The Curry report urges
producers to recoup a
greater share of the retail
value of their produce.
Marianne Curtis went
to visit one Leics sheep
enterprise which is
doing just that
GETTING up at four in the morning and driving more than 100 miles, three times a week, may not be everyones idea of farm diversification. But one Leics-based farming family is convinced it is the only way they can remain in sheep production.
Farming 68ha (170 acres) plus an additional 28ha (70 acres) of rented grazing, Mike and Heather Belcher turned to farmers markets as low lamb prices made it increasingly difficult to make a living via conventional outlets. "It was the only way we could continue to survive on a farm this size," says Mr Belcher.
The mixed farm supports 600 Masham ewes, crossed with Suffolk tups, 30 suckler cows and a few Gloucester Old Spot pigs to supply pork to farmers market customers. Progeny from all species are finished for sale at farmers markets. "We first applied to London Farmers Markets two years ago and were accepted," says Mrs Belcher.
Market organisers vet participating producers to ensure they produce what they are selling. "There are other kinds of market where this is not a requirement, but we were not interested in these," adds Mr Belcher.
Currently, most lambs from the flock – about 1000/year – are sold through four weekly weekend farmers markets in London, at Wimbledon, Twickenham, Uxbridge and Chiswick, and a weekly mid-week one at Swiss Cottage. The Belchers also attend a local monthly farmers market at Market Harborough.
"Some think London is a long way to go, but we are only 100 miles from the M25 and it is more lucrative for us to go to the customers than for them to come to us. Numbers visiting a London farmers market are much higher than we would get if we opened a farm shop in rural Leicestershire."
London customers certainly seem to welcome the opportunity to buy direct from producers, says Mr Belcher.
"Many have lost their local butchers and cannot get the same choice of cuts in supermarkets. Some have also come to dislike the impersonal service offered by supermarkets and enjoy being able to chat to us and other customers around the stall.
"Our customers are of all ages. They dont care whether every chop is the same size or an identical colour each week, but we receive many positive comments about taste. Charges are similar to those in supermarkets to ensure value for money."
Finished stock from March House Farm, Great Dalby, Melton Mowbray, Leics, is slaughtered and butchered locally. "Some meat is packed by the butchers and some by ourselves. We normally spend three to five hours packing meat and making burgers the day before we go to markets," says Mrs Belcher.
Attending farmers markets and preparation takes time and can lead to few hours sleep at busy times such as lambing.
Lambing is done in two blocks with 250 ewes lambing from December to early February and a further 350 lambing in March. "We have had a busy few months, but we are lucky to have assistance from our sons 19-year-old Daniel and 16-year-old Thomas, who help out when they are not at college and school.
"It is also a matter of being organised and not wasting time," adds Mr Belcher.
Lambing ewes in two blocks ensures a steady supply of lamb for the year round markets. Although it takes time to work out what cuts customers want and judge how much meat to take to markets, Mr and Mrs Belcher now have little waste. "We aim to sell out at each market. Taking copies of recipes for less popular cuts encourages customers to buy them.
"Sometimes when consumers are unsure about trying a cut such as breast of lamb, we are not afraid to give them one to try. They are so surprised to be given something and it usually pays us because they will come back to buy the cut in future."
Despite the time and travelling associated with regularly attending farmers markets, returns on meat produced by the farm are significantly better than previously, says Mr Belcher. "Mark up is at least 100%. About 50% of the mark up would be accounted for by fuel for travelling, slaughter and butchery costs."
As well as the effort involved in preparation and selling, being able to satisfy requirements of environmental health officers is also important for those considering selling at farmers markets, he adds. "Environmental health officers advise as well as enforce regulations, so make use of their knowledge. The only difficulties that arise are when different inspectors interpret rules in different ways."
But Mr and Mrs Belcher have had few problems so far and will consider other market opportunities as and when they arise. "If you dont get in when markets first open, it can be difficult to enter at a later date. Market organisers prefer a balance of producers selling different types of product."
However, expanding much beyond their current sales level could be tricky. "Our abattoir and butcher cant do any more killing and cutting, and we may struggle time wise." *
Disappointing lamb prices persuaded Mick and Heather Belcher to try farmers markets which have boosted returns.
• Lamb popular with consumers.
• 100% mark up.
• Location important.