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How did these Norfolk brothers become the UK's best pig farmers?

Brothers Ian, left, and Michael Baker of North Farm Livestock have won the national Pig Farmer of the Year title. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Brothers Ian, left, and Michael Baker of North Farm Livestock have won the national Pig Farmer of the Year title. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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The national Pig Farmer of the Year title has come to Norfolk for the second year running - but what does it take to become a champion pork producer? CHRIS HILL reports.

Sixteen-week-old Hampshire free range pigs, at North Farm Livestock based in North Norfolk. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYSixteen-week-old Hampshire free range pigs, at North Farm Livestock based in North Norfolk. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

A focus on free-range animal welfare, an experienced workforce and an advantageous division of management expertise are among the factors which have made a Norfolk pig farm the best in the country.

Michael and Ian Baker, of North Farm Livestock based at Bayfield, near Holt, won the Pig Farmer of the Year title at the 2019 Farmers Weekly Awards, retaining Norfolk's grip on the trophy after Rob and Helen Mutimer from Swannington Farm to Fork became champions in 2018.

The Baker brothers said the award was testament to the dedication of their 40-strong workforce and the rigorous quality standards which deliver 1,700 pigs a week into the demanding Waitrose supply chain - a figure which they are in the process of expanding to 2,500.

The free-range animals at North Farm spend their whole lives outdoors, from the breeding units to the finishing farms on land rented from about 20 landowners across north Norfolk.

Sixteen-week-old Hampshire free range pigs, at North Farm Livestock based in North Norfolk who have won the national Pig Farmer of the Year title. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYSixteen-week-old Hampshire free range pigs, at North Farm Livestock based in North Norfolk who have won the national Pig Farmer of the Year title. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Yet despite the added cost of these high standards, the farm still outperforms many more intensive indoor operations, according to the AHDB's industry averages for all UK pig producers.

And that success is down to some "very simple principles", according to a management duo who benefit from a complementary set of skills.

Michael Baker has been working on the livestock operation for more than 20 years, and was joined in the partnership 18 months ago by his brother Ian after a 40-year career with Barclays bank, ending as their national head of agri-food. He now handles the business management at North Farm.

"We've got a skill set that fits quite nicely together," said Ian. "I can't do what Michael does and he can't do what I do.

Brothers Michael, left, and Ian Baker of North Farm Livestock, who have won the national Pig Farmer of the Year title, with some of their 16-week-old Hampshire free range pigs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYBrothers Michael, left, and Ian Baker of North Farm Livestock, who have won the national Pig Farmer of the Year title, with some of their 16-week-old Hampshire free range pigs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

"We have this constant dilemma. To me, from my background, I want to say to Michael on occasion that 'cash is king' - if you run out of cash the business can be as good as you like, but you've had it. His response to that is always 'health is king', because if you don't get the stock right you haven't got any cash in the first place.

"It is very simple principles. Health of the stock is Michael's forte, he is very good it and he drives it hard. And I watch the finances quite hard, as you might imagine.

"But the one thing we fundamentally both agree on is the quality of our employees is key, because without the team doing the job in the field, we cannot do this."

In recognition of this, the farm has implemented training schemes and more structured career development, as well as planning more team-building trips and introducing a profit share scheme, due to make its first payment next week.

Five-week-old Hampshire free range piglets, at North Farm Livestock based in North Norfolk who have won the national Pig Farmer of the Year title. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYFive-week-old Hampshire free range piglets, at North Farm Livestock based in North Norfolk who have won the national Pig Farmer of the Year title. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

North Farm started life as an indoor pig producer in the 1980s, run by Roger Newton who is still a director, albeit effectively retired from the day-to-day operations. After the industry suffered difficult times through disease and price issues, the farm went into outdoor production for Waitrose in the 1990s, which Ian said made it "one of the pioneers of totally free-range production".

Although it supplies a premium product, he said the farm is not completely insulated from the uncertainties of Brexit and future trade deals - but he is optimistic that there will always be a market for food with free-range quality credentials.

"We are high welfare and we are sustainable and that is the part of the market Waitrose wants us to reach for them," he said.

"We've got used to the banner of 'cheap food' but effectively you have a choice here. If you want cheap food on the shelves, you have to accept it does not necessarily have the welfare standards you might want on the other side of the coin. So there is a balance.

"I personally believe that there will always be a market for a premium product, and there is no reason we cannot continue to develop this business, whatever the marketplace throws at us."

Michael said he was "a lot more nervous" than his brother about the future. "I've been in the pig industry since I left school and I have seen the highs and lows of foot and mouth disease and swine fever outbreak in the early 2000s, and I'm very nervous about all those things and particularly African Swine Fever," he said. "If we get that we would have different things to worry about (other than Brexit).

"Our business is all about biosecurity and health of our breeding stock, and that rolls over into a really good healthy finished pig. We've got a very good long-term relationship with our vet who has been doing the farm for the last 30 years.

"None of it is rocket science. We do in-house training and we spend a lot of time showing our people how we want them to do things."

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