Listening to customers drives demand for new ventures
FOR many people born outside farming families, the dream of making a living out of livestock remains out of reach. But a combination of good luck and dogged determination gave Denise and Chris Walton the opportunity to realise their long-held ambition. Two decades later, their enthusiasm is still driving the business forward.
It is not easy to catch Denise Walton when she is not working, but once she has been pinned down to a time when she has a spare hour, it is not hard to see why most of the organic meat from Peelham Farm finds a ready market with discerning chefs and ‘foodies’.
Not only does she have the boundless energy required to keep her customers happy, she also has a high level of technical knowledge about food and livestock production. The same applies to her husband, Chris, and the couple’s business partner Amanda Cayley.
Chris and Denise have always wanted a career in farming, despite their family on both sides being in the medical profession.
“Chris worked on several farms before going to college as a mature student,” says Denise. “We met at Wye College, when he was studying for a post-graduate degree in agricultural economics and I was taking a post-graduate degree course in ecology.
“After qualifying, Chris went back to farm work, while I set up as a self-employed ecological consultant. When it seemed as if we weren’t getting anywhere and our dream was fading, Chris
decided to study accountancy to bring in more money for the family.
“Just by chance, we heard about a 20-acre smallholding near Berwick-upon-Tweed in the Scottish Borders. We bought the property and started keeping a small flock of sheep.”
Little did they know at the time that their relationship with the vendor, neighbouring farmer Amanda, would turn into a strong partnership which ideally suits both parties.
Amanda was a single farmer without any children, looking for some help in managing her 81-hectare (200-acre) mixed livestock unit. The arrangement was already working well when a neighbouring farm was purchased, taking the total to 275ha (680 acres).
The business partnership was formed in 1990 and the farm converted to organic production 10 years later. While Amanda was supposed to have semi-retired some years ago, she continues to make a significant contribution to many aspects of the day-to-day running of the business, including delivering meat to restaurants and checking the livestock.
Many enterprises aimed at direct meat sales are forced to find alternative outlets for a high percentage of surplus production. But this does not apply at Peelham, where around 70 per cent of farm produce is sold wholesale, mainly to high quality restaurants and delicatessens in Edinburgh.
A further 8-10 per cent is currently marketed through internet sales, although this figure is growing rapidly.
All the progeny from the 50-sow Tamworth pig herd goes through the farm’s on-site butchery, which was established in 2008.
Lamb from the 600-ewe Lleyn and Lleyn cross Texel flock follows a similar pattern, with all the cull ewes turned into mutton, which is proving very popular.
The beef herd comprises 80 suckler cows, mainly home-bred Luing and Simmental crosses, put to an Aberdeen-Angus bull. The resulting calves perform well on Peelham’s all-grass feeding system. At present, around 30 per cent of beef animals are marketed as field-raised ruby veal.
The farm has a spring and an autumn-calving herd, with all replacements home-bred.
Beef animals are finished on grass at 24 to 30 months old, weighing around 300kg deadweight, although a more flexible approach is taken for dealing with the ruby veal animals, which are either sold as stores or finished at home, usually attracting an organic premium.
Lleyns are the breed of choice for the sheep flock, selected for its high level of parasite resistance, as well as its ability to cope with the all-grass feeding system.
A distinction is made between new season lamb and hoggets, with chefs in particular appreciating the difference between the two products. New season lamb is available in autumn, with hoggets on offer around Easter. The ewes are lambed inside in March.
Cull ewes have been used for mutton since 2009.
“The secret with mutton is to hang the carcase for two weeks,” says Denise. “The cuts go to restaurants, which are always looking for new and interesting products. We have recently started curing mutton and turning it into mutton-ham, which was a very popular dish in lowland Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It has a strong, robust flavour and tastes really delicious.”
Surplus meat is turned into sausages. One speciality sausage uses a spicy, North African recipe, which was originally intended for goat meat. Mutton also goes into pies, with the mutton-ham and caper version a particular favourite. Similar to a pork pie in appearance, the recipe is one of Denise’s inventions. Its ingredients include cured mutton, pickled capers and a ‘hint of mint’.
The Tamworth herd is bred and reared exclusively outdoors, with the pigs fitting into the five-year rotation. Housed in straw-bedded pig arks, the sows provide 1.5 litters per year, with an average of seven piglets per litter. They are finished at around eight to 10 months. Once the pigs have moved on, the ground is ploughed out and left to over-winter in preparation for spring sowing.
Pigmeat is one of the products most suited to ‘value-added’ markets, according to Denise, with a high proportion of meat turned into air-dried and charcuterie products.
