The Atkinson family has carved out a meaty opportunity by doing things differently.
Not only do they insist on farming their cattle and lamb in a very specific way but they work with their co-operative of other farmers in the region to produce meat in the same way, and all the meat is made ready for the plate in the Atkinsons’ on-farm butchery.
Led by father and son team Rob, 65, and Ryan, 30, their farming model has earned them prestigious contracts to supply some of Yorkshire’s best fine dining restaurants, top hotels and country pubs. They are also the nominated butcher for The National Trust with its meat being served to visitors to Fountains Abbey and the Treasurer’s House in York.
In total, they have around 250 customers purchasing on a dairy basis.
The Whippet Inn, a steak and alehouse that opened in York last year and which has enjoyed encouraging trade since, is one of their more recent new customers.
The family farm goes by the name of Waterford Farm in Kirkby Malzeard near Ripon.
“We are farmers and butchers,” said Ryan. “We produce all the livestock from farm through our butchery to produce our own signature range branded as Waterford Farm.
“The Waterford range consists of produce sourced directly from our own farm and from carefully selected farms and suppliers across the region. Each supplier that falls into the signature range does so because of strict criteria - the locality and provenance behind its sourcing.”
The farm has been in the Atkinson family for five generations.
“We formed our co-operative 10 years ago. It was formed after the butchery started in 1978, an enterprise my parents, Rob and Jo, started up and which they are still actively involved with.”
Ryan’s wife Kate, to whom he married last year also plays a key role as HR and business development manager for the butchery, while his brother Ashley helps when needed, though his principal occupation is as a teacher.
“The type of farming that takes place is long, slow open pasture grazing which is quite the opposite to intensive farming. It’s kinder to the animals and develops a unique trust and tenderness to the product.
“There are two elements to it - it’s a long, slow process and the animals are allowed to roam. Not only are they eating natural stuff, they are working their muscles as well. That’s where the taste side of the range is generated. Anyone that argues differently is wrong.
“Once that meat has roamed for up to 30 months on the land, it’s then butchered and traditionally dry aged and hung as full carcasses which doesn’t happen much these days. Once that has been taken care of, the only stage left is for highly skilled butchers to prepare the meat in a way that the chef expects.”
A team of 32 are employed by the Atkinsons in the on-farm Water Edge butchery, from fully-trained butchers, packing assistants and drivers, to supervisors, managers, office administrators and family members.
The building is set in an acre of woodland with a stream running along one side of it and the farmhouse is half a mile along the road.
“The cattle breeds we focus on, through years of practice and understanding, are Limousin and Charolais and the lambs are Beltex or Texels, and they’ve now been on the farm for 30 years.
“They have a lot of benefits; they are very good natured, easy to look after and lend themselves to being farmed in the way that we farm them.
“The breeds and the way we farm them allow a beautiful development of marbling through the meat. Marbling and fat covering is crucial for taste and it also helps with tenderness and succulence. Because we keep that consistency in our livestock, we have that consistency in the end product so that it is consistently identical for the chef.”
Ryan’s official title is general manager of R&J Yorkshire’s Finest - the butchery side of the business.
“My day starts at 2.30am and ends at 6.30pm, five days a week. Out of that timescale I spend about an hour and a half to two hours a day on the farm and the rest in the butchery. I run the butchery side and dad runs the farm side but we both do a bit of each.”
It is his dad’s knowledge of both farming and butchery that has made the business so successful, he said.
“Very few catering or retail butchers will have the same degree of knowledge as what dad has within the industry. He left school at 13 because the farming side has been in the family for a number of generations. It has literally been his life.
“I was the same. I just wanted to come home from school and work. I wanted to farm and I wanted to butch. Because we have this huge connection to the farming industry as well as butchery, it stands us in better stead for dealing with the food industry.”
Ryan has picked up accolades for his butchery skills. In 2009, he gained a national Livestock and Carcass Stock Judge of the Year award from the National Federation of Young Farmers.
The deal to provide one of their newest customers, The Whippet Inn, with all its meat came about through the business’ reputation.
“I know how that sounds but we supply our meat to a number of outlets in the York area and we have a good name within Yorkshire. Our focus is on quality, consistency and no compromise.”
Martin Bridge, the co-owner of The Whippet Inn, said R&J was an easy choice to make that fitted in with his own ideas for the pub.
“We chose R&J as our meat supplier as we wanted our menu to offer the very best quality beef in Yorkshire. At The Whippet Inn, we specialise in steak and therefore it was crucial that we worked with a company who could maintain an extremely high standard.”