5 July 2002

Crisis prompts move to selling from producing

By Robert Davies

Wales correspondent

THE recent pig industry crisis was the last straw for a 400-sow Cheshire unit, but a successful food retailing enterprise has replaced it with help from the government Outgoers Scheme.

Sam and Miranda Shufflebotham survived many troughs during 30 years of pig farming at Cheerbrook Farm, Nantwich. When they handed over the farm to sons Tom and Andrew in 1998 they still hoped the specialist weaner business could weather the storm.

"But like so many others we decided that cheap imported pigmeat had made it impossible to earn a living and reinvest in the business," says Mrs Shufflebotham.

"We had always tried to do a good job, supplying finishers with crossbred weaners with plenty of hybrid vigour. I had also been involved in promoting British pigmeat through Ladies in Pigs, which I helped to found in 1992, and through the Womens Farming Union."

The family successfully started trying to add value to some pigs by finishing them for sale through Farmers Markets and later a farm shop. But the attraction of the governments Outgoers Scheme proved irresistible and with the help of ADAS they successfully applied.

"We had discovered it was difficult to juggle the different demands of livestock production and farm retailing. There is a risk that you end up doing neither really well."

Part of a fairly recently built farrowing house was converted into a farm shop, complete with cold room and processing area. It opened in November 2000 and now includes a kitchen and sections for local cheeses, preserves and vegetables.

Work is underway on a childrens play area and small restaurant serving teas and light lunches to shop customers. The plan is to hold barbeques on Sundays to encourage sales of specially prepared products.

"But people will not make the effort to visit the shop if it just offers pork, beef and lamb. We have to sell processed meats, ready meals and other high quality foods. It also helps to have someone around who can provide advice on cooking."

Mrs Shufflebotham produces 15 ready meal lines in the kitchen, including a pasta bake named after her, and is working on many more. There is no way the small kitchen adjacent to the shop is a food factory, but it is an excellent way of using parts of carcasses for which there is less demand, she says. It also exploits the growing market for convenience foods.

Her son, Tom, who does not relish regular contact with shop customers, runs the 50ha (120-acre) farm, which carries a 40-cow herd of Hereford cattle and grows cereals.

Andrew Sufflebotham, who is gregarious, is the across-the-counter face of the shop business. With the help of the butcher they employ, he has been through an on-site course in butchery, bacon curing and sausage making.

He buys the pigs from a local producer, who he trusts to provide good quality, lean animals for slaughter through a nearby abattoir. Beef mostly comes from the familys Herefords and lambs from a friend who farms at Sandbach.

"I think there is potential to develop mutually beneficial links between livestock producers and retail outlets that concentrate on quality, and these could help some producers to stay in business," he says.

"Not everyone can do what we have done. We are lucky to be close to the town centre. The houses are creeping nearer and in time this would have made intensive pig production more difficult. But we can now turn our location to our advantage." The shop is attracting 400 customers a week each spending £10-12.

While Mrs Sufflebotham is upbeat about the farm shops prospects, she is far less sure about the future of the British pig industry. Her concern is not just about competition from imports, she is worried about pigmeat quality.

"Every time I speak to promote pork and bacon, I get complaints about the gunge that comes out of bacon when cooked and about tough and tasteless pork chops. Disappointed customers do not come back for more." She hopes processors and retailers will start doing more to ensure quality British pigs reach consumers as high quality products. &#42

The Shufflebothams have made the transition from meat producers to retailers, but selling raw meat cuts is not enough to attract customers.

&#8226 Quality is important.

&#8226 Sell all carcass parts.

&#8226 Carefully sourced meat.