Peelham offers a wide range of meat products, some of which are unique to the farm. These have been largely customer-driven, although some have been developed with the aim of maximising the potential for ‘added value’.
Denise has always been keen on food and cookery, and no-one can say she is short of imaginative ideas. Take the organic weekend box as one example. For £46, including delivery, two people can order a two-day supply of meat, including sausages and bacon, lamb leg steaks, veal, and a couple of meat pies.
Like many before them, the business partners have learned their trade by selling at farmers’ markets. While these have become less important in terms of sales, they regularly attend several local markets. This provides valuable feedback, and is appreciated by their wholesale restaurant customers, who perceive some benefit in spreading the word about the farm and its production methods.
With so much time taken up with marketing, the business employs two full-time farm workers and a part-time office manager, for additional support.
“There is no better way of growing a direct sales business than meeting customers face-to-face and getting their feedback,” says Denise.
“Markets also give us the opportunity to explain organic production and help consumers understand more about the food on their plate.
“Some people are still interested in provenance and are prepared to pay a little bit extra for organic produce, despite the general downturn in organic sales.
“The organic element differentiates us from most of our competitors, particularly those selling online.
“It definitely gives us a marketing edge with high-end restaurants. It has also taught us a lot about managing farmland, and the livestock have never looked better.”
On the subject of customers, it was their demand which prompted the development of the farm’s ‘gluten-free’ and ‘free from’ sausage and burger ranges, says Denise.
“One of the most important lessons we have learned is to listen to our customers. The number of enquiries we were receiving from people suffering from food intolerances or allergies took us in that direction, and this part of the business is growing.
“People tend to think special dietary foods are dull and boring, but that is not the case at all. Take sausages, for example.
“Rusk was first added to sausages during the war when meat was in short supply. It makes the sausages swell and gives them an open texture. But there are plenty of tasty recipes which can be made up without using gluten, artificial additives or flavour enhancers. Our most popular ‘free from’ lines are veal Italienne sausage and chorizo.”
While others choose to go down the farm shop route, this option was never seriously considered, as Peelham is located off the beaten track, with a three-quarters of a mile-long driveway.
The popularity of the internet offered a golden opportunity, although many lessons have been learned about online sales since the first Peelham e-commerce website was launched three years ago.
“We had a standard website for some years, but it was not until we developed the site to allow people to buy online that countrywide sales started to take off,” says Denise. “It still amazes me to think we have a business that is effectively opened for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Looking back, our original site was very amateurish. We have since learned the meaning of phrases such as click fatigue, and we are constantly updating the information, as well as looking for ways to make it easier to buy our products.”
Meat from Peelham used to be prepared by outside contractors, but the farm now has an on-site facility and employs three butchers; two full-time and one part-time.
“The contract butchers were good, but could not give us enough scope to meet our customers’ specific demands,” she says. “Having the butchery on the premises and using craft butchers gives us greater flexibility.
“We can also increase our income by running butchery workshops, where people can come for the day and learn about the different cuts and how to make sausages and burgers.”
When asked what makes the farm so successful, Denise does not hesitate. “Trust and fun in equal measures are the secret to making a success of a business partnership.
“Of course, we have all had our ups and downs over the years, but we have a lot of respect for each other and we all truly believe in the business and have a commitment to making it work.
“We derive great satisfaction from being price-makers, instead of price-takers. But I would advise anyone thinking about moving to direct sales to be prepared for the relentless hard work it demands. But at the same time, it is exciting and challenging, and nothing would persuade us to give it up.”
Arable and grassland
- The high costs associated with organic livestock inputs mean the emphasis lies firmly on producing meat off grass and using home-grown feed
- Grass is undersown with red-clover to enhance field productivity and grazing for finishing lambs
- Barley grown for the pigs is harvested at 35 per cent moisture content and mixed with a probiotic lactobacillus before crimping
- Beans are also a staple, providing protein for the pig finishing rations
Peelham’s field-raised ruby veal is different from standard veal, which is produced from young dairy-bred calves on a milk-based diet, says Denise.
“Our suckler calves stay out at grass with their mothers all summer and we finish them at about eight to 10 months,” she says. “This policy makes the calves physically fit from all the exercise they get, and gives them good muscle tone. But as veal should be a very soft, tender meat, we hang the carcases for two weeks, to give it a more delicate texture.
“Our product is darker in colour than dairy ‘rose’ veal and has some marbling. The meat is very versatile – we take a wide variety of cuts, from escalopes, which everybody knows about, to topside, salmon fillet and rolled breast and shoulder.
“Ruby veal fits in well with our all-grass livestock management policy and we aim to have a supply all year round. The shorter finishing time means we can keep more cows and use less straw bedding and haylage over the winter,” she says.