8 March 2002

Direct sellings a profitable revelation

FARMERS markets have been a revelation to Graeme Wallace, a first-generation farmer, but his farm shop is proving to be even more successful.

Soon after moving to a 40ha (100-acre) holding at Hill Farm, Hemyock near the Blackdown Hills 16 years ago, Mr Wallace switched from farming sheep to deer and built his own slaughterhouse and butchery business. But he soon found that selling farmed venison to the price-sensitive catering sector did not lead to large profits.

Marketing policy changed when Cullompton farmers market opened, the second oldest in Britain, he says. "I took a freezer full of meat to be marketed and emptied it just like that and went home for a refill. Wherever a new market opened up I was there. Eventually I was selling at 15 or 16 a month.

"It was such a contrast to the catering sector. The customers wanted to talk, and they came back next time to tell you how much they had enjoyed the meat."

As the business developed, he employed a full-time butcher. Next came a small farm shop, and then he began producing ready meals for sale in the shop and through a mail order business.

Today he employs six people and plans to expand the farm shop and ready-meals production, as well as continuing to butcher meat for other farmers who retail in farmers markets.

Although his farm may not be making any money, he knows his overall business is profitable. "I am also the middle man, so I do make a profit overall."

To reach as many retail customers as possible, the farms produce is sold via mail order and through www.naturalmeats.co.uk. Mr Wallace is also part of a group called The Freerangers, with three other farmers who produce lamb, pork, pork products, and poultry.

Orders through the web-site are packed and distributed centrally by an independent processor. If the expansion plan succeeds, Mr Wallace will soon run out of home-produced meat and will then face a difficult decision.

He believes his shops customer loyalty is due to producing high quality meat, but if the shop has to buy in supplies from other farms, Mr Wallace worries about maintaining that quality.

"I am sure the reason farmers markets and farm shops are so popular is that after all the food scares, especially about meat, people are looking for someone they can trust. It is all about integrity.

"As long as I am in charge of the production, I am happy to let my customers trust me. Giving up the farming side altogether would be the easy option. But I am really keen about meat and I am not sure I am ready to let someone else produce it for me."

Perhaps the solution will be in joining forces with some like-minded local farmers to bolster supply and maintain the quality, he adds. &#42