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Best efforts of growers thwarted by weather

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 30, 2013

Jo Budden with a cottage pie made from organic beef grown on Higher Hacknell Farm. She supplies River Cottage Canteens but no longer sells meat at Exeter farmers' market  Richard Austin

Jo Budden with a cottage pie made from organic beef grown on Higher Hacknell Farm. She supplies River Cottage Canteens but no longer sells meat at Exeter farmers' market Richard Austin

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It has been a mixed year in the fields, dairies, bakeries and butcheries of the Westcountry, where the best efforts of farmers and growers, and those who turn their produce into delicious things to eat, have been undermined by both a difficult economic climate, and that most unpredictable of variables, the weather.

Last year's wet summer was described by South Devon organic vegetable grower Guy Watson as "diabolical" – the worst he'd encountered in 25 years of growing vegetables. It was a sentiment echoed by growers across the region, as rain destroyed produce.

Then the cold spring has meant a late start for crops this year. All of this has meant higher costs, both in feed bills for livestock farmers and the price of wastage for growers.

But the picture is less gloomy in terms of sales, which producers aiming for the quality end of the market report are holding up, despite the recession.

This has been particularly marked for butchers and livestock farmers, benefiting from the "horsegate" scandal at the start of this year, when horsemeat was found in place of beef in supermarket ready meals.

The thought of murky supply chain spanning Europe, via processing plants and factories, to the supermarket shelves has sent disgusted consumers back to the farm down the road they can trust for their mince.

Third generation butcher Mark Etherington, of Brian Etherington Meats at Scorrier near Redruth, has certainly benefited from the scandal.

He sources all his meat from local farms, butchers it on site and then sells it in his farm shop and direct to customers. Business, he says, has been booming.

"We opened our farm shop in November, and with the horsemeat scandal, with the worries about the provenance of meat, sales have gone up and up," he says.

"The wholesale side is very price conscious, so that has been quite hard, but retail is very good because people are supporting local butchers rather than going into the supermarkets. Our sales have increased by 30%."

Ruth Huxley of Cornwall Food and Drink, a European Union-funded organisation promoting the sector, is well-placed to give an overview of how a range of food businesses are faring, from farm to plate. She says it is a mixed picture.

"We have had some enormously successful businesses and others that are really struggling," she says. "Good business sense is important, people who have that are still doing really well."

New convenient ways of buying local food were proving popular.

"Anybody who is trading on the high street is finding it at struggle, but in actual fact some new ways of shopping are doing really well," she says.

"The Cornish Food Box Company has grown enormously in the past year, despite the recession."

Shoppers were inevitably thinking more about purchases, but they were still prepared to pay for quality, says organic livestock farmer Jo Budden, of Higher Hacknell Farm, near Crediton in Mid Devon.

Mrs Budden, who runs the farm with her husband Tim, has also seen sales rise in the wake of "horsegate", particularly of their ready meals made on the farm with their own meat and local organic vegetables, which they sell online.

Because of falling sales, they are no longer selling their meat at Exeter's weekly farmers' market, although Mrs Budden blames this more on the location of the market, which she feels is too far from the centre of town, than the recession.

"In the past year, things like the farmers' markets haven't been going so well but we are supplying things like the River Cottage Canteens in Plymouth and Axminster, so that [catering] market has grown," she says.

"It is a question of being adaptable, of being flexible. You have to make sure you are providing good value, and people understand what they are paying for. Then they stay with you."

As one of the biggest organic box suppliers in the country, Riverford Organics in South Devon is a good indicator of the health of the organic sector as a whole. And, founder Guy Watson reports on a good year, sales wise, after enduring stagnating sales for three years which suggested that shoppers' love affair with organic fruit and vegetables was over.

"The organic market has probably bottomed out after years of declining sales," he says. "Sales have been pretty good – 15% up on last year – so that is quite heartening after three fairly difficult years when things were standing still.

"The challenge, though, has been producing the stuff. Growing it on our own farm we have had a very hard time, and our co-operative suppliers in South Devon have also had a very hard time. I would say we have only harvested 60/70% of what we would hope to. It really has been a disaster, for potatoes in particular, but pretty much across the board. The profits are down because costs are growing."

It has been a positive year at Trewithen Dairies in South East Cornwall, where £11.4million improvements to the processing facilities, funded over four years by the Regional Development Programme of England, have been completed.

Bill Clarke, who runs the company with his wife Rachel and their two sons, said the grant funding had been spent to make efficiency savings, essential in an industry where the prices supermarkets will pay for milk fails to keep pace with rises in production costs.

While some businesses might bemoan, the geographical isolation of the Westcountry, for Trewithen, as a buyer, processor and seller of a perishable product, it is a strength.

The company buys milk from farms in South East Cornwall and supplies milk and cream to households and corner shops, pubs, hotels and cafes across the county, as well as supermarkets. A growing part of its business, though, is supplying processors such as Kellys of Bodmin, who make both milk and cream into ice cream.

"Our business model is different to our competitors," said Mr Clarke. "What we do is we buy milk from farms, and we add value to every part of the milk."

There is certainly no room for complacency in the food and drink sector, agrees John Sheaves, chief executive of Taste of the West, a members organisation which champions Westcountry producers.

He said the wet summer last year had been "disastrous" for small producers with many of the events they rely on to sell their wares cancelled, and that this year's late cold spring had not helped sales either.

The horsemeat scandal had given both livestock farmers and local butchers a boost in sales by around 20% in the past few months.

"The scandal has lifted their sales, and the public's interest in local food again," he said. "I think what 'horsegate' did was knock people's confidence in what they were buying, and that sent them back to individual butchers shops. And I think generally speaking we are seeing an upsurge of interest in local food, the other producers are having a bit of an uplift on the back of that."

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