16 November 2001

THECUTTINGEDGE

Getting someone else to turn your livestock into cuts of

meat, sausages and pies and then selling it yourself can

have a dramatic effect on profitability, as one Somerset

butcher explained to David Cousins

"IT ALL started when a farmer rang up to ask if we could take five lambs of hers to sell in our shop," says Andy Portch, who runs Gilcombe Farm Foods, Bruton, Somerset. "We couldnt take them for the shop but suggested we could turn them into whole legs, chops, stewing lamb and lamb mince for her to sell at the local farmers market. She did that, made a lot more money than shes expected and now puts 4-10 lambs/week through Gilcombe for sale at Bath farmers market."

It all confirms what Mr Portch knew was the case right at the outset. He was running the beef herd on Gilcombe Farm itself, while his brother Paul ran the now 150-head organic dairy herd. Andy was sure there must be a more profitable way of selling livestock so opened a butchers shop in Bruton.

Farm shop

As demand grew he moved back to the family farm, converting the old dairy into a refrigerated store and cutting room and then adding a farm shop a bit later.

Sales of meat have increased steadily since the shop opened two years ago. Customers come from up to 25 miles away, often spending £70-£80 to stock up on meat for the month. As well as sales to householders, theres a healthy trade in steaks, roasting joints and cuts like rack of lamb to local pubs, hotels and restaurants. Sausage sales have now reached 1.5t/ month, and bacon volumes are not far behind.

Meat is sourced from a total of 24 farmers in Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire. Gilcombe has also recently taken over a local firm making pies, and ready meals.

Similar growth has been seen on the contract processing side, which started two and a half years ago. The principle is simple; instead of selling your stock through conventional channels and receiving the modest going rate, you get Gilcombe Farm Foods to turn it into joints, chops, mince (and, soon, pies, lasagnes and so on) for a fixed fee and you sell it via farmers markets, in a farm shop, by mail order or to friends and relatives.

"In many cases, were doubling the value of the animal by reducing the profit taken at each stage of the conventional slaughtering and processing chain," says Mr Portch. "The farmer takes the stock to the slaughterhouse but we pick them up and do the rest – that can range from simply chopping them up into quarters to packaging, labelling and transporting."

A total of 70 farmers now send batches of stock to Mr Portch and his team for processing and throughput currently stands at 80-100 lambs, two bodies of beef and 2-3 pigs/month.

Smaller producers

They tend to be smaller farmers and most are selling the joints, chops, bacon, sausages etc through farmers markets.

Its not the answer for every livestock producer, admits Mr Portch, but its a useful extra option for many of them. He adds that many farmer-suppliers have built up a sizeable customer base by selling the meat to friends and family.

Mail order meat is still in its infancy but is expected to grow.

"Farmers could build up sales by advertising in the local free papers and then selling on a farmgate basis," adds Mr Portch. "The whole point is its a case of spending money to make money. By spending £400 to process a beef body you can then get back £1500 for it."

Gilcombe Farm Foods (01749-813825) has supplies up to Christmas, but is keen to hear from potential suppliers who could supply from the New Year onwards.

Andy Portch was sure there must be a more profitable to sell livestock.

Above: Andy Portch (left)opened the shop two years ago. Right: 1.5t/month of sausages are made.