Pig club is squeaking by high in the Pennines

Tom O'Hara at feeding time
Tom O'Hara at feeding time
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Starting a citizens’ pig farm. Marie-Claire Kidd reports on community-supported agriculture in Slaithwaite.

What do you do if you can’t find or afford good quality pork? According to a group of West Yorkshire residents, you simply raise it yourself.

A co-operative of 12 families from Slaithwaite and the surrounding area have clubbed together to buy nine rare breed pigs and are getting their hands dirty fattening them up.

“Everything we’ve got is begged, borrowed or stolen,” says the driving force behind the pig club, Jo Lawrence, as she joins in making makeshift pig shelters.

“We’ve rebuilt the gaps in the dry stone walls. And we did a good job too, considering none of us had done it before. We rewired the fence using what was there.

“Everybody brings different skills. We’ve got a carpenter, a joiner, a builder, a man with a van, people who work at the greengrocers and a smallholder. Between us we’re managing quite well.”

Jo is a mum-of-three and a part-time cleaner. She convened the pig club to save money.

“It got so that we couldn’t afford good pork, that’s if we could find it,” she says. “We were at a point where we didn’t eat pork any more.

“The question was how could we afford it. The answer was to grow our own.”

The family already grows vegetables co-operatively on land they share with neighbours.

“The next step was to keep animals. Cows are too big, chickens are too hands-on for eating, but pigs are hardy and relatively low-maintenance.

“They seemed the perfect choice. And the old breeds are the hardiest.”

These pigs need to be hardy. They live at over 1,000ft above sea level, on a windy hillside above Slaithwaite, in the tiny hamlet of Cop Hill.

Smallholder Duncan Walpole offered an acre of land through the local “transition network” called Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Towns (MASTT), of which he is an active member.

“The land is provided for free, though before we put pigs on it we needed to tidy a few fences and walls so the co-op helped there,” says Duncan. “Everyone brings their time and specialities to the project, mine is land and keeping an eye on the stock.

“I like the idea of community agriculture. I seized this chance to make a difference here locally.

“It’s fun working with like-minded people, especially with pigs, because they can be labour-intensive.”

Duncan is keen that the club expands further next year. “We can have half as many again on this field. If need be we can rent a neighbouring field.

“We hope to use this as a building block, as part of the jigsaw with partners establishing bigger scale, co-operative local food production – for pigs and beyond.”

So far, the pigs have cost about £1,000. The club spent £450 on four Gloucester Old Spots, four Saddlebacks and a Tamworth, all crossed with wild boars.

“At the moment we’re keeping it simple, we’re not breeding them,” says Jo.

They had to look hard to find rare breed pigs for sale. Eventually they discovered Old Glossop Farm Produce in Glossop in Derbyshire.

“We got seven pigs, aged 10 weeks. Then another two people joined the club so we had to go back for another two,” says Duncan.

“It takes pigs a week to settle down. During that time they’ll accept new pigs into the herd. Any more than a week and they’ll kill them.”

Pig feed is their biggest outgoing, at £270 a tonne.

They are supplementing the pigs’ diet with spent malts from local microbreweries. Waste from Slaithwaite’s community-owned greengrocer, the Green Valley Grocer, will help two tonnes last up to six months,

The pig shelters are homemade, comprising pallets insulated with straw and covered with aluminium roofing panels.

Builder and pig club member Pip Lane says: “The roofs are tucked under the lee of the wall, so the prevailing wind blows over the top. It can be a very strong wind.”

There are twelve shareholders holding 16 half-pig shares, each worth £120, and there is a contingency pig, just in case.

Shareholders also give their time. They get together about once a month to work on the land and each member takes it in turns to feed the herd, either every morning or every evening, for a week.

Pip says: “It’s no big deal for drivers, but for cyclists like me it’s quite a commitment.”

They will slaughter the biggest at pork weight, in autumn.

“We’re looking at about 35kg of meat per pig,” says Jo.

In the lead up to Christmas they will fatten and slaughter the rest, clearing the land ready for a new herd next year.

The meat will all be eaten by shareholders, their families and their friends.

Some weeks into the project, there is amazement at how the pigs have grown.

“At first they were like big rugby balls,” says Duncan. “I could pick them up and throw them wherever I wanted. Now there’s no way I could do that.”

But the biggest surprise has been how everyone has fallen in love with the pigs. “People have been traumatised when they leave them,” Jo says. “There’s nobody that hasn’t been to see them between feeding schedules.”

“People are putting pictures of them on Facebook,” says Helen Coxon, pig club member and greengrocer. “It’s weird.”

Such strong affection for the animals might lead one to wonder how much stomach the members will have in autumn for the business of killing them.

This seems especially so for the shareholders who have young families – which means most of them – because it seems that it most cases the the children are enjoying being very hands-on.

So what is their view? Grace O’Hara, eight, has already named one of the pigs. She admits she is getting attached. “I don’t want to eat them because they’re really cute,” she says.

Her brother Tom, 10, disagrees. “We eat pork and bacon from the supermarket but our meat will taste better because we’ll know how it’s been brought up,” he says.

Johanna McTiernan, co-founder of Slaithwaite’s Handmade Bakery – Britain’s first community supported bakery – says the pig club will help her decide whether or not she should be vegetarian.

“I’ll find out through this experience,” she says. “I’m not going to feel squeamish about it, it’s about respect.”

Joe Mitchell, 10, has already made up his mind: “If for lunch I have a pork pie, I don’t know which pig it came from,” he says.

“It’s okay this way. I feel better about it because I know the pigs.”

Amanda Daniel, who is the information co-ordinator at the Soil Association, says: “Community supported agriculture (CSA) projects like these are increasingly popular with consumers keen to access affordable, high quality food with known provenance.

“People are either doing it themselves or becoming a member of a local farm.

“Either way CSA is about sharing the risks and rewards of farming.

“It’s really exciting seeing people like the members of the Slaithwaite pig club reconnecting with where their food comes from, learning new skills and working together. They’re creating new communities around food.”

For Soil Association information on CSAs see soilassociation.org/csa.aspx and Pig Ignorant by Jim Pettipher soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=wHA6qvWcNLU%3d&tabid=204