The challenges of rising feed and fuel costs and increasing red tape burdens have hit the pig industry hard. And some producers have been getting out, as they find themselves struggling to survive in the industry’s most turbulent times.
However, others see the decline as a mere blip in the market with light at the end of the tunnel for the struggling industry. Two farmers from the West Country are investing heavily in the industry at the same time as many are bailing out.
The two producers tell very different tales with their reasons for joining the industry, and their unique marketing techniques used to avoid the dilemmas associated with rising costs and the so-called credit crunch.
Thomas Browne, Organic pig producer, Devon.
The Browne family has run a beef and arable enterprise at Newton St Cyres, Devon, for more than six generations. Son Thomas, who also produces 10,000 organic broiler chickens a month and 23,000 free-range broilers for Lloyd Maunder, wanted to branch out into something different not involving chickens.
With some experience of outdoor pigs after an agricultural exchange to New Zealand and the retirement of his father, Mr Browne decided to convert 24.3ha (60 acres) of rented land into organic pasture. The land, known locally as “red land”, is a free-draining loam, bad for arable, but perfect for outdoor pig production, says Mr Browne.
“My decision to set up an organic pig herd was in part based on my philosophy of producing animals in the most natural way possible, which was prompted at a Soil Association open day. Riverford Organics was making a request for organic pig producers to join a new initiative, a meat box scheme. As the land had already been converted, I took on the challenge.”
The three brothers running Riverford Organics were helpful in the set-up, agreeing on a cost-plus contract that suited all parties. Undeniably this was a huge step, but help from Riverford and BPEX’s knowledge transfer team, who advised on the set-up, stock sourcing and management techniques, made it a smother ride, said Mr Browne.
The first batches of gilts arrived on-farm at the end of June 2007 and were sold at the start of May 2008, added Mr Browne. “Weekly batches of 38-40 pigs are now going to Riverford, with most going into bacon and sausages.
“Genetics has been important in getting pigs to bacon weight, but at the same time producing a tasty product. Quarter Duroc, half Landrace and half Large White have been working quite successfully, although more traditional breeds like the Hampshire will be added in to enhance the taste.
“Undeniably with the price of feed increasing by £100/t in a year, it has been a worrying time, forcing the cost of organic products higher. However, being on a cost plus system with Riverford takes the pressure off, as I am still getting a guaranteed margin. So long as Riverford continue to take the pigs, there shouldn’t be a problem.”
Organic, outdoor reared meat is a niche market and is essentially a luxury item, adds Mr Browne. “It depends on what the consumer places his or her value on – cheap product or a tasty and ethically produced product. This is why more taste will be developed in the pigs, making the product special and unique.
“I see the pig industry gradually moving in the same direction as chicken production, moving away from just a meat animal. If we don’t want to be subject to the rising costs of feed and fuel, then becoming smaller and more sustainable can help focus costs, producing a product consumers want to buy. Imports of cheaper meat will always compete with the UK’s intensive pig production.”
James Mitchell, Outdoor pig producer, Somerset.
Having graduated from Harper Adams last year, 23-year-old James Mitchell returned to the family business at Hill Common, Somerset, to set up an outdoor pig herd.
Farming 190 ha (470 acres) of potatoes, apples, cereals, free-range chickens and beef, the whole ethos is to retail the farm’s produce through the farm shop, says Mr Mitchell.
The shop, set up in 1997, is supplied with a large percentage of his own produce, whether apple juice from the orchard or jams and preserves, adds Mr Mitchell. “It has always been my intention to add something to the business, and it was about midway through university I decided I wanted this to be outdoor pig production.
“After making this decision, I took the opportunity of my year’s placement from university to gather experience from other pig producers before going into business myself. I spent one year on a large outdoor pig unit and then another two months on a mixed pig unit.”
The experience was the single most important factor aiding in the set-up, says Mr Mitchell. BPEX also offered technical advice with things like service routines, he says.
“Set-up was a costly investment, with equipment costing most. Although it wasn’t the most ideal time to set up with the way the pig market was going, we had confidence in the niche market the shop provides. As we are more in control of the marketable product, we are hoping the credit crunch will not affect our market.”
The 70 gilts arrived in October 2007. The Landrace cross Duroc gilt put to Large White was selected as a good hardy outdoor breed, with good carcass conformation and yield and the Duroc element adding taste, he says.
The first batch of pigs is ready for slaughter and will be processed by our own butcher and sold in the shop in the coming weeks, adds Mr Mitchell.
“The idea of having the pigs outdoors fits in with the whole ethos of our farm shop – home-grown, green and naturally produced. Production hasn’t been affected by outdoor rearing as we are still averaging 10.9 pigs born alive and weaning from that 10.5 pigs, so losses are minimal.
“Setting up any enterprise is always going to have risks and shouldn’t be for the faint-hearted. A lot of planning and capital investment is needed to run a successful business. And by having unique products in the market place it can help maintain sales and cover costs.”
Key success points
- Establish niche market
- Capital costs
- Investment in quality