East Suffolk: Farmers’ meat co-operative takes flight in region
Local meat producers may have the provenance and the free range credentials but one thing they can’t deliver easily is the complete package.
It’s no easy thing not only to rear meat, but also to market it, process it and deliver it and this is where the big boys score over their small-scale counterparts.
But size isn’t everything, and it’s possible to scale up if you co-operate.
That’s what a group of small producers in north and east Suffolk decided to do earlier this year in order to reach new markets.
They clubbed together to form what’s thought to be the only meat co-operative of its kind in this geographical area under the banner Red Poll Meats.
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Together, they can provide consumers with everything from beef, pork and lamb to goose, turkey and venison. All of it is from free range animals which are grazed in the local area, and a number of the flocks and herds also perform an important conservation task in keeping the Suffolk landscape in its traditional condition.
Robert Gooch, a smallholder based at Sweffling, near Rendham, who raises geese and also provides venison for the co-op, came up with the original idea. He set up the Wild Meat Company at Blaxhall 12 years ago with Paul Denny, and has four full-time butchers
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He decided to turn Red Poll Meats, originally a mail order business, into a meat co-op after buying it last year to complement his main business, the Wild Meat Company, which specialises in processing and supplying native wild meats around the UK.
“I bought it originally from someone else a year ago. It’s a sideshoot of the Wild Meat Company but I couldn’t see the business growing. I thought it would be better to have a co-operative. The Wild Meat Company would provide the logistics centre and any cutting the members need. It can process and cut and deliver it if need be or pack it off through mail order to the customer through the website,” he explains.
The Wild Meat Company is seasonal, and adding the activity generated by the co-op means that he can keep his butchers busy all year round, adding stability to the business.
It’s up to each co-op member how much or how little they want to use its services, but the idea is that it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. As it happens, there are co-op members who used to be organic, but an organic sales slump due to the recession means they can no longer cover the costs of organic inspection and certification, adds Robert.
“There’s no requirement for a co-op member to go through the Wild Meat Company but it’s one of the benefits because most of the members don’t have that facility.”
For consumers, co-op members believe they can offer something unique and with a true sense of place.
“There’s actually quite an environmental story to it because a lot of this land needs to be grazed or else it turns into scrub,” explains Robert.
“I produce geese as a member of the Co-op so rather a similar story. This is a smallholding - 40 acres under the HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) scheme. It’s managed environmentally and managed to very high welfare standards.
“It’s important to the whole ethos of the co-op that it’s free range very high provenance. We put phone numbers on (the website) so someone can ask how can you look after the animals which I think consumers are getting very interested in.”
Co-op member Sally Grimwood who farms Red Poll beef along with Edward Turner at Aldringham, near Leiston, agrees that there are added benefits which their livestock bring to the countryside.
“It’s the requirement of some of the new environmental payments to have it grazed,” she explains.
She adds: “Marketing is always difficult if you are on your own. It’s a separate job really. Butchers need to be butchers. and farmers need to be farmers.”
Co-op member Chris Mobbs rears turkeys at Cratfield near Halesworth as part of a mixed arable farm and sees the benefit of being part of a larger marketing effort through Red Poll Meats.
“We want an access to the internet sales and I think we are certainly going down the line of more co-operation with local producers,” he says. “None of us are huge. Together we come to a sizeable number. Hopefully that’s giving us an outlet we haven’t got.”
Chris’s latest diversification is rearing guinea fowl, an operation he hopes to expand in the New Year, and undoubtedly, Red Poll Meats can become an outlet for that.
“Being on this side of the county, there are limitations on where we can market. We supply a lot of the east coast and Ipswich area,” he explains.
The formation of the co-op has been carefully thought out. Chris’s wife, Judith, who has knowledge of setting up co-operatives, is the administrative guru, explains Robert.
There’s already a waiting list of prospective co-op members, and interest in it has extended from caterers to consumers.
“There’s a lot of local interest and a lot of interest from the pubs, restaurants and local retail outlets who want us to supply them but we are taking it very slowly,” says Robert.
Keith Southey at Gluepot Farm, Bramfield, near Halesworth runs a small operation rearing free range Saddleback cross pigs and other livestock.
“We just wanted to go into it because we feel on a small scale what we are doing we think the meat is probably worth a premium rather than doing it on a commercial scale,” he explains.
Robert believes the co-op has been able to bring the benefits of scale to local producers without impinging on their independence.
Within the Wild Meat Company, which has a turnover of �400,000, the online business is smaller, but more profitable, as items like delivery costs are add-ons. For co-op members, therefore, it is a useful source of income. They decide their own prices, and how they want to market their products on the website.
“It’s really up to each member to decide how they want to sell it on the site,” says Robert.
For their part, consumers get high quality free range meat grown in Suffolk, wherever they live in the country, direct from the producer.
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The farmer members of the Red Poll Meat Co-operative are:
Edward Turner and Sally Grimwood – supplying Red Poll beef (Aldringham, near Leiston)
Josh Coyne – supplying native breed lamb (Yoxford)
Keith Southey – supplying rare breed pork and free range chickens (Bramfield, near Halesworth)
Chris and Judith Mobbs – supplying turkeys and guinea fowl (Cratfield, near Halesworth)
Paul Denny – supplying wild venison (Blaxhall, near Rendlesham)
Robert Gooch – supplying free range geese (Sweffling, near Framlingham)
Andrew Wells - supplying chicken (Frostenden, near Halesworth)
More detail on each member’s farming system and breeds can be found on the website www.redpollmeats.co.uk.