10 May 2002



Could direct selling of

branded pigmeat improve

producer returns?

Wendy Owen went to meet

one East Yorks-based

producer who is hoping

his new business venture

will do just that

A FEW years ago, Peter Kirkwood, like many other pig producers, found himself in a dilemma. Having been in pig farming for more than 35 years, he had just invested £200,000 in a welfare-friendly sow housing system when profits slumped.

After careful thought, he decided that selling direct to the public was his only option and in May last year he opened his own farm shop and processing plant.

The shop sells home-produced pork products under its own brand label, East Riding Country Pork, and Mr Kirkwood also travels to several farmers markets each week. In addition, some pork products are sold through a mail order service, which offers next day delivery of the entire product range. Orders are taken by telephone or via the company web-site and transported by courier.

But there is still a long way to go, he explains. The foot-and-mouth crisis caused a serious setback, delaying the opening of rented premises at Halsham, near Hull. And despite being keen to sell his products at more farmers markets, he finds there are not enough being held in the East Yorks region.

"At the moment, the only market nearby is at Driffield. We are expecting others to be developed, but it seems to be a slow process."

No set targets

There are no set targets to increase direct sales of pigmeat from the 1000-sow herd and only about 12 whole pigs are sold direct to the public each week. This is a very small percentage of total output and other bacon pigs are marketed on contract to local abattoirs.

However, there is potential to increase sales. The farm shop is about 10 miles from Hull and roughly a mile from the nearest main A-road. "The shop was a former poultry processing plant, so the layout suited our purposes," Mr Kirkwood explains.

"It is in an ideal position, being only two miles from the pig farm and close to the local abattoir. That is useful because a lot of customers are worried about food miles and dont like to think that animals are being transported over long distances."

Mr Kirkwood received a 25% redundant buildings grant towards the £220,000 project, which helped towards the extension and conversion of the processing plant. In total, there are three chillers, a cutting room, spice store and packaging store.

Based on customer response, he stresses the importance of continually developing new products. "It keeps customers interested and encourages them to pass on recommendations by word-of-mouth – which is the best form of advertising."

The business has a current range of 80 pork-related products, as well as selling a range of bought-in jams and sauces under its own brand label. There are half a dozen different types of sausage, pork stir-fry mixes and a huge variety of meat cuts. But the dry-cured bacon is the best seller.

Massive demand

"We find it difficult to keep up with demand for our traditional dry-cured bacon.

"I am constantly hearing that people are fed up with other poor quality bacon which lacks taste and shrinks when cooked because of its high water content."

Mr Kirkwoods eldest daughter, Rebecca, works in the business full-time and is responsible for marketing products to hotels, pubs and restaurants in the area.

Although Mr Kirkwood has had some food hygiene training, he employs one full-time and two part-time butchers for most of the meat processing work. He also has four part-time assistants who help out when necessary.

The pig unit is virtually self-sufficient and a full-time manager has been employed to allow him to concentrate on the new venture. The herd is fed almost entirely on grain from the 202ha (500-acre) arable enterprise and all rations are pelleted into a range of five different feeds at the farms own mill and mix unit.

Breed changed

Previously, the farm was bought in Camborough gilts, but since the advent of F&M, a grandparent herd of Landrace cross Duroc pigs has been set up. These are inseminated with Large White semen to produce the F1 hybrid and progeny are taken to 100-105kg liveweight.

For direct sales, slightly heavier animals, weighing 110-115kg, are selected to give a little extra fat, thereby improving meat eating quality.

Mr Kirkwood felt the only way forward for his business was to sell direct to the public, due to having invested heavily in the pig farm. "I have a positive outlook on the future and I believe that direct selling is the only way ahead," he says. &#42

Peter Kirkwood and his daughter Rebecca Buckle in their ideally situated farm shop close to the farm, abattoir and customers.

Slicing the best selling product, dry-cured bacon, in the cutting plant.

&#8226 New products important.

&#8226 Extra fat for eating quality.

&#8226 Marketing to local businesses.