Farming Stalwart: Julia Blant of Ladies in Pigs

Three months ago a letter arrived through the letterbox at Richard and Julia Blant’s picturesque Nottinghamshire farm that made the pair reflect.

It was from the chief executive of the Newark and Notts Agricultural Society, who was writing to inform Julia that she had been nominated for the Society’s bronze medal, celebrating 25 years of service to agriculture.

Mention Julia Blant to anyone in Nottinghamshire farming circles and chances are the first thing they’ll think of is pigs. The Blant family’s 160-acre farm in the village of Arnold held up to 600 sows at its peak, and Julia has been a leading light in LIPS (Ladies in Pigs) for more than 13 years – a unique organisation founded and run entirely by women to promote British pork.

Even her home is a testament to the family’s lifelong commitment to pigs. The walls are dotted with pig pictures, chairs are scattered with pig cushions and the sideboard is crammed with teapots, photo frames and ornaments all adorned with pigs. When Julia sets a jug of water on the table before our interview it’s carefully placed on a coaster – decorated with a picture of a pig, of course.

Considering her enthusiasm for the animals, it comes as a surprise to learn that Julia is the first in her family to pursue a career in the countryside. And it’s a career of firsts, starting with her decision to study a newly established farm secretarial course at Studley Agricultural College when most of her boarding school classmates were training to become teachers, secretaries or nannies.

“I was probably the first girl at the school to go into agriculture, and I’ll probably be the last,” says Julia, who was part of the college’s only third intake for the course and cut her teeth doing a year’s practical on a farm just outside Oswestry.

The placement just happened to coincide with the coldest winter on record – an early test of her commitment to the job. Temperatures in the UK plummeted on Boxing Day in 1962 and the ice did not thaw for months, but Julia dutifully made the 10-mile journey to and from the farm every day, only missing milking and feeding duties on two occasions.

The experience would have sent a lesser girl running for the nearest finishing school, but Julia is typically pragmatic: “I knew if I survived that on a farm, I would survive anything,” she says.

Various farm secretarial jobs followed. One in Cheshire – where Julia continued with dairying and was introduced to turkeys, beef and sheep – and one on an Oxfordshire estate. But by her late twenties she had still never worked with pigs – the animal that would come to consume her professional life for more than 30 years.

The turning point came when she was introduced to her now-husband Richard Blant by a canny aunt and uncle.

Richard was already managing the pig unit at Cockliffe Hill Farm when he met Julia, but the union did not get off to the most promising start when his wife-to-be declared: “I don’t like pigs.” However, she is happy to admit that she did not take much converting.

A month after their first meeting Julia paid Richard a visit and was immediately impressed. So much so, that two months later the pair were married and within a year their son Simon was born.

In the early days, Julia took on a number of local clients and became a roving farm secretary, but it wasn’t long before she was busy getting another first under her belt – setting up and running the first agricultural training group in the Southwell area of Nottinghamshire.

“It was quite a challenge as the concept of training staff was quite a new thing for farmers, unless they were already a big operation or estate,” said Julia, “but I really enjoyed the work and ended up knowing more of the local farmers than my husband. We set up all sorts of courses – machinery, livestock, crop growing and workshop tasks.”

The farmers she worked with during this seven-year period held her in such high regard they presented her with an inscribed silver plate to mark her achievements, but she can also count royalty among her admirers.

Joining the growing silverware collection at Cockliffe Hill Farm is a framed letter from St James’s Palace, congratulating Julia and her LIPS colleagues for their tireless efforts promoting the British pork industry.

Prince Charles visited Nottingham in 1999 in the thick of the pig crisis, when currency exchange rates lead to enormous amounts of cheap imported pig meat coming into the country, crippling British producers for almost two years.

Julia joined Prince Charles and the then NFU chief executive Jack Ward around a table at a local farmhouse to discuss the crisis, but although they were joined by several faces from throughout the local community, the meeting ended up being more of a one-on-one between His Royal Highness and a very passionate Julia.

By this time Julia had already been a member of LIPS for two years, but she first got wind of the group in August 1997 when she received notice of a meeting in Melton Mowbray.

“This was my first meeting with them and I quickly realised this was no group of shrinking violets,” she recalls. For a woman who describes herself as “a bit of a suffragette”, it is unsurprising that Julia slotted seamlessly into the LIPS fold.

After becoming a fully paid-up member, her first job was a British pork mince promotion. She helped set up and run a mobile kitchen in the Nottingham branch of Asda, cooking a variety of pork mince recipes and handing out free samples to often resistant customers. The promotion was a huge success – the store went from selling about two boxes of pork mince a week to selling 12. Julia was hooked.

Her well-honed organisation skills came into play and she marked herself out as a leader, rising through the LIPS ranks to become vice-chairman – a role she has only recently relinquished in order to spend more time on the farm.

But awards, campaigns and brushes with royalty aside, it is clear that Julia’s biggest source of pride is her husband Richard, who continues to inspire her with his sound philosophy to pig keeping.

“Everything Richard does is about creating the most natural conditions possible, even though we rear our pigs indoors in an ‘intensive’ setting,” she says. “It sounds clichéd, but he truly believes that happy pigs produce better pork.”

Do you know a farming stalwart?

Farmers Weekly would like to hear of other “farming stalwarts” to appear in this series.
Have you or someone you know been associated with the countryside for many decades?
It might be through a connection with the family farm, or as a employee on one. It might, alternatively, be through an involvement in one of the many allied trades and professions that are so integral to our rural areas.
You can nominate yourself – or a friend, a neighbour, relative or colleague.
Just email a few bullet points about the person you’re nominating (you can nominate yourself) to Tim Relf .
Please include your phone number.