Fergus Howie and his family have found high-value markets in Asia and the Middle East to export their pork products to, helping to grow their business.
When the Howie family first displayed their wares at a Hong Kong trade show, they were surprised their local farmers’ market leaflets and branding were exactly what foreign buyers were looking for.
Fergus Howie, who runs the farm’s export business, says: “Real produce from real people is what the export market wants. I don’t think it matters where you are in the world.
“Generally, people with disposable incomes near China don’t trust Chinese food products, so they look to Australia and other Western countries and increasingly the UK,” he explains.
Wicks Manor, a family-run pig, arable and contracting business in Essex, has 250 sows and produces about 100-110 pigs a week, all butchered on-farm. The family also buys-in 100 pigs a week from other British farms.
They first exported their pork products through Waitrose to the Middle East in 2011. But things grew rapidly and the family now exports its sausages, bacon and burgers to local retailers and distributors in Hong Kong, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei, and is working on Turkey, Vietnam and the Philippines.
A quarter of Wicks Manor pork is exported, with the rest going into UK retail and the food service sector. The family now employs 45 people to keep up with everything.
After first exporting with Waitrose, Fergus and his family realised ex-pats offered an opportunity.
“Ex-pats want to buy premium and British and are happy to pay up for a product with a story board,” says Fergus.
The family looked for a British ex-pat community with disposable income and took a trade stand at a fair in Hong Kong.
“It was a bit like going fishing,” says Fergus. “You dropped your hook and waited to see what you got.”
They met Gavin and Carmen Cheung, of Golden Pig, a company which buys premium pigmeat for high-end hotels and clubs. The Howies have now been supplying the company since 2013 and Hong Kong has become one of their biggest export markets.
Exporting has been a big learning curve, with everything learnt on the job, says Fergus.
“Everything sounds great, but it’s a lot of hard work,” he says. Things can go wrong too, such as products getting caught at sea if countries suddenly change their entry rules.
Factoring in all the additional costs is also critical.
“There’s nothing worse than sending something half-way around the world only to realise it was for nothing,” says Fergus.
Exporting has been important for the farm though.
“It’s helped us grow the business,” says Fergus.
“The UK market is very competitive, so exports have added security because we have a larger customer base and it allows us to spread the work out and plan ahead more.”
Gavin Cheung, head of business development, Golden Pig, says: “There is opportunity for good quality British meat in Hong Kong in regards to animal welfare, sustainability and traceability.
“Currently in the Hong Kong market, people are becoming more aware and want to know which farm their food comes from, what is special about this farm and its history.
“Part of our philosophy is to work with farmers and producers who we can build long-term relationships with.”
Shape Your Farming Future is a series of informative and practical guides looking in-depth at issues pertinent to farmers when planning for the future.