5 April 2002

Highland beef success prompts new niche market initiative

A Highland beef retailing

business has been the salvation

of one Lancs producer, as

Jeremy Hunt explains

JUST two years after launching his Highland beef retailing business, hill farmer David Kitson says its success is beyond his wildest dreams.

Hes now buying in Highland stores for finishing to supplement home-bred cattle, employs a full-time butcher on the farm and reckons he could have three mobile refrigeration units on the road by the end of the year.

Highland cattle, which have been kept by the Kitson family for almost 30 years, have been the salvation of Long Ghyll Farm, Bleasdale in the Forest of Bowland, which was facing hard times two years ago.

"The breed has not had a reputation as a money-spinner but we had always butchered a few cattle every year and everyone raved about the quality of the beef.

"Two years ago we were faced with the decision of either giving up farming altogether or looking more seriously at retailing Highland beef. We took a gamble and its paid off," says Mr Kitson.

The new business – Farmhouse Direct – is based on beef produced from the familys Wyddale fold of 20 Highland cows. There are plans to expand the herd but store and finished cattle are currently being bought-in to meet the rocketing demand.

"Weve made some hefty investments in the business including cutting and preparation rooms for butchering on the farm, a cold store and a mobile refrigeration unit. But its all been consumer led.

Expanded and invested

"We have expanded and invested to keep pace with retail sales. Its no good trying to convince other farmers to keep Highland cattle if there is no market for the beef.

"First you need to create the market and then youll have no problem in convincing farmers to supply it. The increasing consumer demand should encourage more beef producers to look at the Highland – not as a joke but as a top quality beef animal that can leave them a good margin."

Mr Kitson says Highland cattle will respond to a finishing regime as efficiently as any other beef breed with no detriment to the meats flavour or eating quality.

"Forget that this is a breed that has to be turned out on to a hill for four years before theres anything worth butchering. Look after Highlands and they will deliver a good quality, well-fleshed carcass.

Spring-born calves are run in straw yards during their first winter and fed a low-protein home-mix ration based on oats, barley and sugar beet. "The aim is to keep feeding them and keep them growing."

Young Highland bulls pushed hard can reach 600kg by 24-30 months. Steers – which are usually dehorned for welfare reasons and to meet slaughterhouse requirements – can make 500kg at the same age.

Unlike some farmers who are very defensive of their niche market, Mr Kitson is not worried about other people copying him. "Theres a massive market out there for Highland beef," he says.

Although he has not yet encountered a shortage of Highland cattle, there have been times when Mr Kitson has had to travel as far as the Home Counties to buy stock. "There isnt a shortage of Highland cattle yet, but that isnt to say that will always be the case."

There are currently about 40 finishing cattle on the farm; stock is bought in at various ages depending on availability. About £1/kg is paid for stores.

The popularity of farmers markets provided the perfect opportunity to launch Farmhouse Direct. Mr Kitson and his wife Jackie now travel throughout the UK attending a vast range of food shows and lifestyle exhibitions. In August last year the businesss two mobile units were attending 15 venues a week. Customers can also buy through www.farmhousedirect.com

"Once you get out there and start meeting the public you realise how ignorant they are about beef. Some believe that Highland beef refers to beef produced in the Highlands of Scotland and not beef from a particular breed."

The Kitsons have been determined to maintain the purity of their product and make a clear distinction between their beef and that offered through some other beef marketing schemes which rely on a brand name referring only to the breed that sired the animal.

All their Highland beef is hung for at least three weeks. At the top end of the price range is fillet steak at £24.96/kg with rolled sirloin at £15.49 and braising steak at £6.98. Forequarter meat is made into a range of pies. Farmhouse Direct also sells locally-reared lamb, rare-breed pork and bacon and venison from wild fallow deer.

Innovative idea

"There is an ever expanding market for quality food and when you have customers prepared to travel long distances to collect beef from you at a food fair you start to realise just how the quality food market is growing."

Mr Kitson has an innovative idea to bring together a group of food producers and would like to see the launch of a travelling mini-food fair combining a range of quality food products.

"Instead of limiting ourselves to farmers markets or just being a part of a big food fair, I believe there is a great opportunity for a group of food producers to come together and create a travelling food show that could visit city centres all over the UK.

"Many people living in city centres are high earners, yet they often have little opportunity to buy niche food direct from farmer-producers. A roadshow selling food produced in the north-west would be a great opportunity to get right to the heart of those consumers who have seen the demise of small, local shops and are now limited to buying at out-of-town supermarkets."