The pig farmers who are doing it right

Did you know that  97% of pigs reared in the UK are not in open air? And that 54% of UK pork is imported from EU pig factories? Our writer Pete Wise visits Porcus Farm, run by a couple who left London to do things differently – putting ethical food on British plates, the local way.

Crystal clear rainwater courses against the side of my boots. I traipse up the final twists of a rough gravel track. All around are the wild forms of grass-tufted hills, pale and radiant in the sunlight.

Nestled high in the Pennines east of Todmorden, I’m here to meet the people behind Porcus, partners and free-range pig farmers, Nat and Sarah-Jane. Quite unexpectedly, I’m also about to discover a new understanding of what an independent farm can be.

Let’s start with the pigs. Out on the fields behind the Porcus farmhouse they’re digging, scratching and sometimes even quarrelling amongst themselves. I’m immediately struck by their variety, both in terms of appearance and personality. A big boar tries to muscle his way into a shed and is quickly ejected by his occupant – a sow who does not suffer fools lightly. Some youngsters wander through the yard snuffling at the ground, bold and inquisitive. Hidden away on a bed of straw, a sow has just given birth to a new litter of faun-and-pink piglets, whose noses are now burrowing away into her udders.

Big or small; calm or terse; black, pink or faun – no two are exactly alike.

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“The little black-and-white ones are saddleback crosses, and that big beast there is a Tamworth,” says keeper Jamie. “In some cases we’ve sort of crossed them to get the best of both worlds in terms of their behaviour. Normal saddlebacks have droopy ears, and they’re placid. These ones are crosses, so they have pointy ears and mischievous traits.”

According to the pedometer on his smartphone, Jamie walks around 15km every day in the course of his duties – and much of that is through knee or waist-high mud.

“I show up, make sure everyone’s got food. That they’re dry, have clean water, that the piglets are all well and that everything’s secure. Then I’ll move onto any maintenance, clean-ups or general site work that needs attending to. It soon mounts up, and I can safely say I’ve never had a predictable day’s work in over two years.”

I speak with Nat, who runs Porcus with her partner SJ, and Beth whose various duties include accounting, handling regulatory issues, and – of course – making sausages. As Nat and SJ are, for now at least, something of a rarity in this part of the world.

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“Me and SJ lived in London prior to founding Porcus Farm. She was an interior designer with 20 years’ experience, and I was a vet,” says Nat. “You could never find good meat, good food. We eventually moved away from the city, got this house, these fields, and some goats and sheep. Somebody suggested we should get some pigs, and that’s how it started. The first lot we made into sausages and were delighted with the result. Then we got two more who were both pregnant, and we carried on from there.”

Nat used to visit industrialised farms during her time working as a vet. She found herself appalled at the conditions in which animals were being kept – with little scope for movement, stimulation or interaction. Porcus is a world removed. Here, pigs will take around four times longer to reach slaughter weight than their industrially farmed cousins (which is presumably down to all that running around with Jamie). Weather permitting, members of the Porcus drove will live out their days under open skies, and crucially, Nat strives to give her pigs a respectful end to life.

“We use a really good slaughterhouse that’s just 4 miles down the road. It’s really quiet, quick and efficient. Animals are never kept there overnight, and we let them make their own way out of the van. Still, despite all that, I get really wound up every Friday. If you become emotionless, that’s when inhumane treatment starts. That extra half hour where I pull up and let them unload quietly, that makes the difference.”

Not only are Porcus ethical famers, they’re also innovative pork producers of growing repute. Alongside bacon, sausages and orders of raw cuts for pubs and restaurants, they also produce a range of cured hams – one of Beth’s specialist subjects. Nat kindly offers me a selection of Porcus’ produce to take home, and I’m quick to try a slice of juicy, peppery Todmorden culatello.

First off, it’s delicious – but more importantly, the mouthful also brings with it the revelation of eating meat with absolute peace of mind. This animal lived and died well; I’m grateful to be able to eat it. I’ve never felt better about eating a meat product.

Nat says that in the long-term, she and SJ will consider turning Porcus into an educational centre, to help preserve and promote their welfare-sensitive approach to pig farming.

“SJ and I, we don’t have kids, and there’s only Beth and Jamie we have as our sort of adopted children,” she says.

“This is our legacy.”

About

Pete Wise

Pete Wise

Pete Wise is a freelance features writer, published recently by titles including The Sunday Times, The Yorkshire Post and The Line of Best Fit. You'll often find him wandering in fields, bobbing along enthusiastically at gigs or typing away on his laptop.

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