Faith in upland farming brings a meaty reward
By Wendy Owen
FEW hill farms have been built in the past decade, but one Northumbrian farmer has bucked the trend and is now struggling to meet demand for direct sales of his Scottish Blackface lamb and Aberdeen Angus beef.
Steve Ramshaw started with a part-time smallholding while he continued to work as a building services manager. But eight years ago he decided to farm full time on 230ha (570 acres) near Otterburn. Capital from building development and a bigger mortgage allowed him to build Monkridge Hill Farm on a greenfield site. But in 1998 he realised that changes were needed to remain viable.
He put the farm into organic conversion to give sales a marketing edge. This will be completed by 2001. He then spent £25,000 adapting an existing building into a fully equipped cutting room and formed Northumbrian Quality Meats.
In the first year of direct sales, farm profitability rose by £15,000. Mr Ramshaw estimates that, after processing and marketing costs, he makes an extra £5-£10 a lamb over auction mart prices and beef margins have risen by about 10%.
The business now employs two part-time butchers and targets sales at the more affluent parts of Newcastle, 30 miles away. The main business is selling 10-20kg freezer packs of lamb, which retail at about £4.50/kg (2.05/lb), and similar sized packs of beef for £5/kg (£2.27/lb). Several varieties of sausage and beefburgers are also produced, and vacuum-packed smoked meat is processed at a local smokehouse and sells for £28/kg (£12.70/lb).
"The retailing side involves a lot of work," says Mr Ramshaw. "I wanted to sell whole lambs in boxes, but I found that few people will buy their meat that way." He also uses other outlets, including local hotels and butchers shops, farmers markets, mail order, box scheme deliveries and a web-site.
"The organic status suits the low input farm management system but the practicalities of ensuring 100% traceability have caused some major headaches. Three linked databases are needed to keep track of all the stock from birth to sale," he adds.
With 450 ewes and just 50 cattle, Mr Ramshaw has recruited two other local farms to supply meat. Between them, they sell about 30 lambs a week from September to February, averaging 17kg deadweight and finished on clover leys. Most lambs fall into R3L standard and are hung for at least a week to improve eating quality. Heifers are taken to 470kg liveweight at fat classes 4L and 4H and hung for three weeks after finishing on silage.
"I only have a few months to sell my product, but as a hill farmer I am used to that," he says. "I try to use seasonality as a marketing tool. I explain that it is impossible to buy heather-fed lambs all year round and the limited availability seems to make customers keener.
"I am hoping to form a co- operative and involve more local farmers to meet demands as the business grows. Ultimately, it would be nice to involve other organic food producers and set up an organic warehouse in Northumberland." His main aim, he says, is like that of many other farmers – to keep the farm afloat and maintain his quality of life. *