Customer-centric operation proves it is good to listen

The old cliché: 'The customer is always right' is proving to be a successful strategy for James and Virginia Lamb at Conder Green Farm Shop near Lancaster.

It has helped their farm shop become a kind of 'alternative to the alternatives' in that the beef, pork and lamb sold at the shop is not typical of the new trend in meat retailing where meat is sourced from rare or traditional breeds or even reared on a slow-growing regime.

Lancastrians have never been slow to make their feelings clear about exactly what it is they want in terms of fresh, lean beef. So, when the Lambs proposed the idea of a shop, friends and trade acquaintances were quick to suggest Aberdeen Angus, Hereford or Limousin as the way forward. James wanted to be different and suggested large, lean but tender beef, hung for three weeks with little waste - and customers agreed with him.

When the shop opened, James and Virginia kept around 120 suckler cows and had to market the surplus calves for "little or no money". As soon as the customers had made their demands known they were able to clear out these cows and look at calves or stores to closely match, not only the type of beef for the shop, but the numbers sold. Today, there are around 30 Belgian Blues grazing at any one time, supplying the business with about four bodies of beef a month.

The beef from these lean Belgian Blue crosses which are occasionally, pure-bred and reared to 20-months, produces large bodies of beef. In the past, due to the two-part payment of suckled beef subsidy, they sometimes weighed as much as 650kg. Following a change from subsidy per head to subsidy per acre under the Single Farm Payment [SFP], production now centres mainly around the heifer to curb the enormous growth rate of the Blues which, in the past, had to be cut into six rather than quarters for transport, cutting and boning.

James now aims for a 540kg body of beef as a maximum which are mainly Belgian Blues crossed with British Friesian providing both size and leanness. The large cuts are divided into fresh and vacuumed packs. Many customers want unwrapped fresh cuts to take home, so these cuts are made first. The remainder - large topside or silverside - is vacuumed packed for farmers' markets.

Lambs are produced using Texel rams put on Texel cross Mules. These are reared to 43kg live weight producing good conformation and a carcase weighing in at about 20kg. Split lambing has recently been introduced to improve the supply as the hoggets tend to be a little too big for main trade. Tupping has also been programmed so that half the flock lambs in February and the other half in April providing the the shop and its markets with the 240 lambs it needs annually.

The pork fits the modern image of traditional meat in that the 12 sows are of mixed breeds including Large White, Saddleback and Gloucester Old Spot and, in contrast to the beef production, where once weaners were brought in to reared, they now breed their own, albeit starting from a slight accident when a litter was produced unintentionally. The mixture of breeds and sizes work well producing joints, sausages and bacon that are in demand.

Moreover the quality is as good as that produced elsewhere. This was confirmed when the Lambs walked away with the top prize for 'Best Dry Cured Bacon' at this year's North West Fine Foods event.

Conder Green Farm lies tucked away close to the river Lune, south of Lancaster. It does not look like the ideal position for a shop but the A588 Blackpool to Lancaster road passes the farm gate bringing with it much of the shop's trade. A nearby picnic area also brings in extra business during the summer and a time-share leisure complex not far away also produces some mail order business.

The Lambs are extending the cutting and boning unit to make more room for the increase in business, which over the past 12 months, has been the best ever, according to James. Butcher Phil Senior is helped by part-timers and there are two ladies who help with the packing for the farmers' markets. James has a chiller van and trailer to carry the meat and two, one and half metre chiller displays, to the markets. This year, he says, he intends to do more agricultural and food show.

While the farm shop is a success in its own right, perhaps the greater success is that James and Virginia are still farming on their 94 acres holding despite predictions that all such small family farms will disappear following the change in EU subsidy laws focusing on acreage rather than production.

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