Sector trends

Meet the farmers flipping meat’s reputation

The reputation of meat production has struggled in recent years.

Tell a story people can connect with

Rachel Hallos farms beef and sheep at the 2,000-acre Beeston Hall in Rippondon, West Yorkshire

“The future of British meat farming is all about telling the story. The consumer is the meat industry’s best champion so it’s vital for us to explain what we do. Covid has made people think local, and we’re diversifying within our market to develop a brand to sell our beef direct to the public. To do that, you need a story that’s worth telling, that makes people connect."

“Our red Salers beef cattle are an arresting sight on the open moor. We often see photos of our herd that people have shared on social media. So we add to that story – they’re not just magnificent, not just providing meat, they’re protecting the beautiful countryside. We were accepted on to the [government] Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, and through initiatives with them, our cattle and sheep are used to fulfil environmental goods. They define the landscape, but their presence also creates it, giving us heather regeneration, wildflower meadows and attracting wildlife and birds.

“I use social media to tell that story. In the spring I’ll film our autumn calving herds making their way up to the top of the moor and explain how they help shape the landscape. We buy and sell cattle on Facebook, and we talk about feeding questions on Twitter. Of course, social media can be the devil’s spawn, but I keep out of the politics and just explain what we do. I posted a picture of our freezer full of beef for our personal use, and said I understood some people might find that picture abhorrent. But I explained the benefits of knowing exactly where the cow had come from, who her parents were, what she’d been fed, how well she’d been treated. I ended up having a really civilised and friendly debate with a vegetarian, which ended in honest, genuine respect for each other’s views. That’s all part of telling the story, too.

“And we’re adding to the story. We’re planning more tree planting, a wildlife area, a holiday let, converting part of our 17th-century farmhouse into a business meeting room to hire. All of this connects.

“When my husband’s parents had the farm, they had 40 cows and bottled and delivered milk to a high-density population. Everyone knew who they were, they listened to customers and gave them what they wanted. Over the years, farming moved too far away from that community connection. Whether through showing your environmental credentials or talking about what you do on social media, the future of meat depends on making those connections again.”

“Big up a regional flavour”

Mat Cole runs a herd of more than 200 head of cattle and 2,000 ewes at Greenwell Farm in Yelverton, Devon

“Farmers stand stronger together. That’s why we formed Dartmoor Farmers, a cooperative of 100 sheep and cattle farmers across the moor. We’re all separate businesses, but we come together to encourage consumers to ‘taste the view’ of Dartmoor.

The industry has for too long neglected the customer, relied too much on the market to set prices, and gone cheaper and cheaper in a race to the bottom. But we’re offering quality

Mat Cole
Greenwell Farm

“As a cooperative, we won a contract to supply Morrisons. It gives them consistent, fantastic Dartmoor meat but it also simplifies things for them. They call me as chairman, and I source 400 lambs a week for them through our network.

“The Duchy of Cornwall owns a lot of Dartmoor, and Prince Charles ‘knocked on Morrisons’ door’ and helped set up a meeting for us with the CEO. When the Morrisons representatives came to see us, we just got in the Land Rover and showed them the moor.

“A lot of supermarkets go for breed, but we wanted to show them the region is special – and, being a cooperative, we were able to do that. I didn’t even realise what we were doing was innovative but apparently it is.

“And Dartmoor sheep are special – they’re symbiotic with the landscape. Most livestock here are grazing open common. They forage for what they can get rather than being grown on intensive feeding. As a result, they grow slower but leaner on mature, acid grasslands. It’s what makes this region’s livestock special, and there really is a ‘taste’ of Dartmoor, which is why the cooperative works. They’re graded to national standards of size and weight, but apart from that, they are what they are – we don’t greenwash. Our animals are a natural product of the wild moor they inhabit.

“Morrisons gets that. Some other retailers were only interested in the carcass yield, not the individuality of the region. This co-operative works for Morrisons because it’s getting quality products and it can meet its customers’ increasing needs for environmentally friendly food sources. And it works for us, too. The industry has for too long neglected the customer, relied too much on the market to set prices, and gone cheaper and cheaper in a race to the bottom. But we’re offering quality. This is about valuing the provenance of these animals and how they live and grow. As a group we can come together to show off this very special part of the world. Dartmoor is our story and we’re very proud of it.”

“Stay close to your community”

Jon Smith is cattle and sheep herd manager at the Holkham Estate, Norfolk

“We’ve changed the way we’ve managed our land and provided state-of-the-art cattle housing, which helps reduce our carbon footprint.

“There’s a lot of talk of farmers needing to feed the world, but during lockdown we saw people turning to local produce. They know where it comes from, they know it’s natural and it’s so much more environmentally friendly, reducing the carbon footprint, the transport, the packaging.

“None of our herd travels more than five miles in their entire lives. Our initiatives over the past few years have ensured that. Holkham has 800 hectares, half of which is a freshwater marshland SSSI [site of special scientific interest] national nature reserve. To protect that land, we increased our cattle herd to 1,000 to manage it – they keep the grasses at the optimum height for all the wading birds, including rare species, which is something you can’t do by machine.

“But more cattle meant we needed more housing, so we’ve spent £1.5m on state-of-the-art sheds, which keep all of them together in the winter months and has enabled us to have one, single, spring calving group. This has made us even more environmentally friendly – silage clamps have reduced our need for plastic, and we catch rainwater off the roof, which can be pumped back in as the herd’s drinking water. Their muck goes on the fields, and our local brewery Adnams buys our barley and then gives us back brewers’ grains for the herd to eat.

“And we supply a butcher five miles up the road, with its own abattoir, and then our meat is sold in the cafes and shops on the estate but also supplies several local pubs and restaurants.

“All these things are important to us, but they’re important to customers, too. A lot of them have discovered local produce during these past few months. We’re feeding the local community, and it helps them connect with us and understand what we do.”

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