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Rhug Estate: The perks of organic production

By Becky George

- Last updated on GMT

Over 7,000 acres of Rhug Estate is managed organically
Over 7,000 acres of Rhug Estate is managed organically

Related tags Organic Brexit

Lord Newborough of Rhug Estate in North Wales has been a prominent organic advocate since the late 1990s. Beyond the estate’s organic livestock enterprises and expansive farm shop, the business has continuously diversified its routes to market to deliver sustained growth. Here, we find out how more about the business and its organic processes.

When Lord Newborough took over the running of the Rhug Estate in 1998, he was keen to make significant changes in response to a series of food scandals that had rocked the industry and consumer confidence.

“It was an obvious step to put my money where my mouth was and become organic,”​ he said. “There were some big decisions to be made and we had to change an awful lot of what we were doing on the farm.”

Although the move away from a conventional farming approach was not taken lightly, it has certainly proved to be a fortuitous decision. Organic​ has provided the scope to reduce inputs, improve animal welfare, food safety and quality, operate more sustainably, and has secured the brand a distinct position in the market.

Today, over 7,000 acres of the estate’s land are organically managed, with Rhug currently processing 7,000 chickens each year, as well as managing 5,000 breeding ewes and 1,000 head of Aberdeen Angus cattle. Turkeys, geese, ducks, venison, bison and pheasant are also reared on the estate which employs a workforce of 110 people across the farms, processing plant, farm shop, bistro, take away and drive-through.

With such a short supply chain, Rhug epitomises the field to fork ethos but its reach extends far beyond North Wales and has grown into an internationally recognised brand, sold to some of the most prestigious accounts around the world.

Retail first

Waitrose was one of Rhug’s first customers, supporting the estate through its transition to organic and the supermarket remains a key domestic retail account.

“They were the only supermarket who were interested in what we were proposing to do. We still have a really good relationship with Waitrose and they’re an important customer. We make annual projections for them but there is some flexibility in our arrangement,”​ Lord Newborough explained.

This flexibility has facilitated opportunities for Rhug to explore new avenues. Around 40% of their wholesale meat is sold through retail channels, made up of 35 UK accounts including Planet Organic and Bayley & Sage. Foodservice makes up the major share of the business, with around a quarter being exported to fine dining restaurants and premium hotels around the world.

Production manager, Gary Jones, believes that some of the business’ success has been down to being selective about where their products are available: “The brand has established some really robust and desirable credentials over the years, we are conscious of protecting that.”

Chef appeal

The seeds of Rhug’s international appeal were originally sown in London.

“In 2004, we visited six leading restaurants in the capital to showcase our meat,”​ recalled Lord Newborough. “We came away with five customers who were all interested in introducing organic lamb and beef on their menus that told a compelling provenance story.”

The estate’s unique heritage and organic certification provided a convincing point of difference. London’s high-end chefs have subsequently taken Rhug’s organic meat global.

“Chefs love the succulence and flavour of our meat and are very loyal. When they’ve move to new ventures overseas, they take our products with them,” ​Jones added.

Collage Maker-15-Jun-2023-11-42-AM-7575
Gary Jones, production manager

This has opened the door to exports in Singapore, Hong Kong, the UEA, Qatar and latterly Kuwait.

Although, primarily supplying the foodservice sector overseas, new retail opportunities are also emerging. Jones explains that this has been made possible with the introduction of new packing technology which has extended the shelf life of pre-packaged products to 10 days.

Fresh meat exports are made weekly to the Middle and Far East.

Onsite processing

The introduction of the onsite processing facility in 2005 was a real game changer.

“When we built the plant, we were able to start cutting, packing and dispatching meat directly to customers much more effectively. It really allowed us to scale up,” ​continued Jones.

“Over time, we’ve gradually expanded the operation. We now have a team of 11, including four fully trained butchers producing between 150 -180 SKUs depending on the season. It’s everything from mincing, dicing, sausages and burgers. We also do all the butchery for the outlets on site.”

