By Dora Taylor
Edge and Son butcher and private abattoir on the Wirral Peninsula specialise in grass-fed, rare and native breeds, and have won multiple awards for their excellent environmental and welfare standards. Callum Edge and his team sensed that the pandemic would mean long-term shifts in the way people bought and ate meat, and they began to reorganise their business model before lockdown was even officially declared. This, combined with the personal relationships established over six generations of the business, meant Edge and Son were able to keep up with a significant rise in orders.
“We were about a fortnight away from lockdown, and we were very aware that things were going to change, and change big. We knew that if restaurants closed we would lose a third of our business, and if farm shops closed that would be another third gone. So we went into home deliveries,” Callum said. “It was quite painful to get it to happen because it’s really labour intensive—just setting ourselves up with a new website and staff, getting the way that you behaved and delivered within Covid to make people feel comfortable, was really important.”
Initially, Edge and Sons saw a sharp spike in orders. Panic-buying pushed their retail sales up by 500% in the first three weeks of lockdown, and demand for their private kill and butchery went up by around 300% as more farmers sought alternative routes to market that avoided the potential bottlenecks of large-scale operations. However, the team remained miraculously calm, and for Callum, honouring long-standing relationships with customers and farmers was the priority.
“We were seeing people that we hadn’t seen before or hadn’t seen in years. We had to make sure there was actually enough for our loyal customers. I had so many farmers that sold just to us. We have four pig farmers that all breed just for us,” he said. “We just had to turn the production up and bring some of the cattle forward. That was a great feeling, and it was a great feeling to be able to support these farmers who were so loyal to us.”
Investing in a mail order service early on really paid off, despite the team’s previous hesitance towards the idea. For Callum, a willingness to change and try new methods was the key to not being overwhelmed by the situation. “The whole thing is about change,” he said. “I’ve been running this for thirty years, and it’s changed so much in that time, whether it’s changing the technology, changing the kind of staff you have. We weren’t really doing home delivery and trying not to; we’ve now really embraced it.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the high demand for Edge and Son meat, thanks to its unparalleled quality—as demonstrated by the awards the business has received from the RSPCA, Slow Food UK and BBC Food and Farming. Callum’s detailed knowledge of the needs of animals, the environment, farmers and consumers allows him to hold all these factors in a delicate balance.
“People need to realise how the system works and how you make the best [of it]. If we’re going to eat an animal we’ve got to respect it and do the right thing, respect the land,” Callum said. For him, superior flavour and sustainable methods come hand in hand. “All the Michelin star guys come to us. That’s the sort of league I want to do this at. We are so lucky in this country. For regenerative farming, the UK has the second best grassland in the world after New Zealand. We can make a huge difference to the carbon in this country. At the moment, we are using lambs off the salt marshes on the river Dee. That’s where you get the flavour from, the variety of herbage.”
This expert knowledge and Edge and Son’s rigorous ethical and environmental standards all result in a high price point for their meat, but people remain eager to spend. “The furlough has meant there have been people who have got plenty of money, who aren’t going out to restaurants, aren’t going on holiday. It’s very important to us that we sell nose to tail because we sell the whole animal. We’ve seen the expensive cuts getting sold no problem,” he said.
Not only have some people had more disposable income, they have also had more time to learn more about where their food comes from. “We were really lucky to be in food,” Callum said. “People are starting to look at their food and eating better, looking at their health. There are more people who want to be knowledgeable about their food and if they’re going to eat meat they want to eat meat that has had a respected life and a respected death…This sector, sustainable food has done really well. It’s definitely grown in this time.”
Callum is certain that the positive changes enabled by the pandemic—a slowing down of the pace of life, a return to local, and an increase in demand for high quality, sustainable meat—will stick. “I’m fifty-seven, and I feel really good about the business. My boys are going to be running the business, and they are in a growing industry. Lots of people want this. It’s great to see that this young population are into cooking… the long, slow cooks, curing things themselves,” he said.. “When I took over from my father, the typical customer was around sixty, but over the last twenty years our customers have got younger and younger.”
In the immediate future, it seems as though Callum’s energy for innovation will last. “We’ve all got to work together. We’ve taken on about four people in this period. I can see especially at the weekend splitting the staff shifts to extend the working day. I can see us also doing deliveries through the evening. For years we’ve always pushed this off. All of us as small retailers and butchers have thought, ‘Oh, we work hard enough as it is,’ but I think we have got to wake up to the fact that [the demand] is there. We can give jobs, we can get more people in to cover the extra hours for delivery. You get a lot of respect from your clients for going the extra mile.”
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/