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Lessons in the new world of old food marketing

LONDON – At the Borough Market, which has its origins in medieval times and moved to its current location in 1756, Farmer Sharp banters with the customers, smears sheep innards on his overalls and tries and fails to ignore his beeping cell phone.

Few people here, possibly including the two young Serbian butchers, Jelena Milosevic and Ana Mijovic, who are trimming mutton and beef, know that his first name is Andrew.

“When I started here nine years ago, I didn’t want to come in the first place. I didn’t want to be away from my family on the weekends. But my third customer said, ‘I’ll see you next week, Farmer Sharp’ and so I had to come back,” he told me recently. “Down the road there’s a Venison Pete and a Fisherman Les, so I was Farmer Sharp. Eventually no one knew my name.”

Now a brand name
From somewhat humble beginnings, Farmer Sharp, 45, has become a brand name in the beef and sheep business, with 2008 meat sales in the $2.45 million (U.S.) range and a new export contract for Hong Kong. He expects to top $4 million in sales fairly soon, despite the worldwide recession.

There are lessons for farmers in the United States from Sharp’s model. He is the public face of about 50 farmers from Cumbria, nearly 300 miles northwest of here, in a “handshake co-op.” Farmer Sharp sells mostly to Michelin restaurants and hotels – only about 5 to 8 percent of its business is at the markets, he said.

“If you are going to do this,” Sharp said, “you need either a committee or pick a winner. And remember that the old adage of a decision by committee is no decision.”

Has advised Prince Charles

The Farmer Sharp brand is on all the products and signage. He is a semi-regular guest on television – he was on BBC Three the first day I spoke with him – and has advised Prince Charles on matters relating to mutton. Although the Borough Market does not make the company a lot of money, he is a big presence here because “England is London-centric, including the media” and celebrity chefs forage in this place, bringing more visibility.

He’s all about promoting the product – his text messages use the word “ewe” for “you” – and he’s well connected in the slow food movement

Customers are buying an uncommon product. The sheep are Herdwick, a very old English breed with tough, wire-like wool unfit for scratching human skin, and the cattle are Galloway, another primitive breed born to survive outdoors in the rugged lake country. The ancient nature of the animals and their dense, robust meats fit with the Sharp family history, which has 400 years’ experience working the land.

‘Quality and finish are the criteria’
The meat is dry-aged – 5 weeks for the cattle, 4 weeks for the mutton – which adds cost. Slaughter weight varies. “Quality and finish are the criteria, not weight,” Sharp said. “So the animals are sold at different weights.”

His meat is organic but not officially labeled as such because of the difficulty of getting government certification for 50 growers on common land. Sharp’s most difficult marketing challenge is “body balance,” that is, finding buyers for the cuts of meat that the three-star joints don’t want. He also faces some of the same hurdles as do Minnesota livestock growers; for example, he can’t sell meat off his farm unless it is processed at a government-certified slaughterhouse.

“I can’t even give it to someone,” he said. “And even if I slaughter it, I have to take the waste to a certified place.”

The option of marketing the farmer, more than the meat, works for Sharp. But the meat is delicious.

“We’ve got something special,” he said. “Geography, breeds, history – they are all working for us.”

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