Gambling was rumoured to be the reason for the sale of Povey Farm situated near the village of Norton between Dronfield and Sheffield in the nineteenth century, but it was an all together more calculated risk Stephen and Karen Thompson took a decade ago that has seen their 240-acre pigs and arable farm become lauded by many, recently seeing them take The Yorkshire Post’s inaugural Farmer of the Year title as well as receiving several other award nominations.
“The Sitwell family were here from the 1500s to 1800s,” says Karen. “Povey Farm was part of their much larger estate but family lore has it that excessive gambling debts of a family member led to its sale. It went through a couple of further owners before Stephen’s family came here in the 1890s.”
Moss Valley Fine Foods was launched ten years ago in the wake of another slump in pig prices and while the core business of supplying pigs for Morrisons through Cranswick Country Foods in Preston, Holderness sees greater volume, their produce processed on the farm through a butchery and retailed via restaurants and farmers’ markets is on the increase.
“We were getting disillusioned with yet another poor pig price and started setting our minds to how we could make more out of what we were producing. In farming you either have to get bigger to survive and hopefully prosper or you have to look at vertical integration, going through from rearing to retailing.
“It was a leap of faith but went into it the right way. I went on a course that saw me butchering pork, making sausages and bacon; and when I subsequently spent two days butchering a whole pig I quickly decided it was not for me. Fortunately, through a friend, we found a great butcher called Mick.
“We have gone from butchering a pig every three weeks for our Moss Valley Fine Foods business to 15 a week and we’re still expanding.
“Our location down the end of a very long track means that the opening of a farm shop was a non-starter but we are regulars at all the local farmers’ markets including Nether Edge, Sharrow Vale, Norton, Greenhill, Dronfield, Chesterfield and more including food fairs and Christmas fairs.
Stephen’s dad, Gordon, died of farmer’s lung when he was 13 in 1973. His mum, Jean, ran the farm with farm worker Len Sutton, who was at Povey from 15 years of age until he retired at 65.
“Len carried the farm back in those early years after dad had gone,” says Stephen. “Mum couldn’t drive at the time so we were stuck down here and the council provided a taxi for me to get to school. There had been a dairy herd of 40-50 Dairy Shorthorns in the 60s but dad had converted the buildings for pigs and bought in weaners at 30 kilos taking them through to 60 kilos.
“I’d always been on the farm. I’d never known anything different but mum made sure I went to university at Nottingham where Karen and I met.”
The writing was on the wall, even if some of the walls were yet to be erected, when Stephen returned after his studies with a plan that included Karen, future family considerations and a move to pig breeding.
“The realisation hit that the farm wasn’t big enough to look after two families. I decided to put in a 100-sow unit and we started building work while I was in my final year at Nottingham. I wanted a clean herd with high health status and to be able to take pigs right through to finishing. One of the big advantages around here is that apart from us it is a pig-remote area and that means disease can be controlled.”
Stephen and Karen went for a complete destock and restock in 1999 following several factors that were exacerbated further by a downturn in the pig price, but it was this bite the bullet moment that saw the start of the herd whose progeny still form their production base for supplying Morrisons and Moss Valley Fine Foods.
“We restocked with Seghers hybrid sows taking in 120 with some gilts and added to them with others from Kent.
“Our vertical integration thoughts came to the fore in 2007. It was our experience breeding pigs with Duroc in them for a local farmer that set us on our new course. We’d killed a pig for Christmas, made ham and we had such a good reaction that we thought this might be the way forward.”
One hundred pigs per week are now destined for either Morrisons or their own Moss Valley Fine Foods with another handful kept as gilt replacements.
Stephen and Karen take media responsibilities whether talking direct or through other channels very seriously and are always keen on getting the message across about UK pigs not only at farmers’ markets and food festivals but also via the NFU, the National Pig Association and local groups. They have one particular cause that is dear to their heart in ensuring the next generation of vets understand more.
“We make a point of having veterinary students here, usually 30 a year. We feel there is a need for them to hear the good message about pigs and pig health.”