Leaning against a fence in the sunny South Downs, Shon Sprackling bears no resemblance to the fraught farmers scattering the countryside, or the downtrodden butchers closing up shop on Britain’s high streets. “I know the meat industry is going through a really difficult patch at the moment, but we are having good times,” he says. “We have doubled turnover year-on-year since we started, which is pretty exciting for a business.”
Shon, who set up Rother Valley Organics with his brother Simon in 2004, believes that the secret to their success lies in the fact that they have taken control of every process in the supply chain, from pasture to plate. Control over how their animals are slaughtered, butchered and sold means that the business has not had to compromise on the ethos on which it was founded – supplying fully traceable, organic meat which has been produced and slaughtered ethically and butchered to the highest standards.
It was this ethos that turned Rother Valley Organics from a small mail-order outlet, selling meat from the brothers’ own farm, to a business with its own purpose-built butchery, supplying locally produced organic meat to customers directly – through local shops, at farmers’ markets and to restaurants. In this way, it helps to preserve some of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the South Downs and, at the same time, provides a lifeline for other local farmers. “Initially our aim was just to sell what we produce, which is about 200 cattle a year,” Shon explains. “But we wanted to hang our meat properly to ensure it was of the highest quality and, at the time, hanging facilities were really limited.”
Unwilling to lose control over the cutting and hanging of their meat, the brothers got in touch with the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) for advice. “They told us to build a plant, because the area needed one, so we did,” Shon says. Looking back, he admits that he was fairly naïve in his approach to the venture. “We built the plant before we had any trade, which was a bit risky. We didn’t do nearly enough market research and went on gut instinct, which would have been pretty expensive if we had got it wrong,” he laughs. Luckily, after some initial teething problems, the brothers’ gamble paid off.
With growing demand for organic, ethically produced meat, they soon found their own supply of organic beef was not enough to meet demand. “We had a couple of years of pain, where sales didn’t meet expectations, but the business has turned a corner in the last two to three years,” says Shon. “Now we sell way more than we produce; I buy in from 16 or 17 other farmers and we sell a full variety of organic meat now – not just beef.”
Shon’s roots in farming meant that he had no problems sourcing quality local meat. “I know that some butchers are struggling to get good quality meat, but because, as an organic farmer, you tend to network with other organic farmers, we found that once we set the business up, a lot of farmers gravitated towards us for a market to sell in.”
Part of the ethos of Rother Valley is to ensure that profit is shared down the supply chain, thus maintaining a healthy, consistent supply to the benefit of all involved. Meat from the company is not cheap by any standards, but Shon believes that people are willing to pay for quality, and the profits mean they can afford to pay their farmers a premium. “We are not afraid of making a margin; I don’t want to try and cheapen the product or the service we offer by cutting the margin down to a minuscule level,” he says. “By maintaining a margin, we don’t have to compromise on quality.”
Where possible, the meat sold through Rother Valley Organics is sourced within 20 miles. Shon visits every farm he buys from, so he can guarantee provenance and quality. The animals are slaughtered locally – either at Laverstoke Park in Overton or at Southern Traditional Meats in Henfield. “The organic label and the way we farm are important to us, but for the customer, provenance and trust are the most important things,” says Shon.
Once the animals are killed, they return to Rother Valley’s impressive on-site butchery. “We built the butchery from scratch and it has been up and running for around five years,” says Shon. “The best thing we did was involve the MHS at the planning stage. It was expensive, but it has been perfect and we have had no problems with HACCP regulations, because it was purpose-built to accommodate them all.”
The brothers would like to double the size of their current plant, as high demand means they are running out of space to hang the meat properly. “We are aiming at the top end of the market, so we hang our meat for four or five weeks and trim hard; we are like a traditional butcher’s really,” Shon explains. Rother Valley employs master butchers to ensure the meat is cut and presented to the highest standards. “We are defiant about fat and we insist that, if our customers want flavour, it is a good thing. We set it as a benchmark and it really works,” says Shon.
According to Shon, one of the biggest challenges for the business is finding butchers with the necessary skills and experience. “Butchery is a funny thing, it’s not like selling jam,” he says. “People want to know how to cook the meat, where it has come from, how it is cut. They want the knowledge, they want the theatre and you only get that with experience.“We can find people to operate a knife, but they need to have the knowledge and personality behind it.”
Rother Valley currently has no retail outlet of its own, because the brothers did not want to compete with local butchers and farm shops. Instead, they sell meat direct to customers through their online shop, and at shows and farmers’ markets across the country. The company sells fresh cuts at the shows rather than pre-packed meats and holds butchery demonstrations as a way to draw in the crowds and sell the product.
Shon and Simon are now looking to open up their own butcher’s shop. “We made a conscious decision not to open a shop that would compete with small retailers in the immediate area, but we are looking at quite a big site off the A3,” says Shon.
The company is also expanding its product range, with a fast-growing organic meat pie line and the possibility of working with local sporting estates to open up venison markets. “It is potentially a very good market, because the meat is very lean and the animals are practically wild, so it is close to organic. We have a deer larder in storage, ready to be unpacked, but we want to try and find the sales first,” he says.
Shon believes that, despite recent difficulties, the future is bright for British farmers and butchers, especially those aiming at premium markets, who are willing to demand high prices for good quality produce. “Farming is coming into a good period economically. People are beginning to understand that they need to pay more for food,” he says.“We are in a good position, because we have a unique selling point. There is a lot of change going on in the industry and the message from the bigger players is that they are trying to get some of this market back.”