One Sussex estate remains firmly committed to rare and native breed sheep and beef sold direct to the consumer, but diversifying and introducing a commercial flock has proved essential to ensure the business’s long-term survival, as Aly Balsom reports.
At a time when many farms are embracing technology and intensifying, Butterbox Farm has chosen to stubbornly stick to traditional methods.
A firm commitment to native and rare breed sheep and cattle reared on the predominantly permanent pasture of the Mason Estate, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, gives them an edge when it comes to marketing meat, which is mostly sold in boxes out of a medieval barn on the grounds.
Farm manager Peter Froggatt explains: “It’s not about numbers and scaling up massively. It’s low intensity, using traditional methods and breeds.”
It’s a strategy which proves popular with their 300-strong customer base who return time and time again, attracted to the distinct flavours of Dexter beef and Portland lamb and, more importantly, the story behind where it comes from.
“We try and promote what we do, how local it is and the fact the animals are grass-fed. We’ve got nothing to hide so if they want to come and see us, they can,” says Peter.
“Thankfully the box scheme fits reasonably well, as more people want to know where their meat is from and buy locally to support their local community.”
Peter’s enthusiasm and commitment to the estate and its traditional values is one shared by owner Pat Garratt, whose family has owned The Mason Estate for nearly 100 years.
It was her mother, Claire Bowyer, who brought the estate’s five farms after World War II. At the time, Sussex and Blue Greys were the prominent breeds but as Claire approached retirement she chose to set up a pony stud and moved away from farming. The farm subsequently fell into disrepair until Pat and her late husband, John, returned in 2000. Although at retirement age, Pat says taking it easy simply wasn’t an option.
Pat says: “We were both over 65 when we came down, so we weren’t exactly youthful. The farm was in a terrible mess. The fencing was terrible and we tried to really turn the farm around. We didn’t have much machinery then, but we had a good constitution, which was a good start.”
With half of the estate unusable, Pat and John worked tirelessly to nurse it back to its former glory, clearing hedges which hadn’t been cut in 40 years and alders which were growing in the middle of fields. It’s an effort that continues to this day.
Peter and the team are working hard to improve grassland, placing attention on the rough grazing which makes up 25 prt vrny of the 90 hectares (220 acres) of grassland. About 10 per cent of the farm is reseeded annually.
Maximising production from forage underpins the ethos of the farm system, with concentrate only fed to ewes bearing multiples at lambing and none fed to cattle or fattening lambs. The business also adopts organic principles.
Peter says: “We’re a grass, forage-based system. Even if we improve a few pastures and reseed, we’re reseeding with permanent pasture as we’re not after the highest yields. We want to work with the environment and not be reliant on chemicals.”
Peter believes the native breeds are ideal for such a system type and are well adapted to grazing the poorer pasture. The small Dexter cow is particularly suited to the estate’s heavy clay ground.
It was Pat and John who introduced the Dexters. Having lived on a two-hectare (six-acre) smallholding in Yorkshire, the breed had suited their limited acreage.
The model of selling beef to local people also worked well when they lived in the north so when the pair moved to Sussex, the cows came with them, as did the sales model.
Having been interested in keeping Portland sheep for some time, Pat was also quick to introduce the breed to the estate.
She says: “They’re just a rather appealing type of sheep and they’re fun to keep. They’re really easy to keep and not much bother and we wanted to help a rare breed.”
Their rarity makes sourcing genetics a challenge, however the farm is able to hire in rams from nearby breeders Helen and Louise Butler.
Peter admits the Portlands are far from a money-making enterprise.
He says: “You won’t make a profit off Portlands. They’re quite a small animal. The adult female is 40-45kg and they only have one lamb and take 18 months to mature.”
In fact when Peter joined the business in 2008, the farm was actually losing money. As a result, he was tasked with making a profit, or at least breaking even.
With this in mind he introduced a commercial flock of New Zealand Romneys, which would make better use of the grass, while avoiding poaching. Today, the flock is made up of 300 ewes and most lambs produced are sold through Hailsham livestock market, with about 15 per cent going through the boxes.
Peter has also introduced a flock of 30 Charollais ewes to produce a terminal to help improve conformation and lamb price at market.
“A Charollais cross over a straight Romney will probably return another £4 a head on average per lamb,” he says.
Charollais tups will also be sold through Dolphin Fair, while females will be kept as replacements.
Fitting with its location, the farm also has a 50-cow herd of Sussex cattle. These numbers have gradually reduced as Dexters have increased, with Sussex calves sold as stores. Peter says this is largely due to the time required to process meat for boxes.
“It’s partly a time factor, but also a customer factor. The Dexter has to be sold via boxes, but the Sussex are easier to sell through market,” he explains.
Most of the Dexter beef goes through the box scheme and Peter believes customers are sold on the quality of meat, which he describes as well-marbled and beefy in flavour. It is this which makes it attractive to several restaurants which buy Butterbox Dexter beef.
Having a variety of different breeds also ensures an almost year-round supply of beef and lamb.
“We want a good customer base and loyalty, with customers coming back year after year, so we need something all year,” he says.
He admits the farm side of the business is not a huge money maker.
“It just about pays for itself and makes a small profit,” he says.
But the farm team place greater emphasis on animal welfare than income.
“Welfare has always been paramount here, more than profit. We’re very close to our animals and strongly believe if we do them well, they’ll do us well.
“When we have an animal ailing in some form or other, the last thing we think about is how much it costs, they’re individual to us.”
However, in terms of future plans, the pair believe diversifying will help shield them from potential challenges. The business has various arms, including a livery yard and a fishing lake in addition to the livestock.
Peter adds: “Diversifying is very important for the estate and it’s becoming increasingly so with the uncertainty of Brexit. You mustn’t have all your eggs in one basket. Be reasonably shrewd and stay ahead of the game. We need to promote our old fashioned and traditional ways. That’s what sets us apart.”
The team at Butterbox are constantly thinking about what the consumer wants and adapting their offering to suit.
Having largely relied on quarter carcase Dexter beef boxes, four years ago they decided to introduce a smaller, 10kg box. This now makes up 60 per cent of their beef sales.
Peter explains: “People’s shopping habits have changed. Not everyone has a chest freezer and a 10kg box fits well in a standard freezer.”
The smaller boxes include a mix of cuts, including steaks, mince and stewing beef. These retail at £12/kg versus £11/kg for the quarter carcases. They have also just introduced 5kg mixed ‘Summertime BBQ boxes’ including beef and lamb burgers, lamb koftas and minute steaks. These sell for £42.
Peter believes listening to what the customer wants will continue to be essential moving forward.
Continuing to embrace social media, such as Facebook, will also be of increasing importance.
Although he is convinced the box scheme model will remain popular, Peter says: “We are constantly trying to work with farmers’ markets, use Facebook, and try to find other ways to market.”