Halesworth producer Jimmy Butler on why being a pig farmer takes a ‘brave heart’
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016
At a time when pig prices are at an eight-year low, and some producers are threatening to leave the industry, pig farmers need to pull together. SABAH MEDDINGS reports.
Being a pig farmer in today's market takes a 'brave heart', determination and a sense of humour, according to award-winning Halesworth producer Jimmy Butler.
But if the industry is going to weather the storm of rock-bottom prices and a global oversupply, farmers need to stick together, he said.
'Other pig farmers are not competitors, they are fellow pig-keepers and they are my allies,' he said.
'It's a bit like the war. When the war came along everybody pulled together. When the pig industry has a bad time the whole of the industry pulls together.'
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That conviction has seen the 68-year-old, whose 2,000-sow farm sits on 300 acres at Mells in Suffolk, take a leading role in championing the pig industry.
He was among scores of protesters camping out at supermarket distribution centres in the early 2000s in protest at low prices, and he starred in a promotional pop video to champion pork, called Stand By Your Ham, in 2008.
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'The pig industry was in dire straits,' said Mr Butler. 'Prices were bad and farmers were losing a fortune.
'We did some fairly wild things. At the protest we wouldn't let lorries in or out. We didn't go home at night - I took a barbecue with me and started cooking sausages.'
This dedication has won him a string of accolades, including the Chris Brant Award from the National Pig Association in November for going the 'extra mile' for the industry.
But pig prices have once again dropped, with the average price being paid to farmers down by a third since late 2013, according to a report by AHDB Pork.
The declining price is due to factors including increased productivity creating over-supply, a diminishing domestic demand, and the threat of competition from cheap imports.
And while Mr Butler can charge a premium for his high-end produce under the name Blythburgh Free Range Pork, that too has been impacted by the downturn.
'Margins have been squashed without a question and the price paid for the pork doesn't have too much relationship to the finished price,' said Mr Butler.
And, like poultry, pig farmers do not have the protection of government subsidies afforded to other sectors in agriculture, about which Mr Butler has strong views.
'I struggle to understand the common sense in the general public paying money to the government, who spend a lot on bureaucracy, whether it's done through the UK or EU,' he said. 'Why not forget the subsidies and pay the cost of production?'
Mr Butler began rearing pigs at St Margaret's Farm 38 years ago with his wife Pauline.
A deal with Waitrose 13 years later saw the farm move into free range pigs, which are bred, reared and finished outside, before going to slaughter at 24 weeks.
Although he no longer supplies Waitrose, 800 pigs are sold to wholesalers each week, and Mr Butler is joined at the farm by his sons Alastair and Stuart.
Alastair Butler is on the board of levy body AHDB Pork, and has been tasked with driving pork back on to the menu for families across the country.
He said while previous campaigns have been successful in improving the popularity of pulled pork, it is seen as a Sunday meal treat. Now the challenge is to encourage families to choose pork for their midweek meal.
'Chicken has the limelight, but pork is not too dissimilar to chicken,' he said. 'It has the flavour profile that chicken doesn't have. Pork can stand alone on a dish.'
He said farmers needed to get better at marketing themselves, adding: 'Every single farmer will happily spend 70 hours a week out there on the farm, but if they spend more than half an hour selling it on the phone they think they've wasted their time. But marketing and selling is such a big part of what we do.'
Jimmy Butler blames an obsession with low-fat food for the falling popularity of pig meat in the UK, which has driven supermarkets to demand a lower fat ratio.
But slimmer pigs lack the flavour and taste of Blythburgh pigs, which have a higher proportion of back fat, he said.
'We have been brainwashed to think we can have no fat and the supermarkets have jumped on the bandwagon,' he added. 'The majority of the UK is producing a pig that has very little fat on. There's not enough to cook it and cook it well.
'You may as well eat a piece of leather if you compare us to the EU.'
He said European pigs were killed at a heavier weight,
with more fat around the outside.
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