3 March 2000

Retail selling

pepped up pig unit

BSE did much to damage livestock farmers

incomes, but nobody could have predicted that

almost five years later the effects would still be

crippling many businesses. Added to that is the

over-supply of most meat commodities in the EU

and a vice-like grip on prices paid by the

processing and retail sectors. Farmers are

desperate to increase the value of stock beyond

the farm gate. In this special, we look at a number

of ventures, starting with one Suffolk familys pig

project that is putting Freedom Foods in front of

the consumer. Edited by Simon Wragg

SELLING direct to a retailer is not a quick solution to a crisis, as one Suffolk pig producer knows. Any extra margin gained has to be reinvested, but the long-term benefits look promising.

Mark and Paul Hayward run an 800-sow outdoor herd near Wickham Market, Suffolk and despite exceptionally good performance and management have suffered from prolonged, depressed pig prices.

"Its a meat commodity and we realised we had to get away from that," says Mark.

Aware that their unit had a unique selling point – it is high welfare, Freedom Foods-registered – they were eager to get involved with direct selling. "Like most, we believe that we should be getting something extra back for being Freedom Foods-accredited, rather than just the standard pig price," he adds.

The spark came on the back of farmer protests over the pig crisis. Addressing local retailers, the brothers found few understood the situation producers faced or the difference in pigs reared from indoor or outdoor systems – the latter being a marketable concept.

"Its no good saying, here are some pigs, we can sell them to you. You need to understand what retailers want and how they work. We had a good product that could be marketed to the public; its high welfare, its local and we had the volume and traceability," Mark explains.

Once interested, talks with a regional chain – Norwich Co-op – led the brothers to meet retailers requirements rather than stipulating their own. "We presented a new concept to them, but we have to accept that we were feeding into their own preferred supply route," he adds.

The concept began to emerge once trust between supplier and retailer had established itself. A brand was developed, Dingley Dell Pork, and this was introduced into stores last summer. "Its a lot of work to get there and that should not be under-estimated. Building a brand takes effort and isnt cheap."

To help the retailer, the brothers – backed by Ladies In Pigs – began in-store cookery promotions. "What we read about the consumer in the farming press was blown out of the water. They assume welfare has been taken care of; they dont even question it. Most dont even realise theyre eating foreign meat half the time.

"They want to buy local produce, are aware of some issues in farming and like to identify with the farmer – and thats what they cant do with a big supermarket."

Consumer interest was aroused by cookery demonstrations, particularly when re-run over several weeks. "If they can see two farmers like us prepare a meal in 10 minutes they know any fool can do it. It works; sales have risen by up to 40% during the promotions," adds Paul.

About 30% of the units output is now geared to the retail chain using the existing supply route. "The returns can only be better (than conventional pig sales) if we can get people away from thinking our pigs are like the commodity coming from Dutch or French suppliers. Brand loyalty is what its about, but adding value incurs a lot of expense."

The brothers would like the Meat & Livestock Commission to recognise that levy payers who also process/supply locally could do with some financial aid for promotion. "Ideally, part of the pig levy ought to go towards it – regional branding is important; its what the consumer is interested in."

New pork products are being researched, such as ready-for-the-oven roasts, using other interested parties. "Its a costly business, but at least we are now looking at being part of the chain, not just the one supplying a commodity. I wont say the money is not important because it is, but at least we now have a sense of direction."