Family-run Lane Farm in Suffolk was a successful pork farm and meat processor enjoying a good period of growth when COVID-19 hit. But despite the uncertainty created by the pandemic, Ian and Sue Whitehead decided it was the right time to invest in the business.
The couple bought the farm at Brundish, near Woodbridge, in 1987 as a working pig and breeding stock farm. Very quickly they diversified, adding value to their presence in the pork market by making their own sausages and butchering pork and bacon that was sold in the local village shop. That initial success prompted the family to expand and sell their products into shops across the county.
In 2000, they expanded into ham, buying a special cooker to cook the ham and smoke the bacon. They started attending farmers’ markets in Suffolk and received enquiries about whether or not they sold salami. This got them thinking and, after some in-depth research, they decided there was an opportunity to make and supply charcuterie products to retail outlets.
Business in this sector has grown, with 60% of its overall output being supplied to retailers and 40% being wholesale, stocking the shelves of the East of England Co-op and Waitrose stores in the region, together with many excellent farm shops and specialist food outlets. The Whiteheads now have three family members helping them to run the business, which also employs a small team of people from the local community. Although business has been good, competition from cheaper imported goods was always a threat. The Whiteheads’ commitment to better quality welfare of its animals and, consequently, better quality products remained undimmed, but they felt they needed to make improvements to future-proof the business the best they could at the premium end of the market.
To help drive efficiencies, they decided to invest in a new flow-wrapping machine that would deliver a more efficient way of packaging products and use 30% less plastic, which was good for lowering costs and better for the environment. In addition, they would need to build a small extension so they would have another drying and fermenting room for the charcuterie products.
Ian explains what happened next: “We were aware that New Anglia Growth Hub played a key role in helping eligible businesses to secure grants. We contacted one of the advisers and explained to him what our plans were and how that would help fuel future growth and secure further employment opportunities for the farm. We were delighted our proposal fitted the eligibility criteria and very quickly we went through the application process for a grant from the Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Fund.
“The process itself was quick and efficient, but as you would expect it did require significant effort on our side to put together a robust case. However, I am glad to report we secured the matched funding we required to buy the new wrapping machine and started building the extension.
“The new machine is predominantly used to package our salami products. One of the key benefits of buying the new machine is that staff who had been involved in the slower manual wrapping have been deployed and upskilled elsewhere in the business. The knock-on effect of that has been that we now have more capacity in the business overall and have already taken on one more member of staff, with the prospect of employing another in the foreseeable future.
“The grant funding has enabled us to turn our plans quickly into actions that will help us to develop our quality meat proposition and expand our distribution. We are still in the process of building the extension, but once that is finished, we will be set for a very optimistic next few years.”