Hashtags & Twitter Handles – Exmoor Farmers see the benefits of social media

We’re re-printing an article with the kind permission of its author Martin Hesp (an Exmoor dweller who is also Editor-at-Large and Food Editor for the Western Morning News). An Exmoor farming family have been discovering the benefits of using social media. We wanted to share the story because Sarah also works for us at our National Park Centre in the Lynmouth Pavilion!

Eveleigh familyAn Exmoor farming family had a young Red Devon bull that hasn’t quite come up to the breed’s expectations, so they need to sell it. Normally they’d have put the animal into the livestock auction at Cutcombe, but this time around they decide to experiment and have the annual slaughtered and butchered locally and mention the beef on Facebook.

Just two hours later over it had all gone – more than £1000’s worth, sold, just like that.

box of beefThat is very good news for the Eveleigh family, who farm at lonely West Ilkerton in the moors high above Lynmouth – and for local foodies who wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to buy a box of local Red Ruby beef, which is reckoned by many to be the best in the world.

The Eveleighs would have had a lower return on the animal had it gone to the cattle market – and the meat would have gone into the big commercial food chain with no mention that it was prime Red Devon beef. And it was the ubiquitous, world-conquering, social media site Facebook that allowed this to happen – not normally an institution known for helping hill farmers who live and work in lonely remote places.

But social media sites are increasingly coming to the aid of rural business great and small which are located deep in the countryside. Farmers with meat, and just about anything else to sell, are increasingly gearing up to embrace the new technology.  “Social media can be a very useful tool for farmers,” says NFU spokesman David George. “It can act as a kind of electronic ‘parish pump’ connecting rural communities that can easily find themselves isolated.  As a way of potentially reaching a wide audience fairly cheaply and easily it can also provide a shop window for those wishing to sell their produce, or promote farming more generally. Like every other communication method, it has its strengths and weaknesses – just coping with the sheer volume of material on, say, Twitter is not easy – but used wisely they are undoubtedly a valuable asset for the farming industry.”

Eveleigh Red Devon cattle 2Victoria Eveleigh of West Ilkerton Farm would agree: “This was an experiment – my husband Chris was talking to another Red Devon breeder saying he was going to send this young bull up to market, and he said we could lose as much as a £1 a kilo.” Victoria, a children’s author better known to one and all as “Tortie”, is no stranger to working on a computer – so after the couple, with daughter Sarah, decided they’d try and sell the meat, she gave it a mention on her Facebook page.

“The way we went about it was as an experiment because we wanted to cover what we would have got for the two year old bull at market, plus the slaughtering and packing charge,” she explains. “And that is the other thing that persuaded us to go down this route – the service offered by Keith Heason of Gate to Plate Butchery Services (at the Combe Martin abattoir) is fantastic. There was very little stress for the animal in taking it the few miles down there – and it’s all so hygienic when you get there – everything is done for you, it’s boxed, vac-packed, and ready to go.

“I said we had some boxes of beef on Facebook and it really was all gone in under two hours,” said Tortie. “We have lot of people who’ve been left disappointed. Perhaps we did under-price it a bit – I looked at Farmers Weekly and there were some ridiculously expensive prices – and we wanted to sell it. So, basically, with the boxes of beef we’ve sold and other bits and pieces, we covered the cost of what we would have got from the market plus all the butchery charges – and then also we’ve got a fair bit of meat for ourselves.”

At this point daughter Sarah, who works part-time at the farm, joined the conversation: “As an experiment it has certainly worked – and it has changed our view on how we are going to market our beef in future,” she said.  “We could have sold the whole thing two times over and there are people still contacting us about it now.  We are going to have a serious think about how we go about developing this in future, because I would like to be more involved in the farm and this could be one way of doing that.”

“And it is really nice to know that people think about where their meat does come from,” added Tortie. “You might think in these in modern times people would just want to feed the family cheaply – but we soon learned it’s not like that. Some of the people we delivered the boxes to weren’t living in old farmhouses like you might think, but in modern housing estates. But they were really pleased to be buying real quality beef direct from the farmer who raised it.”

“So if we do this properly in the future with the help of the Internet, I think it could be possible to build a fairly wide customer base,” added Sarah. “For me as a farmer this was a revelation,” said Chris. “You have no idea when an animal goes to market where it’s going afterwards. You hope it’s all right and being treated nicely, but that’s not necessarily the way intensive farmers think.”

Back at the NFU, it seems the organisation has been taking internet-based social media seriously for some time. In 2013 there was a large seminar at the NFU annual conference where the opening statement began: “Why you cannot afford to miss using social media.” Discussions included subject matters normally better known to urban teenagers than traditional West country hill farmers – but it seems now that strange things like hashtags and Twitter handles could become as important as the price of hay and the seven day weather forecast.

 

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