September two years ago saw the loss of one of the Yorkshire agricultural world’s favourite sons and one of my best friends to prostate cancer - show commentator, farmer, writer and passionate advocate of young people in farming, Mike Keeble. I can still see his smile now and the sparkle in his eyes as he laughed.
Mike’s commentaries were always enlightening, knowledgeable, entertaining and often irreverent and edgy. He had his knuckles rapped once or twice by those in positions of power on show committees who were more concerned with political correctness, but it never bothered Mike in the slightest.
North Yorkshire County Show makes its debut at a new venue the Camp Hill Estate, eight miles south of Bedale, having shifted from its long-term home near South Otterington tomorrow. Mike commentated in the show’s main ring for many years, as he did at countless others, most notably in the cattle ring at the Great Yorkshire, and this year the North Yorkshire is renaming the main ring in his memory.
The Mike Keeble Main Ring will be a fitting tribute to a man who was able to communicate farming and rural messages to an increasingly inquisitive general public in a charming and informal manner, and there is a hope that another message will be broadcast loud and clear as a result of the renaming.
Mike’s son Andrew has inherited much of his father’s qualities of spirit, passion and enthusiasm albeit that his working life is in the food production arena rather than livestock. He and wife Debbie were the Debbie & Andrew’s of the sausage production world that today sees them operating as Heck, little more than a couple of miles from North Yorkshire County Show’s new home. Heck is a show sponsor and Andrew is keen that prostate cancer is given greater awareness along with other men’s health issues.
“Dad always loved the big ideas beyond the farm gate. He was one of the original importers of Limousin cattle that changed the face of beef production in the UK. He wrote books and loved speaking at events and commentating at shows. My passion is running a business. I don’t think I made a particularly great farmer. There are some really great ones but your heart needs to be in it. Trying an outdoor pig herd at 800ft on dad’s Hammer Farm near Ellingstring in Richmondshire wasn’t an unmitigated disaster but the money was too hard earned.
“Debbie’s very much into farming with her father, as well as the finance side of Heck. I find every day exciting, getting involved with creating great products that sell very well particularly in the 18-45 age range to healthy eating generations that include the slimming and fitness communities and I love making sure we are an efficient enterprise.
“I said we’d sponsor the main ring in dad’s memory, but more importantly than that, as I’m sure he’d agree, I’d like the sponsorship and renaming of the ring to raise awareness of men’s health issues and in particular prostate cancer. Men get shy about talking about problems, but if things are found earlier there is a far better chance that the person can recover.”
Andrew and Debbie recently moved Heck into a new factory alongside the old A1. The new name and branding came about following the sale of Debbie & Andrew’s that didn’t exactly reap the rewards they had anticipated.
“We just thought, what the heck let’s start again and we now have a very different product, great flavours and different customers. We buy huge amounts of data to get things right and we’re far more targeted than ever. Our sausages use wholly British meat. The pork range is 97 per cent pork, far greater than major competitors who don’t all buy British; and our chicken sausage range that appeals to the fitness community is 85 per cent chicken.
“Flavour profiles and the way in which we speak to shoppers is key. Fat intake, salt intake, carbs and calories are all important to people who buy our products.
“Pig farmers are getting a far better return at the moment and that means our buying prices for pork are much higher, which also means our margins are tight. We’re not complaining about it now that we’re poacher-turned-gamekeeper, we just know that we have to run the business more efficiently.
“We saved a massive sum in haulage costs by changing hauliers. That came about from one of the team in our accounts department. We meet every Tuesday morning to discuss where else we think appropriate efficiencies could be introduced.”
The family farming baton passed on by Mike is still being held by another Keeble today with Andrew and Debbie’s son farming an arable concern of 800 acres. The couple’s three other children are all involved in Heck – Jamie, Roddy and Ellie.
A TEAM EFFORT
Heck uses the shoulders of 8,000 pigs a week and over 20m chickens a year in its sausage production lines.
It employs a team of 85 with an average age of around 30, and Eastern European labour plays a major role.
“There really is no such thing as cheap foreign labour,” says Andrew.
“All our team members pay their taxes, rent or have bought their own homes and have children who go to school here. We all have lunch together and it is like having extended family. If everyone from Eastern Europe was to leave en masse the UK would not eat tomorrow.”