Living the dream

Jeremy and Lynne Davis have created something pretty special in a secluded corner of East Sussex. Chris Graham meets them to discover how their British Saddlebacks are one of the keys to future success.

British Saddleback pigsIt takes guts to turn your back on the security of a conventional lifestyle and yet, for people like Jeremy and Lynne Davis, there’s evidently far more to the day-to-day business of life than regular income, traditional jobs and a guaranteed power supply!

The couple have turned their backs on their old lives and thrown themselves into an agricultural adventure that, so far, is suiting them down to the ground. Jeremy has harboured horticultural ambitions for as long as he can remember and, from chatting with him over a mug of coffee, it’s clear that he has no regrets about leaving a good, office-based career to pursue a radically different but far more natural style of working life.

Organic approach

For years, Jeremy and Lynne have been keen vegetable growers but, without sufficient garden to meet their needs at home, they started collecting allotments on which to practice their organic-style produce production. Artificial fertilisers and pesticides never got a look in as the couple strove grow their food in as responsible and environmentally-sensitive manner as they could.

Then, when the opportunity to buy a 35-acre mixed plot in the Sussex High Weald presented itself, they jumped at it. Nestling on the side of a sheltered and completely rural East Sussex valley, the land, which had already been worked for small-scale agricultural production, offered the ideal opportunity for the creation of Lynne’s Organic Farm.

The land wasn’t ‘organic’ to begin with, of course, and the couple’s first move was to consult with the Soil Association to find out exactly what was involved in meeting the demanding standards needed to reach organic status. They spent the next two years planting ‘green fertilisers’, building their own, energy-efficient, wood-framed house – using oak from the woodland – and formulating plans about what livestock they were going to need to make the farm work properly for them.

They also installed a 6kW wind turbine, photovoltaic panels capable of producing just over 2kW and a rainwater harvesting system which, when combined with the water available from natural springs in the woods, would meet their horticultural needs. Essentially, the idea was to be as self-sufficient for energy as possible. They’re not on the national grid, have installed a heavy-duty battery storage system which holds four days-worth of electricity and, for the very rare occasions when the elements let them down, have a small, diesel-powered generator. Inside the house, underfloor heating is supplied by a wood-burning boiler, that’s also responsible for hot water and cooking.   

Master plan

British Saddleback pigs in a fieldAfter the chemical-free two years required by the Soil Association had elapsed, Jeremy and Lynne were able to push on with their crops. Initially, the idea was to produce and deliver organic fruit and vegetable boxes within the local area.

They’d done a lot of research into the market potential of this idea, and supplemented the fruit and veg with organic eggs produced by a flock of hybrid layers. In those early stages, all went pretty much to plan. “We knew how to grow and were confident that what we could produce would find a market,” explained Jeremy. “The organic veg box scheme was soon established, and ran reasonably successfully for four years.

“However, the fundamental problem we ran up against was one of labour. We found it simply impossible to go beyond producing and delivering about 30 boxes a week, without needing to employ extra help. However, paying for this would have required a doubling of sales, which wasn’t possible either; it was a bit of a trap. We’ve got some friends running a large scheme that’s delivering up to 400 veg boxes a week, but they’re making virtually no money simply because of all the labour they’re having to employ to fulfill those orders.”

But, as so often happens in life, fate was about to step in and take a hand. The unusually wet summer in 2012 caused most the couples’ crops to fail, leaving them with next to no variety to offer in the veg boxes. This triggered a serious re-think, and their thoughts turned to livestock. The eggs had been popular and much-appreciated sellers from day one, so they decided to expand that side of the business. They now run 140 birds in two, 70-hen flocks, producing eggs that are almost exclusively sold through local shops.

But, Jeremy had also been thinking about pigs. “I’d always imagined that they’d fit in very well with what we’re trying to do here, especially given that we have more woodland than anything else. I thought pigs would be great to help with the woodland conservation work I do, and also very useful for turning over the vegetable beds in the autumn and spring.

“We didn’t want to rush into things, though, so asked a pig-keeping friend whether we could borrow a couple of sows for a month or two, just to get a bit of a feel for how life would be with them on site. We had no large animal experience, so felt it was important to find out what we could before taking the plunge and buying our own stock.

“The pair – British Saddlebacks as it turned out – duly arrived and everything went pretty well. They cleared the ground impressively and, more importantly, they fitted in really well. So, we then took things a stage further and ‘borrowed’ some more; this time half a dozen weaners of assorted breeds.

Friendly characters

“This second batch confirmed the impressions we’d got from the first two, although we noticed a difference in temperament. The Saddlebacks had been noticeably more friendly, and easier to manage. Nevertheless, it was clear that pigs were going to work for us, so we decided to press on. However, they needed to be organic as well. We again consulted the Soil Association about what was required to establish an organic herd.

