Keeping faith in pigs reaps reward in Holderness

Sharing a compliment and talking with consumers gives pig farmer Peter Kirkwood of Poplar Farm, Rimswell in Holderness, great satisfaction.

Angela Kirkwood with some of her piglets. Pictures by Bruce Rollinson.

He attended his first farmers’ market at Driffield in 2000, opened a butcher’s shop in the same year, has stood at Beverley’s famous Saturday market for the past 17 years and supports the renowned Humber Bridge farmers’ market every month.

“I bought my first two pigs from Beverley livestock market when I was just 14 and I’ve had pigs ever since. Today we have 1,000 breeding sows and most of what we produce is destined for Morrisons with the rest going into our shop and on the market stalls as East Riding Country Pork.”

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Around the time when Peter went into farmers’ markets there was talk of pork having lost flavour. There had been a rush from producers, mainly at supermarkets’ behest for extra lean meat. Peter wasn’t happy over how his produce was perceived and his ire was fired.

Peter Kirkwood in the cool store at East Riding Country Pork.

“The reason I started was although we were producing quality pigs everybody I spoke to was bemoaning why they could never get proper tasting meat. This spurred me on and Driffield farmers’ market was our first go.”

Not only was Peter’s decision soon vindicated, he also found himself in a position that he’d never been previously, receiving bouquets rather than brickbats.

“I’ve seen all the ups and downs of the pig sector in over 50 years of farming here at Rimswell. We picked up Blue Ear disease that cost us a lot of money; we had the piglet wasting disease; and I’ve seen all my neighbours’ pig units disappear. At one time it was said there were more pigs than people in the East Riding but that’s not the same now. In this area most farms had between 150-250 sows but there’s now only one other pig breeding operation left around here apart from us.

“Standing at Beverley on a Saturday with my butcher and two of my three grandchildren Beatrice and William; and at the Humber Bridge farmers’ market; and when Driffield farmers’ market was in operation has been fantastic for me as I have always felt we produce the best tasting pork and bacon and the markets and shop are where I get compliments for what we do.

Peter Kirkwood in the cool store at East Riding Country Pork.

“Farmers very rarely receive compliments from abattoirs or buyers because they perhaps feel it will give ammunition to ask for more for your produce, but it’s very different, reassuring and a source of great pride when a consumer tells how much they appreciate what you’re doing and how much they enjoy the meat.

“I always throw the compliment back with one for them because I believe it’s a team effort between producer and customer. I can produce the quality is what I tell them, but it’s you as the cook or chef that turns it into that great meal that you want to eat again and again.

“We opened our butcher’s shop in Halsham with the help of a grant from Yorkshire Forward and luckily at the time we had a multi species abattoir in the next village of Roos.

“We didn’t really appreciate that until we lost it. These days we use Traves at Escrick near York and John Penny at Rawdon. I had never been a butcher so I brought in professionals with a lifetime’s experience.”

Peter’s first two pigs bought with his father Ted Kirkwood, who farmed at Carr Farm, were Large Whites but the herd at the 16-acre farm at Rimswell, bought when he was 17, is now made up of JSR Genepacker 90 and 9Ts. UK Hampshire boars are used and everything apart from the boars is bred on the farm where they have their own AI laboratory.

Feed comes from a mill and mix operation, which is also on site and grain is supplied from another important move that Peter made back in the mid-1980s. It was a move that propelled his farming business into the arable sector as well as pigs.

“In 1985 grain prices went through the roof and rather than expanding the pigs further I bought 326 acres eight miles away on the coast at Aldbrough.

“The following year another 115 acres came up and we’re now at around 600 acres growing winter wheat, spring barley and oilseed rape. When the pig unit has lost money during downturns the arable side has gained in asset value, which is a good thing to have in hard times. The banks like that.”

Peter’s youngest daughter, Angela, has been working alongside him for the past eight years following an earlier food and farming career that included studies at Bishop Burton College, management training at Marks & Spencer followed by employment with JSR in Southburn and as north of England territory manager for Blue Keld Water. Two weeks ago she was awarded a Nuffield scholarship.

“I’ll be looking at how we grow the British pig industry. In 1976 we had over one million sows in the UK and now that is under 400,000. As part of the scholarship I’ll look further into our growing export markets in China and the United States.

“I’ll also be looking at Spain as it is the only country in the EU that is growing its national herd.”