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Norfolk Farming Conference 2018: How Norfolk’s farms are seizing market opportunities

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The "next generation" speakers at the 2018 Norfolk Farming Conference. From left, Charlie Crotty, Lucy McVeigh, Will de Feyter, and Emily McVeigh. Picture: Keiron Tovell.

� Keiron Tovell Photography 2018

The Norfolk Farming Conference’s 2018 theme of maximising market opportunities was explored by businesses ranging from major household names to the next generation of young entrepreneurs.

At one end of the scale was fast food giant McDonald’s, whose director Connor McVeigh said farmers wanting to become part of a supply chain with a UK buying power of £1.1bn needed to play their part in meeting the needs of a consumer who is increasingly demanding about environmental and animal welfare standards.

He highlighted examples including Fakenham pig farmer Robert Battersby, whose investment in new farrowing huts and animal health had seen piglet mortality drop by 20pc and earned him the title of McDonald’s Outstanding Farmer of the Year 2017.

He also celebrated the long-standing partnership with potato supplier the Elveden Estate – a Flagship Farm for the restaurant chain – which was one of the collaborations praised by farming minister George Eustice in his earlier address.

A Norfolk business with a similar growth trajectory is Banham Poultry. Specialist business consultant Malcolm Steven, who works with the firm, said it has recently passed the production milestone of one million birds per week, taking advantage of consumer trends and the global growth in chicken consumption, which has now surpassed pork as the world’s most-consumed meat.

Despite having more than 1,000 staff and an anticipated turnover of £130m for the year ending March 2018, he said it was still an important selling point to be a family-run business. “Because it is still a family business, we feel we can give that point of difference,” he said. “There are not many major poultry companies where you can ask for the owner, and they will pick up the phone to you.”

The conference’s “next generation” session explored how young farmers and new entrants were seizing opportunities in their sectors.

Among them were Will de Feyter, who said he chose to move away from his family’s arable roots in north Norfolk to become a stockman, and now breeds sheep and finishes pigs. His advice was to be prepared to make mistakes, to engage with your customer and to avoid “falling into the trap” of being product-orientated rather than market-orientated – a realisation that took him down the road of direct marketing and selling meat directly to the public.

“I found that educating the public and engaging with them is very rewarding,” he said. “A lot of our customers want to know where their food comes from. “My next project is a lambing day, which will be free entry. Whether I get 20 people or 200 they will leave knowing the food they eat is produced in safe hands. I want that long-term gain rather than a few pounds in the short-term. If we do more and more of this we will have the public on our side.”

Charlie Crotty, a director of Evolution Farming, which specialises in dairy farm management, said he is in the process of setting up a new 500-cow dairy unit at Houghton in west Norfolk.

He said the company’s “keys to success” included building strong relationships and keeping close control on costs and spending – including a strategy of expanding and buying cows during the recent downturn in the dairy sector, to create enough scale to reduce debt on the upturn.

“We try to keep it very simple,” he said. “Our dairy farms are not the flashiest in the world, we run a simple system that relies on forage rather than imported feed. We grow as much grass as we can and we try to manage it for quality. We have healthy cows with moderate output – we don’t need loads of milk because we have close control of our costs.”

The session was completed with Emily and Lucy McVeigh from the Kenton Hall Estate in Suffolk, who have taken many opportunities to diversify the traditional arable and Longhorn cattle operation, including a wedding venue, glamping, and a “food hub” and cookery school.

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