I could say that our road into pork production started with buying 15 six week old piglets in the autumn of 2020, but our history of pig farming actually goes back quite a bit further; I’ve lived on Radmore since the day I was born in 1985, and it was a pig farm back then! But to get into it, first we had to get out of it!
When I was growing up we had around 500 sows (mummy pigs) so when you counted up all the little Peppa’s and George’s we had around 5000 pigs on the farm at any one time. Back then there were not really small farms because the profit margins were too tight to support a small system, and a lot of them had been forced out of production, and you didn’t really hear of people retailing their own meats for a better slice of the pie,yet. You had to be big, and you had to be efficient to make it work. And as pig farms went, we weren’t even big!
It went like this, well from the memory of a small child who helped with all her might and was nosy enough to hear the grown up conversations going on around. We would finish about 100 – 200 pigs a week, and employ 3 staff members from the local community, as well as our family working on the farm. There were livestock markets and our local market, Rugby, was on a Monday morning. Dad went every week and in the holidays we all got to go. We would wake early (I mean, really early!) and load up the trailer, and head off for our family day out. Upon arrival at the market the pigs would be unloaded and weighed and put into pens of about 8/10 in a group inside a huge barn. All the local farmers and butchers would be there there and have a chat, and there was always someone who had brought sweets for the children, yes before breakfast too! They would catch up about the world of farming; the farmers would talk about what’s going on with the animals, and their farms, and the butchers would talk about demand and trends in their shop. It connected the dots from field to fork.
When all the animals were in their groupings, the auctioneer would walk along the gangway raised on top of the pens and talk and motion at the speed of knots, goodness knows what he was saying, I certainly couldn’t follow it as a child! There would be pointing back and forth and what sounded like a well practiced and recited verse, and then the pen would be sold with a bang of his stick and nod to the winner. There was competition. Butchers would buy the animals they needed according to their requirements that week- they might need ones suitable for bacon, or maybe they were making a lot of sausages so needed a bit more fat. Some butchers always choose the gilts (young female) and some always chose small ones. Some always bought from one particular farm and some collected up rare breeds. Everyone could bid for what their customers wanted and paid more for quality. The prices fluctuated to suit the demand- sometimes they were lower than you’d have hoped and sometimes they were good. I remember once, from the far corners of my mind, that the price was so good my Dad made the long trip home to refill the trailer, and then went home to refill it a 3rd time!
And then when farmers had sold and butchers had bought there was nothing else to do apart from to go to the Rugby market cafe for a full English or a sausage sandwich and chat more about farming. Perhaps rose tinted glasses, but perhaps I remember a time where there was competition and fair prices for buyer and producer and connection to customers, and a social hub for what can be a very isolating industry.
As well as the market trade, as a farm of our size had more than the market could sell, some pigs would go off to big buyers that supplied the major supermarkets each week. You didn’t see the people buying, they would just go off on the lorry, and you didn’t know where they would finish up, perhaps you would know the specific supermarket chain but not much more. As I remember the cheque would come back, which was a dictated price based on the current market price. It didn’t break any records but it was consistent, and when you had animals ready to go, they had to go.
I’d always heard Mum and Dad saying that the price of pigs had always had peaks and troughs over the years. But then came the new millennium. Over the course of a couple of short years the price for pork had fallen to an all time low, to the point where it was seriously loss making- even on our scale. And there was no recovery in sight. I remember in our local supermarkets you could not buy British bacon or gammon- everything on sale was imported, lots coming from Denmark! And Danish bacon had huge tv ad campaigns running! Now there’s a lot wrong with the supply chain of food and there is a long way to go, improving things is a whole industry in itself. But as a small sign of change you can now find meats sourced from at least your own country in most shops these days!! At least consumers have some sort of a choice. I remember as a young teen feeling absolutely outraged that we had amongst the highest welfare standards in the world on our British farms, that then we allowed meats that didn’t conform to our own standards to be imported because it’s cheaper! And not only allowed it, took away the choice from consumers to support their local farms by only having the imports on the shelves!
And then there was foot and mouth disease. This was such a distressing time to be in the farming community. It was the year of my GCSEs, and the farm had already been through lots of changes. We no longer employed other people and had cut our pig numbers down. The outlook was already bleak, and then the cases of foot and mouth started to appear in the news. I’m sure most people can remember the images of enormous pyres shown on the news of livestock that had to be destroyed. What an awful sight for farmers who put their lives and hearts and souls into raising those animals, my heart went out to them. Although we didn’t have any cases of the disease on our farm we had a case close by, and early on were put in an exclusion zone. We couldn’t move animals off or on the farm, we couldn’t even leave or return to the farm ourselves without disinfecting clothes, shoes, car tyres. And the markets closed, never to open up again in many areas. After normal life returned, much like after covid, it was not the same- a new normal.
Without the markets there was just one local butcher left that took a dozen or so pigs a week. A fantastic family butcher that are still our abattoir today in fact. Everything else went off ‘on the lorry’ to the big buyers. Faceless and no connection to the consumer, and prices never really recovered. There wasn’t any funds to invest much in the pig production.
Fast forward a couple more years to 2005, and with customer demands changing we decided to open our own shop! See Our journey into the good life ‘part 2’: I wonder if we could start our own shop?! for that story! Mum and Dad went on a sausage making course and we hired a retired master butcher (who later taught Ben all he knows) and we started to get one of our finished pigs back a week for selling ourselves direct to customers! We did this for several years, and cut the pig numbers back further, but with ageing equipment the decision was made to end the production of pigs on Radmore Farm. The last pig walked off the farm in 2018.
But then another pandemic came along and changed things again, this time it was coronavirus! As an essential shop that sold such sought after items as toilet roll and pasta, we found ourselves busier than ever in the spring of 2020. With a welcome little boost (if short lived!) to our income we could think of nothing better to invest that money in than scratching the itch of pig farming once again.
They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but remember that we’ve never claimed to be sane! But we have claimed to be hardworking and committed to making a difference, righting some of the wrongs of the past perhaps?
Ben and I are determined to see if we can run the pig farm in a small way, never selling to the big boys, just selling to our own customers and small butchers- people we know with names and faces and a friendly word! We want to raise free range pigs, with a low impact on the environment in a sustainable way.
So in the autumn of 2020, back where my story started today, we took delivery of 15 six week old piglets. These are now our mummy pigs. Our daddy pig (Bonzo to his friends) we have had since early 2021 when he was around 4 months old. We scraped together and salvaged some pieces of equipment from the past, and were lucky to be gifted with the most valuable pieces of equipment of all- the knowledge and experience of Mum and Dad (and the use of Dads tractor)! We now spend our days feeding them, chasing them, fixing the fence, butchering, making pies, sausages, bacon, gammon and delivering to customers. They spend their days rooting and running and rummaging, as nature intended.
Will it work? Can we do this small and sustainably with the highest welfare? Can we keep scraping in enough to pay the bills? We’ve brought home the bacon, quite literally…Now it’s up to you guys! Thanks to everyone that’s helped us launch and tried our pork, long may it continue!