Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Poultry business is flying high in Leicestershire

February 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Expansion and consolidation aims to boost business for free range poultry producers Jacob Sykes and Nick Ball. Simon Wragg reports.

In a sector where fast growth and economies of scale are key drivers to profit for many chicken enterprises, free range producer Fosse Meadows deemed to be different.

Birds reared slowly to 81 days old to enhance flavour was the founding concept of the venture based originally at Frolesworth, and which supplies farmers’ markets in London where both business partners had careers previously.

“It’ll be nine years next April since we set up the business on Nick’s parents’ farm,” reflects Jacob from its new base at Stud Farm, North Kilworth,  Leicestershire – an undulating 28ha (70ac) largely grassland county council holding.

The unit has been secured on a 15-year FBT; essential to justify the capital investment in infrastructure, buildings and equipment. “We’ve worked closely with Jamie Forman who heads up the County Farms portfolio. The fact we were doing something different, we believe, helped us win through in the application process.”

Hands-on operation

It is a very hands-on operation. The business has expanded from producing 52,000 birds/annum to nearer 80,000 birds plus season fowl which include turkeys, geese, and year-around cockerels.

Birds are reared in poly-tunnels moved to fresh pasture with each batch and encouraged to free range. “We use a French breed of bird which has bigger legs and a more elongated breast. They carry their bodyweight better and can roam further adding to the flavour of the end product,“ he explains.

A small flock of South Down sheep have been added to the portfolio as grass managers for areas non yet populated by poultry.

Typically, birds take four weeks longer than most free range operations and two weeks longer than most organic systems. These are processed at one of the country’s few remaining privately-owned abattoirs, Baileys, to exacting standards.

Weekly deliveries are despatched to Fosse Meadows’ London premises for butchery and distribution. Sales are focused on three ‘Food To Go’ and nine weekly farmers’ markets which attract a loyal following of consumers for birds and value-added ‘buys’ ranging from broths, burgers, pate and sausage.

Restaurants and butchers are also served on a wholesale basis.“We’ve seen more growth in the retail sales which has been helped by collaborations with businesses such as Farmdrop which delivers direct to the consumer’s door across the capital.

“There’s also more nationwide interest being driven by social media and ‘appearances’ and ‘mentions’ in food articles and cook books by the likes of Diana Henry and Thomasina Myers,” he explains.

Better margins

But expansion and investment have brought a need to consolidate the operation in a bid to improve financial margins, it’s suggested. “We are competing with more intensive free range poultry and our principle of slower growth adds cost to the product.”

While free range turkey and layer hens (the latter supplying eggs for sale at the London venues) are still based at Frolesworth, relocation of London-based facilities for butchery and processing of value-added products are being planned for Stud Farm.

“We hope to access RDPE buy viagra in canada funding for some facilities and will have to work closely with planners and the local environmental health officer. But it will create employment opportunities as well as allowing more control over our cost of production,” explains Jacob.

It is not without its challenges. As for many rural businesses finding and retaining motivated staff – particularly seasonal workers – can be problematic.

“We are not far from the large distribution hub Magna Park at Lutterworth and many (prospective) workers would prefer to have a warm job indoors than being outdoors on the farm particularly at our busiest time which is in the depth of winter.”

New blood

That’s not to say new blood hasn’t been attracted to the business. Time-served office manager Lesley Scott has been joined by farmer’s daughter Victoria Hilyer in a sales role and Helen Weinrebova has joined as administrator.

Stockman Paul Fielding is now assisted by outside part-time contractors for elements such as maintenance and seasonal stock tasks.

“Both Nick and myself still spend time each week in London managing the retail and wholesale operation. Bringing butchery and processing to Stud Farm will also hopefully improve our work/life balance.”

At farm level the partners are aiming to ‘systemise’ the rearing of all poultry to get greater control over inputs and expenditure. Environmental enrichment, nutrition and health remain cornerstones endorsed by all birds being reared on diets free from antibiotics and hormones.

“There will be many challenges in 2018 but the biggest is just getting everything done,” reflects Jacob. “We’ve begun erecting a new layer barn and have some perimeter fencing to complete.

“If we get support for the proposal to have production and butchery facilities here then our next challenge is to dismantle some existing pole barn buildings to make way for new infrastructure.”

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