Farm of the Week: Yorkshire farmer who’s enjoying capital gains

Tim Wilson with one of the "ginger pigs"  his business is named after.
Tim Wilson with one of the "ginger pigs" his business is named after.
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PROBABLY the most famous farmer in Yorkshire has never featured in this space before.

There has been a tendency to see Tim Wilson as a London butcher rather than a Yorkshire farmer – which helps explain why he has four shops in the capital, and plans for more, but struggled when he tried to run one in Thornton le Dale.

Fact is, everything that London is buying from The Ginger Pig – meat supplier to celebrity chefs and their followers – comes from three farms in the Vale of Pickering.

Mr Wilson lives on Grange Farm at Levisham, off the road up to the moors from Pickering. It is also the workplace of five butchers – who, incidentally, will stop and serve anyone who wants to drop by, but are not often asked to.

Another false perception of Mr Wilson is that he is a wealthy man playing at farming. He used to be a “property developer”. But he did not have a spare bean, he says, when he bought his first few animals and found them eating up the time he used to spend renovating old houses.

He grew up at Worksop and worked on a pig farm as a boy. And he turned back towards his roots when he bought a 30-acre smallholding in Nottinghamshire, 20 years ago.

“It was an old-fashioned mixed farm and very picturesque. But once the animals were taken away, it looked dead. The pig sty was just a broken brick shed and the duck pond was just mucky water. To put some life back, I bought some old-fashioned turkeys and chickens and I got some Tamworths because if you are going to have pigs, they might as well be big and colourful. And once I had a boar and four or five gilts, there were suddenly piglets everywhere, of course.”

He sold the odd half-pig to friends and learned that people who buy half a pig rarely come back and buy another, “once they have worked their way to the bottom of the freezer”. He started making bacon and sausages and selling them through a barn shop. To drive trade, he bought in Suffolk lamb and Lincoln Red beef.

And in 1996 he signed up for a food fair which launched a London phenomenon called Borough Market, in Southwark. The new consciousness of food was just beginning and the two girls he sent down were on the phone at noon to say they had sold out of Tamworth products.

“I went to work and drove down at midnight and stocked them up as much as I could and they sold out again,” he recalls. “Over three days we took £900, which for me was amazing. Something was happening and I was in at the beginning.”

Borough Market went monthly and is now a tourist attraction, which still includes a Ginger Pig stall, but it still only opens Friday and Saturday. Tim Wilson needed a seven-day outlet and back in Notts, the farm shop was getting so many visitors the locals complained. Then he heard that the estate which ran most of trendy Marylebone was encouraging foodie outlets in the interest of good rents for its flats and houses. The first high street Ginger Pig opened there. And two more have followed, in Hackney and Waterloo.

They look expensive in comparison with Tesco. But Mr Wilson reckons they are competitive with high-welfare lines in Waitrose or Sainsburys. Check his prices on the home deliveries pages at www.thegingerpig.co.uk/

The reasons for them are explained in The Ginger Pig Meat Book, published in May and well reviewed since. The message which runs all through it is that good meat comes from animals which grow at a natural pace, on natural foods, in natural conditions.

The Ginger Pig takes seven to 10 months to do what a pig factory would do in 16-17 weeks. The beef takes at least 30 months to mature, compared with the usual 20 months. Lamb takes an extra month. Everything gets the space laid down by the RSPCA in Freedom Food standards.

When the business got too big for its birthplace, Mr Wilson found the 160 acres at Levisham, in “slightly tired” condition, and moved himself and his pigs there in 2001.

He bought Longhorn cattle and was quickly persuaded it would be an awful waste not to run sheep, as the farm came with moorland grazing rights. As the business grew, a cousin, Alex Smith, took over East Moor Farm at Wykeham, near Scarborough, and the running of the Longhorns. And Mr Wilson took the tenancy of Blansby Park Farm – 500 acres on the other side of Pickering, where most of his pigs now live and feed crops are grown.

All sheep are natural free-range animals, of course, and even Ginger Pig customers are content with fairly standard crosses, from a Texel tup on Blackface Mules, but Blansby Park does run a few Dorsets, to give December lambs for the Easter market.

At peak times, the farms between them will now have 1,000 pigs in six breeds, 450 cattle of five kinds and 3500 sheep, plus poultry. The workforce has expanded to about 55 all in. And a fourth shop is being prepared to open in August, between Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush. The plan is to add another four over the next four years – also in London.

“Everyone thinks you are in London because you can get high prices,” says Mr Wilson. “But not all the shops are in particularly smart areas and the customers are as cost-conscious as anybody. What London gives me is consistent volume. If your best four customers go on holiday, another five or six come along.

“London was where the foodie thing started. Nobody complained my pork was fat. They were standing there with Jamie Oliver books, looking for the ingredients. And the restaurants were naming Whitby as the source of their fish before Yorkshire was. That is just the way it happened. When I bought a butchers in Thornton, I think people thought, he’s a London guy and we are not going to pay his prices. I sold up in the end.

“But that was four years ago and now it might be different. I have had more inquiries from restaurateurs in Manchester and Leeds in the past six months than I had in 10 years before. I’d like to see Ginger Pig butchers in Cambridge and Newcastle and Bristol, served by local farmers doing what we do.”

n The Ginger Pig Meat Book, by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde, is published by Mitchell Beazley and can be ordered from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop for £25 plus post costs of £2.75. See www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk or call free on 0800 0153232. Pictures with this report are taken from the book, with permission of the publishers.

Headquarters of The Ginger Pig is Grange Farm, Levisham, YO18 7NL. Email enquiries@thegingerpig.co.uk or call 01751 460091. Butchery classes are also run there. Call 01751 460808 or see website, www.thegingerpig.co.uk for more details.

Tim Wilson also runs The Ginger Pig Grocery Store in Market Place, Pickering, which stocks some of his meat products.