For Bridget Borlase, one simple philosophy stood out as she gradually diversified the farm’s pedigree Simmental herd and flock of Blue Texel ewes into direct meat sales – never say no when it comes to customers.
She says: “It all started in 2003 when beef prices were depressed and we were looking at what we could do. We started doing farmers’ markets and then began supplying pubs, restaurants and hotels, as well as Budgens and Londis.
“A unique selling point for us against the other suppliers is they cannot offer a quick turnaround. If customers are desperately in need, we will not just say we are closed.”
With the farm situated in Watton- at-Stone, Hertfordshire, well inside the commuter belt of England’s capital, Bridget recognises the advantage their location, between the A1 and A10, gives Bridget B’s Traditional Meats.
Her father Paull points out Canary Wharf on the horizon, easily seen from the fields on a clear day.
“We are only 30 miles north of London Bridge, so we may as well use it,” Bridget adds.
“We now sell to hotels and restaurants right across the North of London.”
But paramount to the success of both the farming and diversification is Bridget’s passion for pedigree livestock.
After working with pedigree herds around the country, she returned to her parents’ farm at 17, equipped with a good foundation of industry knowledge.
It is Bridget’s hard-working ‘never- say-no’ attitude, paired with her knowledge of livestock production, which have driven both the farming and butchery business forward.
“Having specialist knowledge of pedigree livestock is important. I started with a flock of sheep when I was 10 and, as I grew up, I showed calves and started working with bulls for the sales.”
It is this background which breeds another of Bridget’s philosophies: the farm’s herd health is a top priority.
As the size of the meats business grew, Bridget felt the escalating number of beef orders could not be satisfied from the farm itself without compromising herd health.
“We need to protect herd health. We are BVD free and sourcing became a problem, so we now bring in beef which has some of our genetics.
We breed pedigree Simmentals and the gene pool is shrinking dramatically,” she says. The family business works hard to make sure its pedigree stock are continually of the highest quality as the best animals are sold at Stirling bull sales.
The farm buys stock bulls with a known health status, which are then quarantined until their health is verified.
The family also runs an arable unit, with barley, oats and forage maize used to feed livestock.
A focus on quality has been followed through to the meats business, meaning Bridget sources beef, lamb and other meats from close and trusted suppliers in her local area.
“The lamb we currently sell is from a local sheep farmer.”
But this does not mean the business focuses solely on supplying the top-end of food service and retail outlets.
Bridget makes a point of supplying all areas of the trade, which has brought opportunities to offer a greater range of fresh and processed meats.
“We do not just do the topend restaurants.
Our biggest customer is a large farm shop.
They bought their site a couple of years ago and have invested heavily.
They get a lot of people through the door and we are trying to match what their requirements are of us.
“They want us to improve our shelf life and packaging, so we have invested in a new packaging machine and we can now do oven-ready products.”
The business has extended its range of meats, greatly increasing the types of sausages available.
“We do a lot of rabbit and a lot of venison, as well as more sausages.
We have a Polish butcher with a skill for sausages.
We used to make a tonne per month a year ago, and we now do about 3t/month. “We also try to keep a balance between retail and wholesale.”
Many of the animals sourced through the butchery are slaughtered at C. Humphreys and Sons, Fairstead, and a large proportion of the butchery is done on-site at the farm, co-ordinated by head butcher James Hale, Bridget’s partner.
As well as running a farm shop next to the butchery, the business opened another shop in Watton-at-Stone village in June, last year.
“We are really pleased with it,” Bridget says. “Generally, the people in this area are looking for provenance.
Some of them will drive 25 miles each Saturday, coming back every week.”
But it has not always been this way, and Bridget understands the swings in demand for food businesses can often be outside of her control.
“We got going and then we were hit with the 2005 recession.
People did not care where their food came from.
Buying local went out the window and it made us think ‘where do we go now?’ and ‘how do we fight this?’
“The horsemeat scandal has given us a bit of a boost but people do not have as much money in their pockets.
They want to buy local, from people they trust, but there is a level they are only willing to go to.”
Still, the business managed to battle the squeeze on consumer spending, even managing to sustain growth.
As well as a hard-working attitude, a realism toward the industry she supplies is one of Bridget’s most foremost traits and one which has arguably contributed to the success of Bridget B’s Traditional Meats.
“A lot of our competitors alter their prices on a daily and weekly basis,” she says.
“We know we will not be the cheapest, but our customers know our prices will run for eight weeks.”
This continual growth has piled pressure on the farm side of the family’s work, which they have tackled through careful investment into the agriculture operation.
“I spend a lot of time on the farm and, if needed, I go into the butchery and help out in there.
It is not unusual to take a turkey order while out on a combine.”
An investment in calving detection technology has meant the family can spread its time better during calving periods.
“We invested in the Medria calving detection system.
About 20 years ago there was always somebody in the farmyard if cows were calving.
Now there are fewer people on-farm, so I get a text message when one is calving.
It has been a big help for us this year.
“We have also recently moved to a diet feeder and invested in cow sheds.
“We have all cows on one farm in winter and [the investments] make management easy.”
But as well as relieving some of the time constraints, Bridget hopes the investments and a continuing focus on quality will benefit the farm, increasing profitability through the family’s two businesses.
“Something we concentrate on is fertility and the data and reports our vet has for us,” Bridget says.
“We are lucky to work with our vet, it has highlighted a few areas we need to shape up on.
“All our bulls are semen tested. We have bought a couple of highpriced bulls from sales and it is distressing not to have a single calf from them.
We have used EBVs carefully, working steadily to improve them.”
Bridget maintains a strong family ethic with both her businesses.
In the last few weeks, her parents Paull and Judith, moved to a farm in Shropshire for a working retirement and Bridget is in the process of switching the tenancy agreement to her name.
But she is always looking to the future and is currently moving to bring younger family members onto the farm.
She recently bought two Beef Shorthorns and a British Blue for her son and nephew.
The family have begun breeding crosses by putting a Shorthorn bull to one of the herd’s pedigree Simmentals with the hope these can be used by the business, allowing the family to once again source the shop’s beef from the farm.
Bridget is quick to reflect on the success she has enjoyed so far and the help she had from contacts made through extensive livestock showing around the country.
The family often shows stock at the Royal Highland, Royal Welsh and Royal Norfolk shows and Bridget has judged at the Royal Highland, Great Yorkshire, Royal Cornwall and Devon shows.
“They are the shows you can do business at,” Bridget says. “I love showing and we have done it all our lives but we have to justify going.”
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