Adaptation and evolution are at the heart of Rhug’s success. Halal lamb and poultry has helped them capitalise on Islamic markets. While inside the Himalayan salt chamber, prime cuts are aged for between 35-50 days for their most prestigious clientele.

Having the bulk of its processing capabilities in-house has also meant increased flexibility which allows the organisation to fulfil customers’ requirements – whether that is producing specific sized joints and cuts or bespoke dry aging. 

All this has been achieved while remaining true to its organic principles, with quality, provenance and sustainability front of centre of Rhug’s proposition.

The impact of Brexit

Like many producers, Rhug is not immune to changes in the economic and political climate. Brexit has impacted its exports into the continent, with products now being shipped froze as a result of, as Jones explains, too much bureaucracy and potential delays which makes it too risky to send fresh meat.

“A small amount of what we produce still goes into Europe but of course, since Brexit, that’s become more difficult,” ​Jones said.

Rhug’s organic processing is overseen by organic certifier Organic Farmers & Growers​ (OF&G), who support with export paperwork and oversee the audit trail.

Fortunately, some Brexit challenges have been overcome by proactively securing new markets in the Arab states and Asia. Embracing a global perspective has meant that Rhug has been able to overcome some of the obstacles that many food businesses have faced.

However, having almost 25 years at the helm of the business, Lord Newborough is no stranger to the peaks and troughs: “During the 2008 recession, we found the overseas market to be very strong against a weak pound, and we found that export made up for the fall off in the UK market.

“As a business we’re incredibly resilient, and I remain optimistic about the future.”

Organic loyalty

Lord Newborough’s positive outlook is mirrored by data on EU production and consumption of organic food, which has shown a growing trend in the last decade. While the EU has admirable ambitions for developing a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system through the adoption of the Farm to Fork Strategy, UK policymakers have been less enthusiastic in their support for organic’s proven benefits.

However, consumers continue to show consistent loyalty and the UK organic market grew by 1.6% to be worth £3.1bn in 2022, despite the cost-of-living crisis affecting household disposable income.  

Lord Newborough attributes this growth to consumers becoming more discerning and environmentally minded.

“Sustainability is at the forefront now. People also perceive organic to be healthier as everything is produced in the most natural way,”​ he commented. “Going through Covid this really came to the fore. People focused on buying the best ingredients as they were cooking at home. I think this raised the profile of organic enormously.”

Is organic the answer to environmental woes?

The expansion of the organic sector in the UK would be beneficial to everyone in Lord Newborough’s eyes and represents a sizeable opportunity for sustainably minded business owners.

“At the present time, where inputs are so expensive, I think it’s a real alternative for many farmers. But you have to really believe in it to make it work, it has to be a passion. I personally think organic farming has a great future.

“Many of the customers that we deal with, particularly the larger hotel groups, now have to demonstrate that 75-80% of everything they procure is from a sustainable source.”

The whole supply chain is having to adapt to address the environmental challenges we face globally.

Organic certification and the future of Rhug Estate

Rhug’s processing certification has recently transferred to OF&G.

“At the end of the day and I think working with OF&G is going to be a good experience,”​ Lord Newborough said. “Their practical approach to certification is really important.

“Organic certification gives people the clarity that the things we say we do aren’t just us saying them but that they have been independently verified. It’s an important stamp that is respected and recognised by the customer as it gives that extra level of confidence.”

For Lord Newborough, organic standards are only the starting point and not the ceiling. While still maintaining his organic status, he is looking to further reduce packaging and improve efficiencies especially in regard to renewable energy and benchmarking for carbon gains and emissions.

And although Lord Newborough talks candidly about ‘sweating the assets’ it is clear that his driving passion is to make a lasting environmental contribution that will benefit future generations.

One thing is obvious, driving change is a constant within the business. As one employee proclaimed, ‘the grass doesn’t grow under Lord Newbough’s feet.’

When asked about future objectives for the Rhug Estate, Lord Newborough said: “We intend to advance the system we’ve got, to drive down our environmental impact.”

It is a long-term vision for the brand that has been founded on the principle and benefits of organic production.

Whilst you're here, you may also enjoy - From surplus to fork:​ a tour of one of London's food charity operations.

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