9 March 2001

Loss-maker to profitable pig retailer in one

Farmers markets have

proved the financial

salvation for one

Northumberland farming

family. Our north-east

correspondent Wendy Owen

explains how it turned

opportunity into strong

commercial advantage

A MONTH after starting to sell pigmeat at farmers markets, Ian and Victoria Byatt helped to set up a new market in nearby Hexham, Northumberland.

Less than 18 months later, both ventures are thriving and the couple is convinced that without markets they would have had to sell their pig herd.

West Moorhouse farm, Matfen, Northumberland is run in conjunction with Victorias fathers holding near Newcastle, 15 miles away. Another farm, and its staff, have been essential in allowing the Byatts to devote time and energy to develop sales.

At busy market times, they can draft in extra help at the home farm. The couple attend seven one-day markets each month, deliver their meat in a refrigerated vehicle and serve customers calling to collect orders.

After both working for pig breeding company, PIC, the Byatts returned home to the family farm three years ago. Since the 60-sow finishing enterprise was losing money, they cut the herd to 40 sows and considered direct sales.

"Victoria and I were interested in pigs having worked in the industry before," says Mr Byatt. "We wanted to keep the herd, but had to make it pay.

With no grants then available for farmers markets, start up costs totalled about £8000. More money than necessary was spent because there are plans to open a farm shop, says Mr Byatt. Equipment will be transferred to the shop, along with valuable experience.

The Byatts first ventured into direct sales in Sept 1999, when they went to Alnwick farmers market in Northumberland. Surprised at the level of interest, they sold a pig in two hours, leaving them with an empty stall. That was followed by Morpeth, which opened in November and Hexham, which they helped to set up the following month. They now also attend Ponteland, Blyth, Newcastle and Tynemouth markets.

West Moorhouse is a mixed holding with arable, sheep, beef and pigs. Early sales products were pork chops, joints and three types of sausage. Now the range includes more types of sausage, bacon, lamb, marinaded meats, and kebabs and burgers in the summer.

"Some of our ewes lamb in January so we have lambs available earlier than most. We will also start selling our beef soon," says Mr Byatt.

"It is difficult guessing how much meat we will need and planning piglet production accordingly." During their first year, pig sales cancelled out losses made elsewhere. But sow numbers are now back to 60 as plans are formed to ensure year-round supply.

Both Ian and Victoria attended courses and received certificates for retail food marketing, hygiene and butchery. Although most are not legally required, Mr Byatt feels they have helped.

Leaflets are distributed and a display board with photographs gives information on pig rearing methods. It also gives the farm an identity that helps to promote customer loyalty.

Developing a good relationship with the slaughterhouse is vital to direct selling, believe the Byatts. They use a small local abattoir that is happy to kill two pigs at a time. A butcher prepares the meat, which is sold fresh since many customers take it home to stock their freezers.

"We are not much different from any shopkeeper selling fresh food, but we only have a short time to sell our meat as markets are days apart. And we usually know how much to take to a particular market," says Mr Byatt.

"At Alnwick, one of smallest markets, we sell one-and-a-half to two pigs and a lamb. In Hexham, one of the biggest, we often move up to three pigs and lambs in a day. Unlike butchers, who can cut meat to order, our meat is ready cut and packaged, so we can offer only what we have brought with us. That is where experience and judgement count.

Researching packaging and labelling ideas in supermarkets proved its worth. The meat arrives back at the farm butchered, pre-packed and ready for labelling. Best selling products are smoked and unsmoked dry-cured bacon.

Mr Byatts first advice for anyone thinking of selling at farmers markets is: Do not underestimate how long it will take. "Markets involve lots of preparation. We work for at least half a day labelling meat and making up orders.

Consulting the local environmental health officer always pay off. "There is much variation in the interpretation of rules in different areas. But we have not had any problems with the authorities, they have been very helpful."

Two people on a stall allows for busy times and enables conversations with customers, which leads to repeat sales. "Many think it is easy money, but it takes time and effort to develop a product which people will not just buy but keep buying," says Mr Byatt.

"It is hard work, but we are optimistic about the demand for high quality produce direct from the farm."

Two people staffing a stall allows time to talk to customers.

WEST MOORHOUSE FARM

&#8226 70 ha (175 acres) grass.

&#8226 80 ha (200 acres) arable.

&#8226 Arable, sheep, beef and pigs.

&#8226 Heavy soil with underlying clay.