Sunday, November 19, 2017

Forgotten breeds prove their worth

October 4, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

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Warwickshire producer Jeff Clarke shows that giving the consumer a taste of old fashioned farmed breeds can prove profitable. Simon Wragg reports.

It’s a busy market day at Rugby Farmers Mart, Stoneleigh. Jeff Clarke has watched his prime lambs top the trade. Out of Cheviot x Texel ewes put to a Beltex tup, they are what the mass market demands: fast finishing, uniform stock fit for the multiple retail trade.

But not all livestock are as commercial at 400ha (1000ac) Grandborough Fields Farm, near Southam. But that is not to suggest the family-run business is any less profitable.

Mr Clarke’s business embraces two very different facets of farming – 1300 intensively managed ewes and 800 extensive reared Manx Loughtans which form the foundation of a branded business called ‘The Lost Farm’.

“A lot of people don’t get it,” he reflects, musing on the marriage between intensive and extensively-managed breeds. While the Beltex-sired lambs finish in a matter of weeks the Manx Loughtans are marketable in 18 months – many being sold under the mutton renaissance banner.

But the breed is just one part of The Lost Farm business run alongside the core farm business F & J Clarke & Son. “On the one hand I have commercial breeds such as Hereford, Limousin and Blondes and on the other I run Dexter, Highland and Longhorn cattle.

“And then there’s Border Leicester, North Ronaldsay, Herdwick, Zwartbles, Southdown, Kerry Hill and Soay sheep breeds plus Oxford & Sandy Black, Tamworth, and British Lop pigs,” he explains.

Marketing

This ark-like array is managed with help from his wife, Annie, and fellow rare breed enthusiast – and all-round fixer – small-holder Cym Baseley. While Mr Clarke is adamant he’s a working farmer, Mrs Baseley is the marketing and financial controller of the developing food-based business.

“There’s no fast buck to be made in rare breeds (meat),” she says. “It’s a longer commitment and more about marketing flavour. Once people have latched on to that then they tend to come back for more.”

Using a webpage as an opener, much of the marketing of The Lost Farm portfolio of products is done through food festivals, farmers markets, a local village shop and social media. Customers range from private households
to top end caterers and chefs.
This latter group is serviced with the help of Leamington-based meat supply business, Aubrey Allen.

“What Aubrey Allen gives us is the ability to deliver chilled product next day nationwide which as an independent producer we just wouldn’t be able to do,” explains Mrs Baseley. It is one example of working partnerships which extend to hosting tasting events for chefs at Grandborough Fields Farm and the on-site cutting room and shop.

Income

While income from rearing rare breeds takes time to come in, keeping on top of invoicing is key to cash-flow, explains Mr Clarke. “In farming there’s a lot of business done on trust and extended credit is not uncommon. It’s probably a good thing that Cym is a little more sceptical. We try to ensure catering customers we deal direct with have paid for their last order before the next goes out.”

To protect the family business, The Lost Farm is kept as a separate trading entity. It mirrors other trading arrangements. For example, few minority breed cows are kept due to the inherent risk of bovine TB so, instead, rearing stock are bought direct from other local rare breed producers.

Although most livestock are reared off grass, the business also uses home-grown barley, oats and forage maize rather than buying in feedstuffs. Costing are not commonplace but experience suggests while minority breeds take longer to grow into money, when it comes it often outweighs that for intensively finished stock, it’s suggested.

Love livestock

“The business is about me and what I like to do,” says Mr Clarke. “I like farming, I love livestock and I want to sell what I produce.”

Having been bought a handful of Manx Laughtans by his grandmother (whom originated from the Isle of Man) when a young boy, Mr Clarke has embraced assistance from others including family friend, George Steriopulos, to develop The Lost Farm business.

Food marketing specialist Nickerson Knight was used to research the brand identity with the ‘Forgotten Farm’ being a close contender. Catering customers are encouraged to visit and use information about both the farm and Mr Clarke to educate and tempt consumers.

“It’s not just about the rarity of the breeds,” says Mr Clarke. “It’s about the rarity of the product.

“Yes, when a chef or caterer wants product they want it tomorrow but we don’t aim to supply everything all year around. It’s more a case of come and get it while it’s available. And it seems to keep them hungry for more.”

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