Yorkshire is swiftly becoming the pig capital of the UK, with a long history of traditional farming combined with innovative local pork producers who are putting their stamp on the market.
Yorkshire has a long history of porcine glory. The most common commercially reared pig in the world is the Large White, also known as the Yorkshire Pig, as it was first bred in Yorkshire.
Upmarket sausages and bacon firm Cranswick is leading the charge for Yorkshire’s pork producers.
The Hull-based firm is currently broadening its product portfolio ahead of an anticipated strong Christmas trading period.
Cranswick’s chief executive, Adam Couch, says that Yorkshire pig farmers are hugely important to the company and its success.
“Eighty per cent of our pigs travel within a 50-mile radius of our site in Hull and they are mostly from Yorkshire.
“We are keeping mileage down and showing maximum consideration for animal welfare,” he says.
Cranswick sources pigs from 100 farms in total and processes 30,000 pigs a week at its Hull site, which is the largest in the UK.
Outdoor pigs play a major role in this and 40 per cent of Cranswick’s output is outdoor reared.
“You’ve got the welfare consideration with outdoor pigs. Animals can demonstrate their natural behaviour with access to light, food and shelter,” says Mr Couch.
The outdoor-reared element has enabled the UK to charge 25 to 30 per cent more than European rivals as UK husbandry rules are far stricter than on the Continent.
Cranswick uses outdoor-reared pigs for premium products and nearly all the supermarket chains use its meat for their Finest, Taste The Difference, Extra Special and Signature ranges.
At a time when global health experts have claimed that processed meat such as bacon, ham and sausages can cause bowel cancer, Cranswick is staying sanguine.
“This is an old story that’s been regurgitated,” says Mr Couch. “As part of a balanced diet, fresh meat and processed meat have a big part to play.”
Cranswick is now looking forward to a strong Christmas. Traditionally, the group sees a strong surge in sausage, bacon and pigs-in-blankets sales, but more recently families have started supplementing the Christmas turkey with a gammon, which is a lot cheaper.
“We’re looking for a strong Christmas. Pig numbers are up by five per cent,” says Mr Couch. “We’ve got some good product ranges with gammon signature products at the premium end and we’re confident sausage numbers will remain strong.”
Another key growth area is exports as demands for higher welfare and food safety become increasingly important in overseas markets.
While Cranswick is by far the biggest pork producer in Yorkshire, some smaller players are also making their mark. Posh sausage-maker Heck is run by a farming family who turned their hands to sausage-making and have seen sales boom since being featured in a BBC business makeover show.
Its founders, Andrew and Debbie Keeble, created the Heck brand in 2012 to produce high-quality sausages with food values to match consumers’ growing demands for home-produced food, and a vision of creating a sustainable family business.
They run the business from Bedale and all four of their children, Jamie, Guy, Roddy and Ellie, help out.
Now making more than two million sausages a month, they supply a number of major supermarkets.
The firm recently moved to new premises, and quirky products such as a square-shaped sausage for the barbecue and a heart-shaped sausage for Valentine’s Day have helped sales grow 150 per cent across the range.
The company achieved sales of £3m in its first year of trading, and said it is well on target to deliver £7m in 2015. The goal is to get to £40m by 2020.
“We use a huge number of Yorkshire pigs – 6,000 a week,” says Andrew Keeble. “Ever since ‘Horsegate’, people want to know exactly where the pigs come from.”
Heck sources its pigs from three nearby farms.
“We are still farmers born and bred,” says Mr Keeble. “It’s very important to us to support British farmers.”
Another important local player is Karro Food Group, which sources many of its animals from farmers who live locally to its operations.
Di Walker, executive chair of Karro, says: “With our headquarters in Malton, North Yorkshire, we have strong farming links across the county going back many years. In fact, many of the farmers in our Yorkshire agricultural base have been working with us for more than three generations.
“These local relationships are vitally important to us and this long-standing approach has helped us secure an award-winning reputation for optimal welfare standards and high-quality pork products, ensuring that we have unrivalled production-chain traceability.”
She says that the welfare of Karro’s animals is of the highest priority both within Yorkshire and across the business.
“All our pigs are bred outdoors and are kept and processed in the most humane way possible, with full adherence to UK welfare standards,” she says.
This commitment to welfare and humane farming was recognised by the Compassion in World Farming Awards in 2011, when Karro was presented with a Leadership in Pig Welfare award.
Karro has a wide supply base both in the UK and in export markets. Around 70 per cent of its total volume is destined for the domestic market, while 30 per cent is exported to EU countries, the US, China, Australia, Korea, Japan and Africa.
“Our export business is a key focus for the long-term success of our business,” says Ms Walker. “As we operate through integrated farming, slaughter and processing operations we have full supply-chain visibility.”
A combination of high welfare standards, stringent food safety measures and innovative product ranges mean that Yorkshire’s pork producers are set to go from strength to strength.