Tough markets and a unique location gave Andrew Hodgson the motivation to build his very own on-farm processing plant. Alex Black meets him to find out how the development has helped the farm business.
Moving away from the commodity markets to supplying a high-end niche product has inspired Isle of Wight farmer Andrew Hodgson to open his own meat plant on-farm.
And just six months after first discussing the idea, the plant was up and running, opening last May.
Becoming a primary producer and a wholesaler has been an ambition of Andrew’s since his move to the Isle of Wight 33 years ago, but the business had previously been built around supermarket contracts.
In 1986, his father sold a contracting business in Sussex and bought Cheverton Farm on the Isle of Wight.
Andrew says: “My dad needed some help and I said I would stay for a year, but I’m not staying any longer.
“But I love being on the Isle of Wight. It’s a difficult place to run a business from, because of the logistics of being off mainland Britain, but it is a beautiful place.”
Across 295 hectares (730 acres), the farm runs 2,000 breeding ewes, 500 Friesian bulls with some continental dairy-bred heifers on contract and 40 ha (100 acres) of spring barley.
He took on a tenancy from his father before taking over the farm when he retired, farming in partnership with his wife, Claudia, who also runs the holiday cottages on-site and handles the social media. Eldest son Jack also works on-farm, pushing Andrew to modernise the business.
Following the closure of a wholesaler on the Isle of Wight the family supplied with beef and lamb, Andrew made the decision to open his own facility.
He says: “It is something I first thought about doing when I moved to the Isle of Wight years ago. It’s taken me this long to focus on it and do it.”
Within six months of first discussing the idea, they had built an on-farm butchery and maturation plant, designed to process 15 cattle and 60 lambs per fortnight.
He says: “The plant we put in is fairly high spec. It’s a dry aging plant with Himalayan salt. It was where the market was going. It wasn’t what mass producers were doing, but what was being talked about on that high end.”
He added that to be successful, he needed to be hitting the top end of the market.
He says: “It became very clear to me a number of years ago when visiting South America, New Zealand and such places, that I could never be a price competitor.
“But I’m much closer to the market now and there’s a small niche right at the top end that those very big efficient producers in other countries cannot target.”
Environmental concerns and even the vegan movement seemed to be working in Andrew’s favour, with consumers seeking out premium, high quality products such as his.
He says: “One of our straplines on advertising is ‘eat less, eat better’ and I think that’s what’s happening to the meat market.”
Costs were always going to be higher due to the farm’s location, but it is also an advantage, using their regional story as a marketing tool, which Andrew says does not really benefit them if supplying to supermarkets.
He says: “If I am supplying a regional product, I have the best region in the country, the only region in England where our boundary is defined by water all around.”
And the Isle of Wight brand has been built up by other producers too, all who have created a reputation for high quality produce.
He says: “Tomatoes, cheese, asparagus and garlic are all marketed off the back of being Isle of Wight products. I think we can do the same with meat.”
And although the family was looking to supply the market on the island, Andrew expected most of the product would end up on the mainland.
He also concentrates on food miles, growing most of the feed on-farm and using island-grown protein as much as possible. It was previously imported from the mainland.
He says: “It’s an environmental benefit and a cost benefit as well.”
On the arable side of the business, they grow about 809ha (2,000 acres) of cropped land which included owned land, rented land, share farming and contract farming. But farming on the Isle of Wight has also brought challenges.
Andrew says: “My own cereals are mainly for feed. If there’s a good malting barley premium, I will sell quality malting barley and maybe buy-in feed quality.
“We have to be very good at logistics. It’s an expensive place to farm.”
He added there was also strong competition for land due to there being a finite amount.
He says: “It’s the same with the market; it’s very limited, so most produce from island farms goes off the island.
“If it’s cereals which can go off in a ship, it’s an advantage because of our distance to port.
“If it has to go off on a lorry, the cost of haulage kills that trade. To counter that, a group of farmers built an anaerobic digestion plant to create a market for break crops.”
Live markets are ruled out, as it is a day trip to get to a market, so all stock is bought privately and sold deadweight.
He says: “We have to make sure lorries are full because of the haulage.
“I think there’s more interest now in trying to get a low input abattoir on the Isle of Wight. But there’s a limited market and fewer livestock.”
Andrew is also keen on collaboration with other farmers, adding that the fragmented, individual setup suited buyers more than producers.
He says: “I have always thought it was a weakness of farming that we were all individuals. I think if we could collaborate, we would be much stronger.
“Most produce going through will be my own, but I don’t want it to be exclusively my own.
“As long as the stock we’re producing is produced to the same high spec, I want to collaborate with others.
“I could farm the whole of the Isle of Wight on my own and I would still be a very small fish in a big pond.”
When Andrew invested in their plant, it was not a case of just adding value, but deciding if they wanted to carry on in beef and lamb production, they needed to improve their marketing considering how the agricultural market has changed in his lifetime.
In 1986 he says it ‘was all about stocking units per acre’, and what they are producing still has the same value, but the cost of producing has ‘gone up about six-fold’.
He says: “The world population was expanding, and we were not going to produce enough food. One generation later our main focus is now on the environment.”
Andrew acknowledges that there has been a change in the way farmland is viewed too, with the emphasis now on environmental factors and diversification opportunities.
Cheverton Farm now also hosts a pheasant shoot, holiday cottages and a mountain bike track.
He says: “There is very little value now put into the actual farming down here, because it is marginal land. We diversify where we can, because that is essential income.”
Looking forward, Brexit has been affecting them negatively for the past 24 months with the price of beef and lamb and the value of the pound.
He says: “It is inevitable now. We just have to get through it. I hope we can stay in business to see through it, but undoubtedly some opportunities will arise.”