How Tesco's mistake helped small farmers

As the UK celebrates its first ever National Hamburger Day this week, Hertfordshire-based Foxholes Farm is still benefiting from the horse-meat scandal, which affected major supermarkets like Tesco and Asda, six months after it hit the headlines.

The third generation 1,000 acre farm near Hertford, which has a beef suckler herd, rare-breed pigs and chickens and produces its own beef, has seen turnover jump by nearly 40% since February.

“It hit us with a bang,” admitted Catherine Smith who runs the farm shop operation alongside her father Colin who runs the farm.

“We had a really good February and so did other people we know. A few of them said it would only last a week. I can hand on heart say that we’ve kept every customer. Turnover has increased by 37%. We’re really chuffed.”

Smith reckons the secret of her success is offering customers “value for money”. “Everyone has to eat, but they’re buying with their pockets not their eyes,” she said. “They thought it was more expensive to buy from us rather than the supermarket and realised it isn’t, and that you know where the meat comes from.”

Concerns fuelled by the shock revelations from the horse-meat scandal which led Tesco to print a full-page newspaper advert apologising for the horse-meat in their burgers and other supermarkets, including Asda and Co-op, to withdraw products, are still leading customers to question where their meat comes from.

Foxholes, which breeds its own cattle and also slaughters them and butchers the meat on the farm premises, is taking full marketing advantage of this with local advertising billboards alongside the nearby A414 which read: “Who’s mincing your meat?"

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“People are looking at food labels more and we get asked more questions,” said Smith who, as well as selling steaks and beef joints, also cures and cooks her own gammons, hams and bacons in the farm shop kitchen.

“They’d rather have full traceability. If they can’t afford a lot of meat, they’re having a little rather than a lot. It’s better to have a little of good quality meat than to have a lot of [poor quality meat].

Unsurprisingly, barbecue favourites are flying off the shelves. “Sausages and burgers have done very well,” said Smith. “Mince is another good one for us – it just holds its own.” Getting the balance right can be difficult as some cuts of meat sell better than others.

The farm has been in the Smith family since the 1960s and was previously a dairy operation. “When I had kids I found I couldn’t do the early mornings anymore,” Smith recalled.

“In 1998 we started selling beef from the farmhouse and I found that I could do that while the children were small. We did that for ten years. Then I realised that there was the demand for a shop.”

They opened the farm shop in 2007, just months before the credit crunch hit. “We had about six months before the recession really kicked in,” said Smith.

“We were lucky we had that and we gradually filled the shop [with customers]. We did struggle in 2008 and 2009 though – it was very slow. A lot of our customers worked in London and lost their jobs.”

The business survived through belt tightening and opening just five days a week. Now it is open seven days a week.  “We have the same overheads, the same electricity bill,” said Smith. “I spread the staff out over the week.”

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Based in Hertford, the farm shop also attracts clientele from nearby towns such as Harlow, Loughton, Bishop Stortford and St Albans where staff regularly attend a farmers’ market. “The farmers’ markets were important to us to begin with, but not so much now,” Smith said. “We attend nine a month, but the shop is growing.”

Customers and their children can also visit many of the animals on the farm, including its Aberdeen Angus, Hereford and Simmenthal cattle and rare-breed pigs. “We’ve got 60 mums and they have a calf a year, so we have 180 to 200 animals,” said Smith.

“We like to try different breeds – it’s interesting doing both the butchery and raising the cattle. When we started out, we didn’t have our own pigs besides the girls’ pets. Now we have a couple of hundred pigs on the farm and these go through the shop and customers can see the litters. We’ve also got our own chickens and soon we’re getting our own ducks. There are also the pet lambs, although we don’t have a flock.”

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While the farm is no longer registered organic, it does incorporate some organic principles. “We changed over to being organic, but when we came to the point of selling the meat we had to go to an organically-registered abattoir and butcher and the closest were in South Devon,” Smith recalled.

“It wasn’t economically viable.” Now the farm incorporates good practices from organic farming, such as spreading its own muck, using as few drugs as possible and growing its own animal feed.

Foxholes Farm is currently trying to get planning permission for an onsite coffee shop to showcase its products after having its initial application turned down by the local council. Meanwhile, Smith thinks gaining her customers’ trust is key to the operation’s continued success.

“I think they believe us – they trust us,” she said. “They can see the animals and they can get tips on recipes and different cuts of meat. They feel like they’re buying into the countryside.”