Finding the perfect pig…

I returned home a few days ago with a van full of butchery equipment, another high street butcher has closed and I was there picking the carcass of knives, hooks and trays like a vulture. Although I was pretty chuffed with my haul (and a wooden block and some stainless steel tables were to follow), I drove home in silence, there was no radio blaring, I didn’t hum a happy tune or sing to myself. I felt pretty bad to be honest. I don’t know the full ins and outs of the business in question – whether it was the right site, whether it was staff problems, whether they’d expanded to soon but it’s a horrid thing seeing a business come to an end.

I’ve had some troubles these past few weeks myself – the breeder that I’ve been sourcing my animals from has decided to concentrate solely on breeding, rather than rearing animals to a slaughter weight. I understand perfectly, it’s a question of economics. And to be truthful, it’s probably the very best thing for him to do. He’s an incredible breeder and he knows his animals so well. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can still source some of his pork, though they’ll be ‘finished’ on other farms rather than his. I’m glad it’s happened now, while I’m still a small company, cutting only a few animals per month. When I amended my business plan recently, the one big glaring warning that I’d had from the consultant was the fact that I had one sole pork supplier.

So, the wheels are in motion to look at new ways of sourcing my pork. I spent around six months last year visiting breeders, trying and testing their pork to get the perfect results. I decided in the end to be true to our regional breed of pigs: The Pedigree Welsh. When I’m selling my product, when I tell the customer that it’s from a ‘Welsh Pig’ they often just assume that it’s local, not that it’s a specific breed. Even though the Welsh is extremely well suited to more commercial production, it isn’t a very well known breed. Sow numbers are low, and it’s classed as ‘At Risk’ by the Rare Breed Survival Trust. My biggest problem as a producer is the type of pig that I’m looking for – there are specific weight ranges for pigs for use in different products. Pigs killed for pork in the UK are usually around 50-65kg deadweight, for bacon they’re around 65-100kg mark (though these aren’t by any means definitive weights). On the continent, pigs for charcuterie production are well over 150kg. Finding pigs at higher weights in the UK is very difficult, unless you buy from large scale rearing units producing hybrid pigs for the more commercial markets.

There isn’t really a huge market for these higher weight pigs in the UK. We prefer the younger more tender flavoured pork from smaller animals. Continental pork is older, a little tougher but has darker more flavourful meat. With high feed costs, breeders would also rather have a higher turnover of small animals than to keep animals on their farm for over nine months of age – it’s a case of economics. Having chosen to stick with one breed, and a rare breed at that, I’m limited by the numbers of animals that are available. I intend to persevere with the Pedigree Welsh, I’m hoping to meet with one of the senior members of the Welsh Pig Society this week to see if I can set up a collective of breeders who can finish pigs to the weights that I’d like. When I was in the US last year I was extremely impressed by the number of Community Supported Agriculture schemes that were around. I’m essentially looking to establish a similar scheme for the Welsh Pig.

I do have one other option, if I can’t find the right finisher I’ll have to change my own path slightly and look to rearing all my own animals. It’s a big step to both rear and process. But perhaps, in the end, it might be the only answer.

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