Future-proofing family farm stops growing arable crops to focus on livestock and butchery business
PUBLISHED: 06:30 20 October 2018 | UPDATED: 06:30 20 October 2018
Copyright: Archant 2018
A fifth-generation Norfolk farming family is ditching arable production to refocus on its core livestock and butchery business - a decision aimed at insulating the firm against Brexit and market volatility.
David Barnard runs DJ Barnard, at Mill House Farm in Shropham, near Attleborough, in partnership with his wife Rosie and parents John and Joan.
The business was founded in 1997, and since 2002 it has been a mixed operation growing arable crops as well as fodder for the beef cattle and sheep which supply meat to the family’s butchery counter and shop.
But this summer was the first which didn’t include a cereals harvest. The family has decided to convert all its arable land to grass, centralising the livestock operation on the family’s own land. Of the farm’s 85 acres, about 30 are still growing fodder beet for the animals, but there are plans to convert this to pasture too, and “outsource” the fodder crops from rented land.
As part of this restructure, £150,000 has been invested in a new livestock shed for winter cattle housing and spring lambing, removing the reliance on rented buildings elsewhere.
All of this adds to the story of fully-traceable, high-quality local meat, told to customers via the butchers’ counter, farmers’ markets and cookery demonstrations.
But Mr Barnard, an agricultural economics graduate, said the key rationale was to bring all input costs within the control of the farm, to focus on a core product to which it can add retail value – and to leave behind the volatile arable component whose profits were at the mercy of world markets.
“Having an economics background, I like to price everything and know what we earn from each acre and each animal,” he said. “To invest a lot of money to grow cereals and to not make any profit did not make any sense.
“So we have tried to reinvest in going back to our roots as a specialist beef and lamb producer and we know exactly what we are going to get as a return. We are in control of our own destiny and selling products we know we can do well with.
“We are no longer planting crops in March and relying on world markets to tell us what we will earn from them in August.
“As long as we can keep the retail prices within the constant small margin, we are insulated against outside factors, which is where we want to be. “There is no point having the best beef in Norfolk to sell if the barley is losing money and taking your profits away.
“The actual farmgate cost to the consumer is not going to change to the point where it will affect our returns. But the price of wheat could be £160 per tonne or £50. Unless you are one of the big farms, you have got to find a way to make a money where you are not relying on the world markets.”
Mr Barnard said the investment in the new cattle shed was a show of faith in the long-term future of the family’s re-focused livestock operation, which he believes is also insulated against the potential impacts of Brexit, as the farm is not reliant on a large EU subsidy cheque.
“We have been pretty much subsidy-free since I started,” he said. “I think our subsidy cheque would be small change to most people around here.
“We have not been relying on subsidies for the last 20 years to keep the business up, so we are not going to be in a situation where if something changes it is not there to support the business.
“We have got to see the opportunities of Brexit. No-one knows what they will be. We have not entered into many environmental schemes because we were small-scale arable. But there might be more schemes for us to go into when they are announced, that would sit well with what we want to do.”
COMMUNITY AND EDUCATION
The Barnard family also aims to communicate its message of “local food” provenance across its community.
Each week they speak to customers at farmers’ markets throughout Norfolk and Suffolk, and the farm supplies discounted meat on a sale or return basis to a nearby community shop, giving them guaranteed profits for village funds.
The family also undertakes regular workshops and cooking demonstrations with Norfolk chefs to educate the public about “nose to tail” eating.
Mrs Barnard, who is a qualified occupational therapist and also worked as a teaching assistant, said: “We are both from backgrounds where we want to teach people about what we do.
“We did a harvest display for the local church with the sheep and lambs because we put so much time and effort and care into what we do with the animals. We want people to understand that it is good quality because it is not mass produced.”
ABOUT THE FARM
• The 50-strong suckler herd of Simmental and British Blue cows are bred with carefully-selected bulls to produce high quality meat for the shop, as well as replacement breeding heifers.
• There is also a flock of 150 Berrichon and Beltex sheep.
• The animals graze on lowland pastures and in winter they are fed on a ration grown by the farm which include haylage, fodder beet, turnips, swede and kale.
• The business is exploring turning over some land to low input forage such as lucerne to add protein to the feed.
• The farm has been a member of Red Tractor assurance scheme since to 2005 and adheres to strict animal welfare policy.