The trouble with smallholding is that it often makes you wish you’d got a bigger place, as Liz Shankland found when she met an ambitious young couple
For many people, three acres would be plenty. For about five years, it was all that Niall and Rachel Jones needed. There was plenty of space to divide up into three separate areas, one for growing fruit and vegetables, one for chickens, and one for pigs. But, as they became more proficient at growing produce and raising livestock – and as friends and neighbours began to get a taste for their meat – they knew they had to expand. So, three years ago, they took a step further, and began renting various paddocks within a 20 mile radius of their home near Swindon, Wiltshire.
“Having to drive around to so many different pieces of land to check on stock on a daily basis was time-consuming and expensive in terms of fuel,” Niall explained.
“What we needed was all our animals on one site, saving time and fuel, and making it easy to move stock from pasture to pasture. Recently we had the chance to do just that, when we were offered the opportunity to rent a former dairy farm. It consists of a small farm yard with barns and about 52 acres of grazing. We have taken it on as we couldn’t keep up with the demand for our pork, lamb, and poultry.
“It also gives us the indoor space we need to over-winter our pigs and also for lambing. It’s a gamble, and we will only know if it has paid off in a couple of years when – hopefully – we start to make a profit. We’re expecting to make a loss in the first year, as we need to build our stock numbers up.”
Taking on the farm at the beginning of the year meant that the Joneses had the chance to fulfil one of their greatest ambitions – increasing their pig numbers and getting into pedigree breeding. Up until January, their breeding stock consisted of crossbreeds – Salt, Pepper, and Mamma, three sows which were sold to them as Tamworths, but which are clearly hybrids – and a British Saddleback boar called Boris, who is now coming to the end of his breeding career. Niall is now on the lookout for a pedigree Gloucestershire Old Spots boar for his recently-acquired GOS sows and gilts. The Llainlehcar Herd (Niall and Rachel’s names spelled backwards!) has been registered with the British Pig Association and the first piglets to bear the prefix were born in February.
“We decided to get into Gloucestershire Old Spots because they are the closest we have to a local breed, here in Wiltshire,” Niall said. “Their meat commands a premium price and weaners and breeding stock are in demand. We also wanted to support a rare breed – and they happened to look quite pretty, too!
“We bought in two sows, Blossom and Dora, three breeding gilts, which we’ve named Ali, Anya, and Agnes, and some young boars which will go for meat. They all came from a local breeder who was giving up pig keeping because weather conditions had become so bad that over-wintering was a real issue for him. We are so lucky that we can bring ours indoors, away from the worst of the weather. The breeder is still going to carry on raising weaners – which he will buy from us – but he was downhearted to see his pigs struggling in the mud over the last few winters.”
Like lots of other smallholders, Niall and Rachel were inspired by the River Cottage and Jimmy’s Farm TV programmes and started off with a handful of ex-battery hens, some lambs for the freezer, and some weaners for pork. As well as their growing herd of pigs, they now have more than 100 hens, some guinea fowl and Indian runner ducks, and raise around 200 geese and turkeys each year. They also keep a breeding flock of 45 Wiltshire Horn ewes.
“The main aim was to feed ourselves from the land, so we started off by raising three weaners for our own freezer. We did this because we wanted to know what went into our food and, more importantly, how it was raised. Friends soon started asking us to raise half a pig for them, so we were soon breeding our own. The natural progression was to get into pedigree breeding.
“We learned a lot about pig keeping from our first pigs. One of the three we bought was white, and when summer came along, Rachel would be putting suntan lotion on it in the morning before leaving for work, to stop its skin burning. We found using the coloured Factor 50 sun cream designed for babies was best, because you can see the bits you have missed!
“We also learned that, if you don’t use electric fencing, the pigs soon work out how to get out of their paddock. Pigs are very good at quickly turning a lovely grass paddock into a well-fertilised dug-over playpen.”
Despite having to rest and repair rooted-up ground, the couple had no regrets about getting into smallholding. Far from it, in fact. “When you eat a roast dinner and everything on your plate is food you have produced yourself, that is the biggest high,” said Rachel.
“It’s wonderful, standing outside on a warm summer’s day and watching the pigs roll around in their mud wallow, contentedly grunting to themselves and rooting around. Seeing piglets running around in the spring sunshine like ASBO kids is hilarious and makes for some great YouTube clips! However, taking three weeks to get a stubborn sow into a trailer was a bit of a low, and almost caused a divorce!”
As the Joneses are still building up their business, Rachel has what Niall describes as “a proper job”, looking after occupational health and safety and the environment for a large multi-national company. “It is really important that Rachel has a good job, as it pays the mortgage for our house, and without it we couldn’t do what we are doing,” says Niall. “I look after the farm, but I’ve also taken on a part-time job to help cover the rental on the farm until we start making a profit. On a work day, I feed, water, and check everything before my job starts at 8am, and then I do the same when the work day finishes at 5pm. Rachel helps out at weekends, when some of the bigger jobs need doing, like vaccinations, worming and sheep moves.
“Eventually, we’d both like to work full-time on the farm. Rachel would train as a butcher and carry out all the butchery on site. The cherry on the cake would be to open a farm shop and tea rooms, so customers could see exactly where their food came from.”
Tips for selling your pork
Niall and Rachel have a regular band of customers who receive emails whenever meat is available. They stress that good presentation is essential when thinking about selling to others.
“Getting your meat butchered at the abattoir is fine if you are going to eat it yourself, but it really doesn’t look professional if you are selling it to the public. Our first pork was hacked up, and packed in carrier bags!” Niall explained.
“We now use a local master butcher who cuts and packs the meat really well, which makes a big difference when selling. Our customers really like the way the meat is presented, and, when they are paying a premium, this is very important.
“We are still learning the perfect time to send a pig for slaughter. It’s a fine balancing act between having sufficient fat to make it taste nice but not so much fat that it looks like a heart attack on a plate when cooked! We have some customers who love fat, so the more the better, and some who prefer a little bit less. It’s a case of knowing your customers.”
Find out more about the Jones Country Fayre by visiting www.jonescountryfayre.co.uk or ring Niall on 07792 306542.