A Welsh village has hit back at rising food prices - by rearing its own pigs
Thursday 05 June 2008
In early October, weather permitting, a number of residents from the village of Grosmont in south Wales are planning a party with a magnificent hog-roast as the centrepiece. The village, home to around 200 households, is cushioned on all sides by Monmouthshire's Black Mountains and, with local life revolving around a small pub, The Angel, and the church, little excuse is required for a knees-up. Still, this particular celebration will be a very special one, marking the completion of the first cycle in Grosmont's plan to become a sustainable "eco-village". The hog-roast itself will be far more than tasty party food: it will be the end of the road for one of 13 piglets from two litters born this spring, which the villagers will rear themselves over the summer months; before slaughtering and butchering the animals and sharing out the meat.
Work on PIG, the pleasantly apt acronym for People in Grosmont, as the local food pioneers have dubbed themselves, began back in January when two Tamworth gilts, as sows who have not yet produced a litter are known, arrived at Chantal Dunn's elegantly restored farmhouse. Dunn and her family were planning on borrowing a local farmer's pigs to clear their woods, which were carpeted in a tangle of bracken several feet deep. The village rumour-mill started to grind, and the plan to buy the pigs and rear their litters collectively was born.
When the time for farrowing approached, the pair, affectionately known as Duchess and Princess, moved down from the woods to individual cosy shelters made of stacked hay bales, each in a large fenced pen. One Sunday morning in April, the Dunn family awoke to a thick covering of snow and Duchess's six wriggling piglets, each the size of a sausage. Pigs give birth alone with the minimum of fuss, making them relatively easy animals to rear, and two weeks later Princess retired to produce her own seven babies.
When I meet them, they're a few weeks old and already on their feet and snuffling excitedly round their pen under the proud gazes of a number of PIG's members, who have worked together to administer the group and feed and house them the past four months. In all, 21 families paid £50 each, to pledge their commitment as much as cover initial costs.
Mary Bartlett has brought her own three young children and some other pupils from Cross Ash primary school to look at the new arrivals; Jenny Pile, and Jane and Robin Moggridge have all come to check on the fruits of their labours. In ones, twos and small groups, people appear over the crest of the farmyard's drive, eager to see how the precious piglets are faring. As cute as the piglets are, and sleeping as they do in a snug row, curly tail to soft pink snout, making for a very endearing picture, everybody involved knows that they're bound for the roasting pan. The pigs were reared to allow the co-operative's members to access good quality, hand-reared and locally produced pork at prices far cheaper than supermarkets offer. The children would gain firsthand knowledge of where their pork chops had come from, and adults could ensure they were eating decent meat from animals that had been properly cared for.
PIG is road-testing the provision of alternative food-sources, which is timely given current shortages, but it is not immune to distant shocks to the system. The price of grain, used in pig feed, has increased by 70 per cent in the last 18 months. It was hoped the piglets would be 100 per cent organic, but a decision was taken early on that the feed, twice the price of regular feed, would be too expensive.
"We thought it was more important to get the project off the ground first," explains Alastair McGowan, local eco-warrior and founder member and ideological muscle behind the project. McGowan was considering how to get the Grosmont eco-village off the ground when he heard about the Dunn's plan for the pigs and the project evolved from there, via a series of word-of-mouth recommendations and neighbourly help. Both pigs were provided, already pregnant, by local farmer Ray Harris at a very generous rate, and he offered his expertise throughout the experiment.
"There are shared risks and shared rewards," continues McGowan. "It is about the process and not the production, and about the community as much as the meat we're making."
Pixie Mason is a nutritionist and lived in Grosmont until recently moving to a nearby village. "We did sell it to some on the idea of cheaper meat," she says. "But the social and psychological issues for me are almost more important than the meat."
Mason is impressed by the range of people the project has attracted, and they are certainly diverse in age and character, but they are predominantly middle-class and no one from Grosmont's small council estate has yet signed up. Perhaps the next plan, vegetable planting, might draw in some more enthusiasts. Chickens might follow, as they clean the land where seeds are planted. Waste vegetable scraps could then be used as pig feed, completing the circle and reducing costs further.
This stretch of the Welsh borders is no food desert. There are regular farmers' markets in nearby Abergavenny and Hereford, foodie heaven Ludlow is within striking distance, the Abergavenny Food Festival is a fixture in the gourmet diary each autumn and The Walnut Tree restaurant recently re-opened to strong reviews under renowned chef Shaun Hill.
If the apparent wealth of the area seems to conflict with the impoverished picture painted of Britain's contemporary farming community, much of it is down to those who have retired to the gentle Welsh mountains or have holiday homes here, and others who commute to and from London and other cities, as the area has good rail links with much of the UK.
Grosmont is taking pig-rearing into its own hands at a time when the industry is enduring calamitous times. According to the British Pig Executive, farmers currently lose £22 per animal and the number of breeding sows sent to slaughter in the first three months of this year rose by 35 per cent. Their number has been halved in just 10 years, down to under 500,000, enough to supply just half the pork and bacon consumed in Britain and subject to fierce competition from cheaper European meat. Meat prices have not kept pace with the rising price of feed, which has pushed up the cost of producing pig meat by 45 per cent in just two years, and it is unlikely people will be prepared to pay a decent price for the meat until there are shortages on shop shelves.
McGowan sees a global food crisis as an opportunity for farmers to demand a proper price for their meat. "Farmers I have talked to locally can see a golden era ahead. Because of the crisis people are going to have to pay a more realistic price for food to farmers."
And what of Princess and Duchess? Their first litters of 13 piglets will only provide half an animal for each family involved. The group might have their work cut out for them if they are to keep the hungry people of Grosmont in roast dinners for the foreseeable. There is talk of involving a mobile abattoir and a local butcher, and even of building a smokehouse for cured meats.
"No one's made it explicit," announces McGowan, "but we are thinking long-term."
Pig-keeping for beginners
* You must get a holding number and a herd number. The Bidgiemire Pig Company (www.pig-arcs.co.uk) can supply you with both for £10.
* You need a garden with space for a decent-sized sty. The smallest for sale are 8ft by 6ft. Pigs need several hundred square feet of outside space.
* Other essentials: a trough, wire and posts, and equipment to electrify the fence. Starter kits from Bidgiemire include all this for £699.
* Now get a pig. They cost from £70 to £250, depending on age and breed. You might want to do a one-day course to learn the basics.
* If you want to eat your pig – and not grow old together – you should find a local butcher willing to slaughter it for you.
Interested in setting up your own sustainable eco-village? Contact email@example.com
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