New entrant Sophie Arlott has a business focus which is all about flavour. Starting from scratch, she has developed a premium brand which places rare native breeds at the centre of her marketing. Marie Claire Kidd finds out more about Lavinton Lamb.
In just five years, Sophie Arlott has gone from novice shepherdess to supplying lamb to Harrods Food Hall and some of the country’s most prominent chefs.
She scooped the silver New Entrant Award at the British Farming Awards in October 2015, after having already grown her hobby into a commercial flock of 200 ewes, and was supplying six Michelin-starred restaurants.
Lavinton Lamb has been championed by Marcus Wareing, Alain Roux and Sat Bains and has appeared on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen.
Most recently, its shoulder of Hebridean cross lamb gained a three-star Great Taste Award, one of only 141 products to achieve the honour this year. But Sophie has even bigger ideas.
As a first generation farmer, Sophie has both enjoyed and endured a steep learning curve as her business has grown.
Rearing rare and native sheep in the small Lincolnshire village of Lenton, known historically as Lavinton, she has dealt with disease, extreme weather and a catalogue of business challenges.
One winter she nearly lost all her flock to snow, recovering with the help of a local farmer who offered her his sheds.
She says: “It started out as a sort of hobby, with a small flock of pedigree Southdowns.
“My business really began when cooking for family in 2010.
“I had one leg of Southdown lamb left, so I went to the butchers to buy another. After tasting the two types of lamb, I decided all lamb should taste as wonderful as the Southdown.
“I have honed my skills in the past few years. I look after my sheep on my own, taking them to a family abattoir which uses traditional, hands-on methods.
“I knocked on chefs’ doors and spent a lot of time working at Melton Mowbray market, gaining experience and learning about sheep.
“The point was to focus on quality rather than price, so I searched for those who were on the same wavelength.”
A year ago, Sophie’s flock comprised 200 ewes, including Southdown, Hebridean, Lleyn, Cheviot and Romney ewes.
Her signature meat was from her Southdown and Hebridean crosses.
She says: “The rich deep flavour of the Hebridean, coupled with the sweet Southdown, produces an unparalleled texture and taste. A leg feeds four. It is smaller in size, but makes up for it in flavour.”
While her lamb offers a clear premium, Sophie has been focusing on how to upscale her business and increase efficiency.
Her business is complicated by the fact she farms across several sites and does not own most of the land she uses.
Her home farm, Old Manor Farm, stretches to just 2.4 hectares (six acres), so she occupies a further 13 sites.
Sophie says: “I need to ensure I have enough land and manage day-to-day tasks on my own. Having 13 sites takes a lot of moving things around and juggling things. It is quite challenging.”
Her solution is to create a larger flock and outsource the rearing and finishing of lambs to local farmers, who follow strict specifications. This, she hopes, will give her more time to concentrate on breeding and marketing.
“I definitely want to expand,” she explains. “But I do not have the infrastructure to do it, as I do not have the buildings.
“I think outsourcing is the most efficient way of doing it. Southdowns finish off grass – they are famous for doing this.”
She is also developing her own unique Lavinton cross hybrid. This key part of her efficiency drive will enable her to maintain her focus on flavour, while realising faster finishing times and a larger carcase size.
She says: “I am developing my own cross which I want to be synonymous with great taste and unique flavour. I aim to get all the good flavours of the natives, with a better size and quicker finish.”
Performance-recording sheep to increase value within the commercial market, she is combining the rich flavour of the Hebridean and the sweetness of the Southdown with a secret British native breed with a bigger size and quicker maturation rate.
Sophie explains: “The frame of the Hebridean is a little small and they are slow to finish. Usually, we slaughter them at 18 months.
“By the time they have matured, you have missed the spring/summer market, which is my main season.
“After this, restaurants concentrate on game and often are not interested in lamb until you get hogget in January.
“I love the taste of the Hebredian. It is a fantastically favoured, rich meat, while Southdown is sweet tasting and has some marbling.
“There is a bit of fat which gives flavour. People are beginning to appreciate this more now.”
Sophie is looking for other farmers, particularly young people, who might be interested in getting involved.
“Some people are surprised at the benefits of farming native breeds and can be impressed with the results.
“I am trialling outsourcing the rearing of lambs to a local cattle farmer who will rear them to my specification – high-welfare, grass-fed and using my breeding stock.
“I am going to concentrate on producing the breeding stock.”
Sophie is using her story to continue securing contracts with Michelin star restaurants and building on the reputation she now has by direct selling. She is also keen to expand her base to ensure she can utilise the full animal.
She says: “Selling all the bits of the animal can be difficult, because if I am selling to chefs direct, they might only want a certain cut, which leaves me with many more cuts to sell on.
“I try to sell everything before I kill it. I have found fine food fairs very useful for that. I sell two types of sausages, Mergez and Moroccan, as well as burgers, leg steaks and joints.
“If I have a run on saddles, I can put shoulders and legs into sausages. I put a lot of hard work into selling the other bits.
“People want straightforward things, such as sausages and burgers, and they need education when it comes to anything they have not heard of. I aim to get £200/lamb.”
Meat is hung for two weeks, which reduces its weight considerably.
Sophie says: “You get a lot of shrinkage, but the flavour is so much better. If chefs don’t like it, they will not buy it, because their reputation is on the line.
“When I get good feedback from them, I think I must be doing something right.”
She has begun selling products through online food companies, starting with web retailer Farm Shop Larder, and also sells through her own website and by word-of-mouth.
“I love it what I do. I am not from a farming family, but I have grown up in the country and always loved it.
“I am always learning and I never stop. It is the best job in the world.”
Sophie’s mission is to produce lamb for flavour, not size, but she is also pushing for efficiency.
Until now, her signature cross has been the Southdown cross Hebridean, which she says offers a balanced mix of sweet, rich and complex flavours, but it was small and slow to finish.
She is now in the process of developing a commercially viable cross with a larger carcase size and a quicker finishing speed, using only native breeds.
She says: “We have some of the best native breeds in the world, so it is not necessary to compromise on flavour.
“It takes 18 months for lambs to get to breeding age, and this process involves two rounds of breeding.
“My aim is to produce the best tasting lamb I can and these are the best tasting lambs. I want lots of these. This is what I want to be known for.”
Last year, Sophie bred 40 ewe lambs from Hebrideans and a secret native breed. They will go to her Southdown ram in autumn next year, leading to production of the first Lavinton lambs in spring 2018.
She crossed all 150 of her Hebridean ewes with the secret ram this autumn, including an extra 75 she bought as part of the business plan.
With an expected lambing rate of about 165 per cent, she anticipates 225 ewe lambs will be born next year.
These will go to the Southdown ram in autumn 2018 to produce more Lavinton crosses in spring 2019.
Sophie will lamb all breeding ewes herself and will outsource rearing and finishing of many lambs to local farmers.