Full circle

Chris Graham meets Robert Emerson, a man who's returned to the breed of his childhood and now, in retirement, is enjoying the time of his life with his beloved Large Whites. 

Large White pigsSo much of our adult character is influenced by our childhood years, and the experiences gained help steer us towards the mature individuals we become. So, it's often the case that the people I interview for this Me and my pigs series have a childhood link with pigs, and it's usually during those important, formative years that the seeds of interest are sewn.

Robert Emerson is yet another whose fascination with pigs goes right back to his earliest years; in this case, to a golden childhood spent in the Northern Irish countryside, helping after school and at weekends on his parent's farm. But, as you'll discover, Robert's story is far from a straightforward one, and saw him actually being away from pigs for much of his working life. Now though, with more time on his hands, he's able to indulge in the delights that keeping and breeding pigs bring. But, he's also determined to give something back to the breed which, at various key points in his life, has enabled great things to happen.

The early years  

"My father bought his first Large Whites a year or two after the war, for the family farm back in Northern Ireland," Robert explained when we met recently at his Leicestershire home. "He quickly grew the herd to 150 sows and ran it very successfully along commercial lines. In those days, there was a big demand for boars and gilts because so many people were keeping pigs.

"I became properly involved as soon as I left school, which was back in the late 1960s, although I'd been working with the livestock on the farm a lot before then. We kept a dairy herd, too, which my father had developed to a herd of 150 from just four original animals that he bought in 1946. These became my brother's responsibility when my father diverted his interest to establishing a Bramley apple-growing enterprise on the farm. This left me with the pigs which I was very happy about; I quickly developed a real affinity for them.

"I remember that we had our first big sale of Large White pigs in May 1970, and the 50 animals we sold raised enough money to put down a sizable deposit on a farm for my brother. That was a major achievement in itself, and gave me a lot more space to work with the pigs. 

"During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I also began getting involved with exporting pigs, which also proved quite successful. In fact, our stock went to 10 different countries around the world. We worked through a specialist export company, and the customers just found us that way. At the same time, there was a big demand for pigs from Southern Ireland. They had recently joined the Common Market and, being a relatively poor country, there was lots of grant money available to the agricultural sector. They had the cash and we had the pigs; it was a great arrangement!"

Troubled times

"The only downside," as Robert explained, "to selling to Southern Ireland, was that it meant frequent trips for me across the border which, given that ‘the troubles' were then at their height, wasn't a pleasant prospect. It was quite scary coming back home from the south, and crossing the border into Northern Ireland late at night, with not a soul to be seen. It used to set my nerves on edge but, fortunately, I never ran into any trouble during the many years that I made that journey.

Shot of farm"I also decided to start keeping British Landrace, which was another very popular breed in Ireland during the early 1980s. Most people liked to buy their breeding stock from one place, so keeping both breeds made a lot of sense, and worked well. I quickly build that herd to about 50 sows. In those days, there just wasn't the interest in the variety of pedigree pig breeds that there is now. People only seemed to want Large Whites and Landrace, plus a few Welsh and British Saddlebacks; there were next to no enthusiast keepers at that time.

"Then, in 1987, I made a big decision, and decided to sell the farm and move to England. I had four young sons and a daughter to consider, and their prospects in Northern Ireland didn't look great. Our farm was only 50 acres; the other 200 acres we used was rented, and there was no chance of ever buying that. So, I organised a dispersal sale of the pigs in April 1987 which, as it turned out, broke all records." As it turned out, Robert had timed this perfectly, and admits that he was lucky to hit the market at just the right time.

Vital income

"The pigs were good and the prices being paid were high. Of the 300 or so lots I sold, the top price for a sow and her litter was £2,050, while the average price for the other 200 sows was £550. Regrettably, I sold all the pigs we had because the farm I'd decided to buy in Penrith, Cumbria, was dairy-only. Interestingly, though, four of the best boars were bought by artificial insemination specialists – two to Deerpark Pedigree Pigs and two to Hermitage AI. They were Valiant and Viking lines, and I'm happy to say that both are still going strong today.

"It was certainly a great shame to be without pigs on the new farm but, with a 300-strong dairy herd that was being milked three times a day, there simply wasn't any time for other livestock. As well as the milking, I concentrated on breeding bulls for sale, and everything ran very smoothly for the first few years until 2001, when the Foot & Mouth outbreak hit. That made a bit of a mess of things for us – to put it mildly – especially as Penrith was more or less at the centre of the outbreak. I made a big effort with biosecurity and, amazingly, we managed to avoid getting the disease on the farm.

