A crisis forced Clive Gittens and his wife Clair to reinvent their business. The couple had borrowed heavily to invest in the family farm near Cleobury Mortimer, and then the BSE crisis came along.
“I thought we would end up going out of business,” says Clive, whose family will next year celebrate 90 years at Heath Farm in Bagginswood. Clair was pregnant with their second child and they had just moved into the house.
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It was dark days in the mid-1990s, but with imagination, lots of hard work and the support of the farming and wider community of Shropshire they came out the other side.
Today the couple back the Shropshire Star’s Fair Deal for Farmers campaign, which highlights the produce coming out of the county and the businesses who support those who rear livestock or grow fruit and vegetables.
Clive is aware of the pressures placed on farmers and said he had thought long and hard about the importance of diversifying to survive.
In fact back in the mid-1960s, when he was aged about 11, he wrote in a school essay about his dream to one day expand beyond the meat side of the business.
“I hope we can get all the woodland and make it into an arable farm,” he wrote.
The couple probably wished they had done just that as the ban on beef exports, coupled with a collapse of consumer confidence in British beef, left their livelihood and home teetering on the brink.
Instead of being the end of the family farm, the crisis led to an exciting new chapter.
As Clair, 55, leads a tour of the farm shop, it seems hard to believe that a couple of decades ago the whole thing was facing extinction.
“All the meat here, apart from the chicken, is reared on the farm, it is sent to Dougie Griffiths’ abattoir in Leintwardine, and is then brought back here where it is hung and cut.
“We are the only place in Shropshire that does all of that.”
It is 20 years since the European Community slapped a worldwide ban on British beef exports, leading to a near collapse in the industry. But had it not been for the disaster, the couple’s Heath Farm Meats business would never have existed.
Today, Heath Farm Meats is well-known around south Shropshire for its straight-from-the farm beef, pork, mutton and lamb. Clive cures the bacon using only natural products, while his trusty assistant Fred Crowther produces the home-made speciality sausages.
Over the years, the shop has also grown to support other local producers, including George Hayward potato farm in Ellesmere, Black’s Cheese from Shrewsbury, and Mawley Town Farm in Cleobury Mortimer. Fred produces the home-made sausages, while Clive cures the bacon on the premises.
Miranda Kingston, from the neighbouring village of Stottesdon, has been a regular customer for some years.
“I come here because I know all the meat has been produced on the farm, and it is always really good quality,” she says.
“I come here because the meat is definitely the best.”
Clive, who is 61, says hanging the meat and allowing it to mature properly for three or four weeks is so important.
“When you slaughter an animal, the muscles tend to be really tense, it is like an elastic band, but if you hang it properly, it allows it to relax.
“You can buy cheap meat in a supermarket, but often that will have only been slaughtered two or three days before, and it won’t have had the time to mature properly.”
The other thing that is crucial to the quality of beef is the degree of marbling, the small white flecks of fat that are visible in the cut, giving it an appearance similar to marble. These are what gives the meat its flavour, and is the difference between a prime cut and a cheap one.
These days, apart from a small amount which it supplies to Fighting Cocks pub in the village, all the meat is sold through the farm’s own shop. But Clive says that only ever came about by accident, when he was forced to find a new source of income at the time of the BSE crisis.
“I had only just taken over running the farm when it all happened,” he says.
“My family had been here since 1927, when my grandad Sidney moved here, and then my dad Norman took it over, he retired in 1994, and I took over.
“When the BSE thing happened, overnight, our assets had halved in value. We had about 200 cattle here, and you would have an animal that had been worth £800 to £1,000, and suddenly it was only worth £400 to £500.
“After they had been slaughtered, we used to export four cattle a week to Italy, but they banned all exports.”
Sales of beef fell by about 50 per cent, and there is a sense of wry amusement as he tells how people stopped eating their Sunday roasts.
“People would say they didn’t want their joint for roasting any more, they would just have two steaks instead,” he says. “They didn’t seem to realise it was all the same thing.”
With his home and business on the brink, Clive turned to desperate measures.
“I had a friend in the meat trade, he used to buy meat which ended up in the big supermarkets,” he recalls.
“He said he couldn’t give me much for them, and I told him I was desperate. He said he would have one or two off me, but the price meant I was making a heavy loss, so I said I might as well have a side back.”
That small bit of surplus meat would not only save the business, but take the couple into a whole new direction.
“We got some meat out their just in time for Christmas, we got a butcher to cut it up for us, and it sold really well,” says Clive.
“People were asking when we would get some more in.”
More cuts followed, creating a useful sideline, until the butcher they had been using was taken ill. It was at that Clive persuaded two friends in the butchery trade, John Adey, who kept a show in Darlaston, near Walsall, and Graham Bishop, from Wolverley, to teach him their skills.
“I owe them a lot,” says Clive. He recalls who both of them were very demanding taskmasters as he taught them his skills.
“I would be at the block, and John would be at the other end, and after a bit he would come over, say ‘move out of the way’, and show me how it should be done.
“Everything had to be perfect for him, and that’s the way I like it. Graham died earlier this year, and he was brilliant too.”
Clive, whose first taste of farm work came at the age of six when he would feed the animals before he went to school, always knew he was destined for a life in agriculture.
“I was just waiting to leave school at 15, in those days there wasn’t really much else to do out here,” he says.
The couple’s own children, Sally, 23 and Sid, 19, are happy to help out on the farm, but have no plans to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
“That’s fine, it is important they do what they want to do, we wouldn’t want them doing something they didn’t enjoy,” says Clive.
Clive says that 20 years on, the BSE crisis probably gave them the shock they needed to change the direction of their business.
“Because it came to us first, we were able to adapt early, so we were ready when foot-and-mouth came along a few years later,” he says.
“It has enabled us to take back control.”
The couple have noticed that there is a new generation of customers that is more discerning about where their food comes from.
“We get a lot of people asking about traceability,” says Clive. “For us that couldn’t be easier, could it? It all comes from here.”Subscribe to our Newsletter