It is more than 20 years since a group of poultry producers based in and around Devon established West Country Free Range Farmers, providing strength in numbers and a forum to share advice.

The co-op today represents about 50 free-range chicken farmers and is ramping up production, driven in the main by the ongoing expansion of poultry processor 2 Sisters Food Group.

Combined, the group is currently finishing some 150,000 birds a week, up from about 120,000 just six months ago.

Its main function is to represent farmers to their processor and, ultimately, retailers, explains Les Heywood, chairman of the co-op.

Although the farmers have individual contracts with Hook 2 Sisters, West Country Free Range Farmers negotiates prices as one. It also works closely with the supermarkets to keep production in line with what the ultimate consumer expects from free-range chicken.

But it wasn’t always structured this way.

The group started with just 10 producers contracted to Pauls Agriculture, current vice-chairman Huw Jones explains. He has been a member from the start, and has seen strong organic growth from the free-range meat sector over the past two decades.

For the first 15 years, Lloyd Maunder, a family-run processor, marketed the chicken, and Sainsbury’s was the main retail outlet.

“Over those years. the group was close knit, but it wasn’t formal. It had a chairman and committee, and negotiated price and terms directly with the processor,” says Mr Jones.

Lloyd Maunder initially set up contracts paying per bird, as opposed to the more conventional price per kilogram of chicken, and this arrangement has survived to today. Mr Jones believes that it is unique within the market, and suits both parties well.

“You can’t slaughter a free-range bird before 56 days, and it has to range for at least half of its life. It’s not about getting a bird as heavy as possible as fast as possible, but giving it good access and letting it range. We can have as many problems with birds being too heavy as with being too light,” he says.

“With FCR [feed conversion ratio] we have very little influence. If it’s blowing at minus 17C in January, then growth is going to be hampered.” The per bird basis offers some insulation against the increased volatility associated with keeping free range.

Although Mr Heywood says he would be open to discussing alternative systems of payment, given the added risk associated with free range, he too believes the current system works well.

Market growth

While growth was pretty steady for the group in the early years, the free-range market really started ramping up about five years ago, says Mr Heywood.

“Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall led campaigns comparing free range to conventional production. Lloyd Maunder, as a leader in the field, was thrust into the spotlight. 2 Sisters bought the business in 2008, and along with it came us.”

Before this acquisition, the group had had direct dealings only with its processor. But the step up in scale meant talking to retailers direct. “Previously, we had led a sheltered life from the world of selling chicken, and we were suddenly in this wider market,” says Mr Heywood.

This has meant collectively improving, by sharing knowledge and technical insight. And by working together, the group has created more uniformity in production techniques as well as housing and range standards.

“As a group, all of our houses are specific to free-range chicken standards, and built in specific ranges. There are no houses converted from conventional broiler sheds. They are all designed to house birds at smaller colony sizes.”

The houses are naturally ventilated; panels open on either side and popholes provide easy access to the range, says Mr Heywood. “They’re easier to clean out as well,” he adds.

West Country Free Range Farmers has also begun to benchmark members’ production data, including weather, litter types and inputs. “That gives us the potential to make more informed decisions to help our members.”

The co-op’s increasingly close relationship with retailers over the past few years has led to enrichments “over and above” Freedom Foods standards.

“One of the first things we did was to get involved with the ‘Woodland’ initiative,” says Mr Jones. “Sainsbury’s already had range enrichments in the egg sector and were keen to do something similar with meat.”

That means committing a minimum 20% of a range to woodland. Mr Jones believes that initially, Freedom Foods did not account properly for the free-range meat sector, although it’s now caught up, he says.

Mr Heywood says he doesn’t see West Country Free Range Farmers becoming a brand such as Freedom Foods. But the group is developing a new website to further improve communication, and this will have a public area explaining how the co-op works.

He is also keen to encourage more would-be producers to get involved. “We want to be the prominent free-range grower in the UK,” he says.

A member’s view

Strength in numbers pays off in a niche market

Nigel Clint has been based on his farm near Kentisbeare, Devon, for 15 years.

In 2007, he left dairying and put up two free-range units, supplying chicken to then-processor Lloyd Maunder.

Since then he has expanded his enterprise to five sheds and currently produces 28,500 birds a crop, five-and-a-half times a year.

It was joining West Country Free Range Farmers that gave him the confidence to launch into what was then a niche market.

“Being in the co-op means strength in numbers. It’s all about being able to negotiate with buyers and retailers – a united front,” he says.

With planning permission to put up a sixth shed, taking his ­capacity to 38,000 birds, Mr Clint is confident the free-range broiler market will continue to serve him well.

His next interest, however, is installing a biomass burner, and here being a member if West Country Free Range Farmers may come in handy too.

The group is actively looking at group-buying of inputs, with biomass burners a particular point of interest. “It may be that we tie up contracts to buy up woodchip, or collectively we may buy a chipper,” says Mr Heywood, chairman of the co-op.

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