"I had 700 cows by that stage and, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have got out of the business then. There was the opportunity to do so, but I didn't take, and opted to continue instead. The following year, the milk price dropped significantly and we started making a loss. That continued until 2006, at which point me and my sons decided that enough was enough, and we sold the farm."

What next?

Robert kept working as a contract farm manager for a number of years but, it was while at the Royal Berkshire Show in 2013 that he spotted a victorious, Large White sow in the ring, and all the old feelings can rushing back. "I was very taken by that animal," he remembers, "and, after the prize giving, I went to find the owner. It turned out to have been entered by a couple from Wales and, after a long and interesting chat, I asked if they'd be prepared to sell me the sow. They decided to think about it, so I left them my phone number and returned to the farm I was managing in Devizes.

"They called me a week later and said that they'd be happy to sell, with the only condition being that they wanted to keep her long enough to have her next litter, then I'd be able to take her after that. She was actually in-pig again when I got her, to a boar from Deerpark, and she farrowed successfully well with me. I sold a boar back to Deerpark out of that litter, and kept all the females.

"Once the contract in Devizes ended, I moved to my next job on a farm in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, where I also heard about some farm buildings that I could rent nearby. They were a bit ramshackle and needed doors and water etc to make them usable but, crucially, they gave me the space I needed to start building my herd of Large Whites."

Breed conservation

Robert's aim right from the start of his second spell with pigs was to work on the breed conservation aspect. "I was very disappointed once I realised how depleted the Large White numbers had become," he told me. "The breed really has been decimated since those days in the 1970s, when I first got involved. This is a great shame as the Large White truly is a great, all-rounder. But the breed's also played such a special part in my family's history, having been instrumental in allowing my brother to buy his farm, and then helping fund my family's move to Penrith in the late 1980s. Being able to relocate from a 50-acre farm in Northern Ireland, to a 250-acre one in Cumbria really changed everything for us, and I have the Large Whites to thank for that.

Large White piglets"Strictly speaking, I'm supposed to be retired now, but that doesn't seem to be happening! I'm very involved with building and developing my Large White herd, and have also just taken on the role of Breed Representative at the BPA, so will be working hard to promote the breed at every opportunity.

I've also got seriously into showing, and had a very busy 2018 with that, enjoying a good bit of success, too. I attended eight major shows this year, and managed to win the Best Large White at seven of them, which I'm very proud of. I was awarded the Points Cup, which goes to the exhibitor who accumulates the most points with a single breed in the season, and also won four interbreed cups. But, the one I'm most pleased to have one, was the Pig of the Year award. It's a great honour to have achieved that (I actually had three pigs in the final!) and, to be honest, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to match that success again."

Future plans

It's clear that Robert remains as enthusiastic and determined to do well with his pigs as he ever was, and is relishing the challenges ahead now that he has more time to concentrate on selection and breeding. "I now have 25 sows and I keep selling too. I sold a lot of good pigs once the show season finished as I'm certainly keen to help the breed. Encouraging others to get involved with showing is a good way to do that. I certainly plan to keep going with the showing side of things, and am currently keeping a close eye on this year's youngsters, and whittling them down to form my 2019 show team. Of course, having won Pig of the Year, I've set the bar high for next year!

"I keep five female lines now, and three male lines, and am becoming more optimistic about the prospects for the breed all the time. I've been encouraged this past year as there seems to be a growing number of keepers looking for versatile, fast-growing pigs that produce lean meat on a good-sized carcass. And there are few that meet these requirements better than the Large White.

"I fully appreciate that everyone has their own tastes and requirements but, for me, the Large White ticks all the boxes. My pigs regularly grow to 90kg in five months and, even with feed prices as they are, I can break even with the pigs I sell. Most of the pork I sell goes straight to local butchers, but I also take some animals to Newark Livestock Market. The butchers I deal with all appreciate the amount and quality of meat my pigs produce, especially during the summer when the barbeque season's in full swing.

"But the success I've had in the show ring during 2018 has made a difference to the finances. Although I drove 3,000 miles getting to the eight shows I attended, I won £3,500 in prize money and, as a result, have shown a small profit for the year. It would have been bigger if I hadn't spent so much on celebrating with my friends!"  

Overall, it's obvious that Robert remains passionate about the many virtues of the Large White, and I'm sure he'll make an excellent and effective BPA Breed Representative. Such is his dedication that he has no plans to take on any other breeds although, he did whisper to me that if he could find some more land and buildings to rent, he might consider a few Landrace, just for old time's sake!

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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