“We obviously had to start from scratch. They gave us permission to buy-in six, non-organic weaners, fatten four of them on an organic basis and keep the remaining two as breeding stock. Rather bizarrely, you’re allowed to use a non-organic boar to breed with and, as long as the mating occurs on organic premises, using converted breeding sows, then the resultant offspring can be classified as fully organic.”

But it didn’t end there because to sell the meat as truly organic, the pigs would need to be slaughtered at an abattoir with fully organic credentials and then be butchered on a similar basis. As it turned out, there were no such abattoir in East Sussex; it seems that the level of regulation required for an establishment to meet the standard simply isn’t matched by the demand for organic slaughter in most cases, so most operators just don’t consider it worthwhile complying. The closest ‘organic’ abattoir then could find was in Ashford, Kent; about an hour away from the farm.

The butchering side proved even more of a struggle to organise. To begin with, Jeremy and Lynne wanted this to be carried out locally, so that they could be involved as it was being done. There’s a system whereby a butcher can operate under an extension of an existing organic licence, and the couple were hoping to use this facility with a couple of their local shops. But, as Jeremy explained, this proved to be quite a problem.         

“When it came to getting the four, organically-grown pigs butchered, we were keen to try out a local butcher or two, just to see how things would work out in practice. But it was very difficult to find a proper butcher, never mind an organic one. I was surprised at how few were able to deal with a whole pig. Most nowadays simply buy in their meat and do very little carcass cutting on the premises.

“Eventually, though, we tracked down a couple who said they could tackle the jointing work for us, but this turned out to be a disaster. Meat went missing, the prices were changed and, on one occasion, we even had meat withheld as a way of getting us to pay what the butcher decided to demand. So, looking ahead, we’re going to use the butchery facility at the organic abattoir in Ashford, when our first batch of genuinely organic pigs are ready later this year.

Admirable effort

British Saddleback pigOne of the things which is so impressive about what Jeremy and Lynne are doing is that the whole project represents such a complete contrast to the way they were living before. The decision to press ahead despite having so little relevant experience, should provide inspiration for us all. It’s fair to say that Jeremy’s previous occupation wasn’t a practical one, yet he’s managed to turn his hand to whatever task has been needed, whether it’s wiring-in his wind turbine, re-roofing the barn with cedar shingles, ploughing the 16-acre field, woodland conservation, seasoning wood for the boiler, building hen houses and, of course, successfully establishing an organic herd of British Saddleback pigs.

Of course, this isn’t to say that there haven’t been setbacks; Jeremy is the first to admit that not everything’s gone to plan, and that some jobs have taken him a good number of attempts to get right. Overall, though, it remains a very admirable achievement.    

As far as the pigs are concerned, there have been few dramas. “We had problems with a couple of piglets going off their food, and another which broke its leg. But Lynne and I brought the slow-eaters through with   plenty of TLC, and they’re fine now. We called the vet for the broken leg  and the splint he applied lasted for all of about an hour. However, he assured us that because the piglet was so young at the time that the bone would heal naturally, and this is exactly what happened.

“We overfed our first pigs. We’d done plenty of research into how much the animals were likely to get from foraging, and most of it seemed to suggest that pigs can’t really be relied upon to gain a worthwhile amount of food themselves, by natural means. So, with this in mind, we fed an almost full ration, but also let them clear carrot and potato fields as well as root around in the woods. As a result, we sent one off at six-and-a-half months old that weighed 90kg! However, we’ve learned from that experience, and certainly won’t be making the same mistake again.”

Jeremy and Lynne are confident that a market exists for organic, native breed pork, and that they’ll be able to supply this to good effect once everything’s up and running. The signs are certainly encouraging; the pork produced so far has been well received and the sausages a real hit with customers. The couple are delighted with their British Saddlebacks; the quality of the meat, the relative ease of ownership and the endearing character all suit the their situation perfectly.

While it’s still relatively early days in pig breeding terms, Jeremy remains philosophical about his relationship with the pigs. “I’m very clear in my mind that we keep two types of pig; the breeding stock and animals that are being grown for meat,” he says. “There’s a big difference between the two, and I fully appreciate that we have the best relationship with those animals we keep the longest. Weaners that simply grow on for four or five months and then go, are a very different proposition from those animals that we’re keeping long-term, as breeding stock.”  

However, it was clear to me, from the time I spent with Jeremy and his pigs, that he’s already developed quite a rapport with the animals. He’s learning all the time and has the facilities to ensure that his animals will all enjoy full and rewarding lives, regardless of their fate. The set-up at Lynne’s Organic Farm, and the care with which it’s all being managed, should guarantee the production of happy and healthy pigs for the foreseeable future.   

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This article was previously published in Practical Pigs magazine. Back issues of the magazine can be purchased from https://shop.kelsey.co.uk/issue/PGG