20 November 1998


IT SEEMS the perfect solution to every livestock producers problems; retail your own product. At least you and not the retailer claims the added value.

This is what happens at Groveland Farms, Felbrigg, Norfolk, where the Filby family base their business.

Its a complete family affair. Three brothers and their offspring run three butchers shops, 283 ha (608 acres) of arable, and 202ha (500 acres) of grass, fruit and vegetables, all situated along the north Norfolk coast.

Brian Filby is one of the brothers and oversees finance and public relations for the family business. "We are lucky that our whole family is involved. But we have our own separate areas of responsibility which we are accountable for, so we dont tread on each others toes," says Mr Filby.

Their third butchers shop has recently opened, which bucks the recent trend of butchers shops closing through retail pressure from supermarkets. Their success is determined by quality and consistency.

This starts on farm where about 700 cattle run on grass nearly all year round, including two pedigree Simmental herds – one red and one black – and a Shorthorn herd. And 200 South Devon cross Simmental suckler cows run with Simmental bulls to produce the bulk of the meat for the three shops.

Calving begins in August and finishes in April with the majority of calves born outside, says Mr Filby. "Which is why I place a lot of importance on easing calving and calf vigour. Our suckler herd cows have been bred to have a combination of hardiness and mothering ability with tidy udders and good conformation.

"We need a large consistent supply of beef to ensure quantity and quality. Theres 100-150 cattle in finishing yards most of the year so we can slaughter four to five a week. Simmentals fit into this perfectly because they dont have a definite finishing date and can be managed to finish at different weights," says Mr Filby.

Different sizes

Depending on time of year, slaughter weights vary from 300-500kg deadweight. "At Christmas customers want bigger joints of meat so cattle are finished at heavier weights," says Mr Filby.

Knowing the local market is important, as is portraying the right image. He prefers to call his shops farm produce shops rather than butchers shops. "Its perhaps bad wording for the present generation.

"We neither hang carcasses around the shops nor have dead game hanging outside. People dont want to see this anymore," he says.

Trying to create the right image, he stocks other local produce and has organised a tie-up with a local deer farm to sell venison and venison sausages to reinforce local product identity.

During the BSE crisis Mr Filby took Womens Institutes and other womens clubs around his farm to explain about the beef sold in his shops. He was amazed by their lack of knowledge. "They didnt understand what a suckler cow system was and couldnt believe that calves would be suckling mothers for seven to eight months before weaning eating only grass and milk."

The system at Groveland Farms is probably as close as youll get to full traceability, he says, as most of the feed comes from the farm. "Apart from soya and minerals added to a 16% protein finishing ration, everything else is home produced," says Mr Filby. Maize and grass silage are also made on farm.

"We are feeding to produce quality meat. Where you use poor feed you will produce rubbish. Producers dont get enough feed-back on eating quality, texture and taste. We know when we get it wrong because customers dont come back if the meats tough and has no taste," he says.

"Weve been producing fully traceable beef for 10-15 years. I know the parentage of every animal thats slaughtered and could probably trace everything back to one stock bull. Weve never had a single case of BSE in this herd."

Good retailing

Mr Filby admits its been a good time to be retailing as retail meat prices have remained stable. Although, he concedes the gap between farmgate and retail price has widened, he insists his prices are determined by the consumer. "Customers shop with their purse, so when no-ones in the shop prices are too high. Nobody pays the earth for quality meat so you have to remain competitive. We can do this because we produce our own beef and sell it."

Sheep and pig meat are brought through a local abattoir and must be British. "We used to keep sheep as well, but we now only have a few to clean up pastures behind the cattle."

Its a tough time for producers and no sector of farming is booming, so is a move into retailing a good option? Mr Filby feels it is, but stresses that it wouldnt suit every farmer as they need to like dealing with the public and be prepared for more office time to cope with large amounts of paperwork.

"Farmer-run producer groups are a good thing. We need to create more outlets for top-quality meat. Every time a butchers shop shuts in a town centre thats one less outlet, leaving more of the marketplace to the supermarkets."

Small butchers shops have gone out of business mainly because they have not stocked good quality meat week-in, week-out, says Mr Filby. "They might buy a top-quality animal one week, but the next they buy one of lower quality and then wonder why customers dont come back. Its important to have a quality product to retain customer loyalty."

Mr Filby feels pursuing lean meat has compromised eating and cooking quality and not enough attention is paid to calving ease and vigour of new-born calves.

"The grading system requires lean cattle. Supermarkets provide very lean meat but this reduces cooking quality. The problem is young people dont know what a good joint of meat is and kids wont eat tough meat."

Lack of promotion targeted at children and schools is partly blame, says Mr Filby, who urges the NFU and the Meat and Livestock Commission to spend more money on educating children about eating and taste quality.

"In our shops we trim off waste fat, but my customers like to see a bit of marbling in the meat which helps cooking quality."

Brian Filby and his daughter Helen. With three brothers and their offspring involved, Groveland Farms is a truly family business.

200 South Devon cross Simmental cows produce the bulk of the meat for the Filbys three shops.

Butchers shops may be disappearing all over the UK,

but one Norfolk family producing and retailing beef is

definitely bucking the trend, as James Garner found

Consistent quality, week-in week-out, is one of the keys to the Filbys success.

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