July 12, 2019

From Farm to Fork – An Interview with Lance Luffingham.

Kim Crowie speaks to Lance Luffingham, MD of Ambleside Farm to explore the food supply chain and best practices for sustainability.

Started as a pig farm in 1936 by his grandfather, Ambleside Farm has since closed its piggery and now focusses on the pork value-adding side of the business, called Ambleside Meats CC. The reasons for this are two-fold, Lance explains.

“Our partners in the business at the time were the largest pig farmers in KZN, so we left the animal side up to them so that we could concentrate on the pork value-adding. The second reason was for biosecurity. Having a piggery so close to our abattoir where we were receiving many other producers’ pigs was too risky and deemed not to be a good idea by both consultants and vets alike,” he says.

Introducing Ambleside Meats:

Ambleside Meats covers a range of entities under their umbrella. Lovinghams Meats is a production facility that debones and process pork further. Their main focus is on Primal’s cuts smoked products such as bacon, and its derivatives, and fresh and cooked sausage. They also do fresh pork cuts, marinade cuts, and ham. Although Lovinghams do not do speciality pork-based products, they supply the people who do.

“We have a butchery in Dalton which focusses primarily on beef, specifically trimmings and some fresh. Our offal plant also supplies raw material to this plant for the manufacture of pet products and cheap protein alternatives,” Lance adds.

Another part of the business is their distribution arm, Griddle Quality Brands. Through it, they distribute all of their own products as well as other products sourced in the area, like cheese and chicken.

“Our market ranges from large meat manufacturing companies, and retailers large and small, to the hospitality industry, ranging from hotels right through to B&Bs. We have a retail section which focusses on factory style shops, where we sell quality products for good value. These are proving very popular.”

Farming as a Way of Life:

Although the pig farming segment of the business was closed some eight years ago, the initial plan was to control the whole value chain.

“We are still doing composting, where we use the abattoir waste and organic matter from farmers (wheat straw) to achieve this. In my opinion, if we want to feed a growing world at an affordable price, it’s going to have to be through commercial farming, unless we all go back to a subsistence way of life.”

He adds that although commercial farming is the way forward, it should still be done sustainably. He notes that many farming practices have already changed in the last few years to a more sustainable agricultural process.

“Many farmers including ourselves are investing heavily in sustainability such as alternative energy, water conservation, and reducing waste. I think that food distribution’s biggest vice currently is plastic and packaging. I have no doubt that this is going to change soon.”

When it comes to farming animals, there should be no difference between different types of species – all the basics need to be done correctly for one to have happy animals and great quality meat. The most important of these are genetics, nutrition, animal husbandry, and the environment.

The Distribution Chain:

For meat distribution, the first item on the checklist is having the product. This Ambleside does by sourcing livestock from commercial farms as well as emerging farmers – all of which have to conform to their core values.

“They need to raise and manage under ethical animal welfare conditions. Some of our farmers are ‘compartmentalised’, which means that they can ensure 100% traceability and biosecurity. This is a must for some customers, especially those in export markets. Our facility in Winterton is monitored and regularly audited by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. We are also ZA export approved. Our processing plant in Winterton (Lovinghams Meats) is busy undergoing the process of Food Safety Accreditation. Our facility in Dalton is also audited, accredited and licenced by the same department, but is not ZA export approved.”

A typical day at Ambleside Meats begins at 4am with loading crews working on the orders for the day. Their aim is to get their loads out as quickly as possible as they are located quite far from many of their markets and the roads can get rather congested. The rest of the staff arrive at 7:30am. “The pigs are generally delivered the day before slaughter so as to give them time to rest and to minimise PSE in the meat from stress. We can slaughter up to 340 animals per day in our facilities.” Slaughtering is usually complete by around 4pm, and the plants are then sanitised for the following day.

The company runs night shifts at the plant, and during this time they work on smoking and cooking products, as well as pre-loading orders.

“As the products move through the plants, they are tracked and traced by our in- house traceability system called Meat Matrix, right through to packing and then into our freezers and cold rooms. Our dispatching staff will be picking and invoicing stock for the next day’s deliveries. The orders are moved to dispatching area for ease of loading out the next day. Our marketing staff will be taking orders and dealing with customers during the day.”

A Brand Set Apart:

When it comes to building a brand within the food sector, Lance says that although they have become recognised – especially in KwaZulu-Natal – this has taken time. “I think what sets us apart from the other industry players in the food chain is that we come from farming stock, we understand the challenges faced by farmers and are sympathetic to their cause. This ensures loyalty from our farmers, who believe that we are always trying our best for them.” Ambleside’s most popular product is (no surprise here) their bacon lines, whatever form they come in. And the reason? “We don’t take shortcuts!” Lance laughs. “We don’t over-brine inject, and we use proper wood – oak – from the local area.”

They are able to cater to both worlds because of the 20 years they’ve spent in the meat industry. They understand the challenges facing the sector, they adapt to change and are always considerate of market conditions and its state of flux.

“We are one of the few abattoirs who are encouraging heavier weights from farmers which suits their business and at the same time suits our production facilities. Our access to markets is also very broad, so we do not have a niche but prefer to try and supply everybody within the industry, thereby reducing our risk to sector-specific volatility.”

Food Security For The Future:

The meat industry is going through a challenging time at the moment, with some very real threats to farmers such as African Swine Flu (ASF) and Foot and Mouth disease outbreaks. This could well decimate the industry, especially if it spreads to commercial herds. Although these diseases are not contagious to humans, they are devastating to animals, Lance explains.

“Biosecurity at farm level is going to be paramount to prevent this from happening, however, the government needs to also play its part and start taking this threat very seriously. Should this get worse it will not only affect many jobs but will ultimately be detrimental to food security in the country.”

South Africa is in a great position at the moment – it has a productive and vibrant agricultural industry on par with anywhere else in the world and we are predominantly self-sufficient in terms of food security.

“Our currency isn’t very strong and there is currently a very large ASF outbreak in China, which is predicted to wipe out 25% of their national herd. This is the largest in the world by a long way. This is driving up world protein prices, and is even more reason to look after our own sector to mitigate potential very expensive imports.”

That said, South Africa’s outlook is very positive at this stage. Local prices are currently very low and will likely start going up in the medium term, Lance predicts. The pork market, in particular, is set to show good growth.

“The traditional fresh meat-eaters are starting to eat more processed foods (cooked) due to the ease of preparation and the different taste experience. Some of the other species have unfortunately outpriced themselves in the marketplace, especially when looking at lower-income earners. Food safety, security, tractability and ethical farming is going to become more and more relevant in this sector going forward,” he concludes.

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