Once, every country-dweller had a pig to provide a year's worth of pork, ham, bacon and sausages for the family. Since I acquired a garden larger than a postage stamp for the first time 18 months ago, I've been casting a speculative eye over it and wondering whether to get one. Last year at the Bath and West show, we saw a styful of a winsome, prize-winning miniature breed of New Zealand origin. They were described as intelligent and friendly, though whether that's a good thing in an animal you intend to eat I'm not sure.
The subject makes my husband (not a pig person) roll his eyes. My dad, who grew up in a village where people did keep a porker in the garden, has issued dire warnings about antisocial smells. I haven't dared broach the subject with the neighbours. Perhaps the Tumblers Patch Pig Co-op, based at Coombe Down, near Bath, could provide a solution.
The dozen subscribers to the Tumblers Patch scheme made an initial estimated investment of £90 to raise each whole pig. Everyone mucked in. Those who invested in half a pig agreed to work one morning and an evening once a month, feeding, watering and checking over the pigs. Those who wanted a whole pig had to do twice the work. The pigs were kept on Tumblers Patch, an overgrown market garden rented by Tim Baines, a self-employed landscape gardener. "My initial interest was clearing the land, and pigs are good at grubbing up deep-seated weeds," he explains. "But I also intended to have a taste of the pork."
Tim fenced in half an acre of his market garden and found the other members of the co-op through the Bath Organic Group. They sourced nine piglets from a local school farm. These crossbreeds of Saddleback and the Middle White combined a natural ability for churning up the ground with the potential for rapid weight gain (and thus pork chops more quickly).
"The idea was to keep the pigs for six months, and work 12 days for each pig," says Tim. "None of ushad even kept pigs before." Happily, he says, pigs are less work than you might expect. Over the six months the co-op kept their pigs, they only needed cleaning out three or four times. Alongside their main diet of organic pig pellets, the pigs feasted on uncooked organic leftovers from members' kitchens; some days, their trough contained a gourmet mix of overripe mangos, bananas and Jerusalem artichokes, which Tim is certain contributed to the flavour.
The sows were the more docile of the family. There were a few hairy moments when the four largest boars mined under the fence, Colditz-style, to escape into the neighbouring orchard. But, Tim says, "they were friendly animals, and you do develop an attachment. There was one that would come and rub its head on my knee". Pig keepers can't afford to be sentimental, though. "You can eat your pigs and not feel bad about it – in the end you've given them as good a life as animals bred for food can have."
The final cost of the Tumblers Patch project was a little more than the original £90 per pig investment, owing to an increase in abattoir fees. But half a pig meant 30kg of excellent joints and chops: "The best meat I've ever tasted, with really good, proper crackling," says Tim.
Before the onset of foot-and-mouth, he was planning another co-op set-up to run longer, because bacon only comes from older pigs. I was so tempted by the prospect of home-grown charcuterie that I left him my phone number.
Tumblers Patch Pig Co-op is an example of a Community Supported Agriculture project. CSA initiatives aim to involve consumers more closely with the production and supply of their food. "It's a new concept in this country," explains Rupert Aker of the Soil Association, "a way of establishing mutual commitment between farmer and consumer. The consumer trusts the farmer to provide good-quality food, and supports the farmer by maybe paying upfront or helping on the farm."
The Soil Association is hoping that CSA projects will catch on. "It's about engaging and educating people," says Rupert Aker. He cites the example of Lathcoats Farm near Chelmsford, where locals were encouraged to rent an apple tree for a year for £10, in return for its yield.
A co-op like Tumblers Patch involves a dozen people working over six months, but some CSA projects are more ambitious. Organics At Cost, launched recently, aims to find over a thousand subscribers to buy a whole farm. For an initial joining cost of £1,335, and a subscription of around £10 per week to cover running costs, members will be entitled to a share of the produce of an organically run farm. And (on a purely voluntary basis) they can take part in farm work. The farm's purchase will rely on enough people signing up. It may seem expensive, says Gillian Ferguson, who with her husband has spent two years setting up Organics At Cost. But, she says, the initial fee compares favourably with that of a family skiing holiday. "And this will go on as long as people want. It won't be over in a fortnight." It's an ambitious project, but she has high hopes. "Our subscribers will be people with vision."Reuse content