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The pig club

PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:46 28 March 2014

Johanna McTiernan, her son Otso and Louis Betts have fun with the pigs

Johanna McTiernan, her son Otso and Louis Betts have fun with the pigs

More and more community groups are banding together to produce their own food. Here is a thriving group in west Yorkshire which shares the task of rearing pigs … and enjoying the meat. Marie-Claire Kidd reports

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 surrounds 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 driver behind the pig club, Jo Lawrence, as she joins in making makeshift pig shelters. “We’ve rebuilt the gaps in the dry stone walls. We did a good job, 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, mum of three, soon to be four, and part time cleaner, 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 cooperatively 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 1,000ftabove 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, Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Towns (MASTT), of which he is an active member.

He says: “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. 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 will expand next year. “We can have half as many again on this field,” he says. “If need be, we can rent a neighbouring field.

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, 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. Supplementing the pigs’ diet with spent malts from local microbreweries and 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 palettes insulated with straw and covered with aluminium roofing panels.

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

There are 12 shareholders holding 16 half-pig shares, eachworth £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 turn 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.

Four weeks into the project, there is amazement at how the pigs have grown. “At first they were like big rugby balls,” says Duncan.

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.”

Most of the shareholders have young families, and the children are enjoying being hands on. 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, 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.”

The Soil Association is supporting communities and  farmers to develop CSAs.

For more information see  soilassociation.org/csa
For information on small scale pig keeping, see Pig
Ignorant by Jim Pettipher soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=wHA6qvWcN LU%3d&tabid=204

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