the business by selling to the better country house hotels all over the southern half of the country, as well as in north and mid-Wales but that business has reduced enormously to the extent that 70 per cent of our business is in London and that excludes what we sell through our own shop.'

Unable to sell via the supermarkets and restaurants because they are too expensive and finding the specialist outlets fewer and fewer as traditional butchers shops have vanished from the high streets, also under pressure from the supermarkets, quality-driven producers have chosen one of two methods of reaching and holding on to their customers: either by mail order, using monthly newsletters or by taking stalls at the growing number of weekly farmers' markets across the country. Because they are invariably small family businesses they do not have the manpower to do both and because few of us relish the sight of animals being butchered, most of these farmers do not have the equivalent of sales at the winery door which is, for example, the financial mainstay of many English wine-producers during the summer.

Meat by mail order should be the solution to everyone's problems: it is heavy, bulky and inconveniently shaped as well as being relatively uniform - one leg of lamb looks pretty much like any other - the difference only comes out in the cooking. In several respects there is no reason why someone could not do for the British quality meat producers just what Jeff Benzos at Amazon has done for books and ease the strain on all our backs and arm muscles by letting the post or courier service take the strain.

But, regrettably, there is no room for a middleman and the producers, unlike the big publishers, cannot afford to discount. Instead, they struggle on with their own newsletters, competing against one another and failing to grow the market. Reynolds admits that her monthly newsletter is a very good medium for talking to and holding on to her regular customers but like all direct mail it is an expensive method of winning more customers. And it has only become effective since her husband stopped driving to London each week to make the deliveries (a constant problem for producers is finding a trustworthy driver in the countryside prepared to spend their days in the traffic jams of London, invariably their biggest market) and became part of their telesales team.

The alternative marketing strategy is to take a stand at one of the growing number of farmers' markets. There are now 300 in the UK ranging from Penzance in Cornwall to Kirkaldy on the east coast of Scotland (www.farmersmarkets.net for full details) and they are easily accessible: a stall costs from a minimum of £20 to 10 per cent of the farmer's takings although that does not include the stallholder's time.

The advantages are not just better margins and instant cashflow but a closer contact with the customer and their requirements. Gott's turnover at Borough has increased tenfold over the past three years at Borough (like all good farmers he is very reluctant to talk money) but the market's most crucial role, other than being a ready outlet for his proselytizing banter, has been that it has taught him how to expand his range. 'When we started here we only made three types of sausage but now we make 27 different types because my customers have asked for them, ' he explained with his trademark grin.

But markets are vulnerable not just to the elements but also to the financial climate. Lizzie Vines, who drives up from Chagford in Devon to sell her wild beef at Borough was always surprised that her takings on a half-day on Friday could surpass those on the whole of the Saturday but eventually discovered that this was due to the proximity of the City and some big-spending individuals on their way back to the office after a good lunch. That business has dipped with the stock market.

And whilst many meat producers have cleverly gone into the fast-food business by selling top-quality hot dogs, bacon rolls and beefburgers from a small barbecue next to their meat stands, there is a growing feeling that whilst this is good for cash flow (John Fletcher can sell 400 venison pies on a cold Saturday in Edinburgh Market) it actually attracts the lunchers rather than the meat buyers. On my last visit to Borough it was rather sad to see a queue of at least 20 people waiting to pay £2.00 for Jan McCourt's excellent Dexter cattle beefburgers with rocket salad but not one customer on the other side of the stall buying his meat for the weekend.

Yet the sight of so many, including a lot of children at the Saturday markets, enjoying the real thing is a tribute to how much these quality-conscious producers have achieved over the past decade to consign that awful image of John Gummer feeding his small daughter a commercial hamburger at the nadir of the BSE crisis to the rubbish heap of history.

And whilst the pendulum may have swung slightly in their favour, it will need a concerted push before it ever brings any of them a significant return. Clark is never going to get rich trying to sell his flavoursome, free-ranging ducks at £6.20 a pound to chefs who are offered farmed sea bass and salmon at £1.40 a pound, fish we all think are good for us but which have spent their lives in fish tanks off Greece and Scotland on an artificial diet, the marine equivalent of the battery cage. And, however quality-conscious British chefs and restaurateurs may want to be they will always look expensive next to the latest recruit to the swelling band of their American counterparts, media mogul Ted Turner. Turner has just opened the first of Ted's Montana Grills in Columbus, Ohio with the meat emanating from a cooperative of 300 ranchers as well as from his 1.7 million acres of ranchland in Montana and further west.

But there are three immediate and not too costly changes which would begin to transform the nation's indifferent attitude to quality and the producers' fortunes. The first, and most longterm, comes from Anne Petch who has run Heal Farm since 1979 who shouts 'Bring back domestic science lessons, but make them a lot more fun!' The second, a tripartite plea from those who organise, stand at and buy from farmers' markets is for a significant, but not extravagant, investment in their infrastructure so that they became weather-proof and far more user-friendly. £20,000 spent sensibly on each would transform their appearance and value for farmer and customer alike.

But, above all, these producers need a marketing genius, someone who can unite them and transmit to the British public their message of quality, safety, individuality and value for money across the crowded, confused and price-besotted marketplace. Because unless this happens then their hard work will be undone and the immediate consequence will be an increasingly unsafe food chain.