It was a raffle that started John Thompson farming.
It was the early 1960s, he was 18 years old and won £20. He used the cash to buy three weaners, kept them in his dad’s back yard and invested the money he made from them in more pigs.
What was a hobby soon escalated. He started keeping stock in someone’s orchard, then in some buildings before going self-employed in the early 1970s.
He’s now the patriarch of this family, which keep pigs and Here-ford cattle on 120 acres of grass at Isleham in Cambridgeshire.
It’s a real family business: John works with sons Steven, who takes the lead on the stock, and Martin, who’s a machinery expert and runs a contracting enterprise.
They’ve recently scaled back the 300-sow enterprise to 160 head, and are planning to sell all the offspring at slaughter weight rather than as weaners. This will mean taking 3000 to 3500 head a year to about 90kg liveweight. There’ll be more of a margin in this, they hope, than in marketing them at a younger age and, crucially, it will cut the workload.
“Dad’s getting tired,” jokes John. “I’ve been doing the pig job for 45 years – it’s time to slow down.”
They also keep 50 single-suckler Hereford and Hereford cross cows, with the calves taken to finishing weight. “We chose Herefords because of their temperament,” says Steven. “They’re quiet and easy to handle, which is important because we don’t want to spend all our time chasing them around.”
Some of their ground is “wash land” (below river level and liable to occasional flooding) and just over half of the acreage is in ELS or HLS schemes. Getting into the HLS took a lot of work, involved some help from Natural England and meant compiling a “thick application with loads of detail”, says Steven’s wife Rosie, who, along with John’s wife, Margaret, is key to the success of the business.
Thompsons’ Farm is, in fact, home to an impressive array of wildlife, as highlighted by a recent RSPB survey which showed the presence of a range of bird species including kestrel, lapwing, gadwall, cuckoo, dunnock and mute swan.
The farm is a lot of hard work, with 12-hour days the norm. “We each have different ideas and areas of responsibility, so it all falls into place,” says Margaret. “We’ve always been a close family and we’re lucky that we all get on. Nobody has really gone their separate way.”
They are adamant that the long hours are worth it, though. As Steven points out: “We love the lifestyle, and the family gets to live near to each other in a place we all love. There’s the fresh air, the fact that you’re your own boss, and there’s a great sense of satisfaction that comes from producing something you’re proud of. It’s not as if we have to travel to work, either.
“If we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t do it. What’s the alternative? Being in a stuffy office, getting stressed. No thanks. This is definitely a better quality of life, even though there are always some worries in agriculture. We live and breathe farming.”
The family also started retailing their own meat through a small farm shop in the yard, which opened on 1 April, 2005. “We didn’t pick that date deliberately,” laughs Rosie. “We got talking about the idea one New Year’s Eve and it went from there.
“We’re going to expand the range, but we’re determined to only sell what we produce. A farm shop should be a shop that sells what’s been grown or reared on the farm, so we won’t be buying in products.
“Ultimately, this business is a farm and we want to spend most of our time doing that. We can look at expanding the retail side, but we don’t want to find ourselves in a position where it is taking over.”
Having a farmgate outlet – like having two different livestock enterprises plus the contracting work – helps spread the risk, they point out. “We haven’t got all our eggs in one basket.”
Looking to the future, they realise there are uncertain times ahead for pork producers. They’ve improved productivity and now typically wean between 10 and 10.5 piglets a litter, plus keep carefully on top of costs (not employing anyone beyond the immediate family helps in this respect).
But the pig sector, all the Thompsons are well aware, has been through tough times in recent years, with the “double whammy” of foot-and-mouth and swine fever.
“The last really good year was 1996,” says Margaret, “although there have been smaller peaks since then.
“We could never imagine getting out of pigs altogether, though. It would be just too strange to get up and not have them to feed. We like the regularity and the sense of routine. We never let this slip, although we’ll give ourselves a day off from weaning on Christmas Day! We can’t complain – we’re not as tied to the routine as dairy farmers are.”
The shop, meanwhile, will see more people come to the farm, which is something the Thompsons are no strangers to, having opened the gate for the past two years as part of Open Farm Sunday.
On the first occasion, although “not knowing what to expect”, they got 450 visitors, with an even bigger number this year.
“This time we were a bit more organised. We let people flow through the farm on their own, but had helpers scattered about at key points to answer questions and guide them on,” Rosie says.
One of the biggest compliments the family could have received came when someone commented that it must have taken them a while to clear up and make the place look this tidy. “No,” they replied, “this is how it always is.”
Having some experience of PR from before she worked on the farm, Rosie is a natural at this and conscious of its importance.
“Our aim was to help make the public that little bit more aware of agriculture and of what we do. I’m very particular about the food I buy, particularly when I’m buying it for my daughter, but not everyone is the same. The public is so distant from where food comes from.”
It soon became apparent that even some local people didn’t realise what happens on a farm. One, laughs Margaret, asked her about the “sow that was choking”. She diplomatically explained it was, in fact, a boar and that the reason it was making that noise was because it was “interested” in a nearby sow. Another visitor was convinced one piglet was dying from convulsions. In fact, it was merely asleep and twitching. “We had lots of positive feedback, though, so it was very satisfying to do.
“It’s important that we explain what we do and how farming has changed and is changing, as well.”
John, of course, has seen massive changes over these past four decades, not least the disappearance of livestock markets and the ever-increasing size of the machinery.
“Farming’s easier because there’s less manual work, but there’s definitely more pressure nowadays,” he reckons. “We used to have time to go for a pint during harvest – we don’t any more.” For Margaret, meanwhile, the biggest single change has been the proliferation of paperwork.
Even Steven and Rosie’s 11-year-old daughter Anna (along with her cousins Andrew and Daniel) got involved in the Open Farm Sunday endeavours, running a “Guess the weight of the pig” competition, which more than 100 people entered.
She reckons that one day she might like to follow in her parents and grandparents’ footsteps – although becoming a pig farmer is just one of her favoured careers, along with either becoming a chef or a vet.
But one thing is for sure if Anna goes into farming, she won’t need to rely on a raffle win to get her first pigs like her granddad did.
John and Margaret with Steven (right) Martin, Rosie and Anna.