Chris Graham meets Stef Georgetti and her Middle White pigs; a match which, as far as he can tell, was made in heaven!
Newcomers to the pig-keeping hobby have all sorts of reasons for getting involved. Many though, like Stef Georgetti, find themselves drawn back to pigs, spurred-on by childhood memories.
Those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed an involvement with livestock while growing up, tend to retain a deep-seated affection for those links with animals, be they chickens, sheep, cattle or pigs. But life has a habit of getting in the way for most youngsters; school, college, relationships, jobs and family can all combine to force hobby keeping to the periphery.
But those seeds sewn early in life are resilient, and remain deep in our psyches, waiting for the opportunity to germinate and fire our enthusiasm once again. Typically this happens a little later in life, when things begin to settle down on the home front, and thoughts get a chance to turn to rather more pastoral matters, once again.
For Stef Georgetti, opportunity came a knockin’ a year or two ago, after the family moved to a larger house on her husband’s family farm, just outside Tenterden, in Kent. With more space to play with and an array or outbuildings available, the prospect of returning to a childhood hobby and getting some pigs, became a reality.
Stef’s father is Charlie Bull; an experienced pig breeder, Berkshire exhibitor and show judge, so she grew up around pigs and, as a child, used to help with the showing of her dad’s animals. But, as typically happens, her involvement grew less as important life events such as marriage, starting a family and her career – she’s a veterinary nurse – all took priority.
“I suppose that it wasn’t really until we moved here and life with our two young children started to become more routine, that I began hankering after some pigs of my own,” Stef explained to me.
“It’s not something that my husband, Richard, had really ever considered, especially not as a hobby. His time is completely occupied managing our large sheep flock and beef herd, so I had to work on him a bit to get him to agree!
“Although I grew up around Berkshire pigs, this wasn’t the breed that I’d set my heart on. For one thing, trying to follow in Dad’s footsteps would have been an almost impossible job; he’s had so much success with the breed, and I’m sure that I’d never get close to matching the quality of the animals he breeds. So, in a way, it was probably just as well that I was set on keeping something a bit different.
“For as long as I can remember, it’s been the Middle White that’s attracted my attention. There’s just something about the breed’s quirky, unusual looks that attracted me; it always has. It’s the only breed that I’ve ever been really interested in, so there was never any doubt that I would be getting some of these as soon as the opportunity arose.
“So, in the summer of 2015 I was finally in a position to take action. I was very keen to get involved with the pig-keeping hobby again; I had such good memories of it from my childhood. But, at the same time, I’d started to get really fed up with buying pork from the shops.
“We eat a lot of our own, farm-reared lamb and beef, and having to buy supermarket pork and sausages went against the grain. I knew that the quality of home-reared meat from native breed pigs would be far superior, plus I’d have no doubts about feeding it to my young children, from a chemical additive and medication point of view.
“But right from the start I was determined that my pig-keeping would only ever be at a hobby level. There was never any intention of developing the animals into a working herd for the farm, and that remains the case today.”
Stef’s original plan had been to get some January weaners, so she got in touch with breeder, Michaela Giles, who she’s known for a number of years. “I arranged to go and see Michaela with my dad, so that he could help me choose a Middle White sow. Michaela had two available at that time, but I needed Dad’s experienced eye to help me pick. It was actually my 30th birthday, so that pig was my special present.
“Obviously, though, we couldn’t keep her on her own, so Dad gave me two of his Berkshires; a show gilt and a small one that had been the runt of its litter. These were great companions for my Middle White sow, although the show gilt was eventually sold and exported to a new home in Japan.
“So I then decided that I needed more Middle Whites, and found a breeder in Stoke with some animals to sell. I settled on an in-pig gilt, and she actually farrowed at the end of January this year. This was my first direct experience of farrowing with my own pigs and I have to say that I found it all quite nerve-wracking!
“I spent a lot of time on the phone to dad, asking questions and checking that I was doing things the right way. The whole process made me pretty anxious, and I was so grateful to have such an experienced support network behind me.
“Things didn’t get off to a great start as the sow got herself in the most awkward position, with her rear end wedged into a corner of her enclosure. She stayed like that until things started at about 7.30 in the evening. When I went out on one of my regular checks, I could hear squealing, and found that the first of the piglets to be born had its head wedged underneath the sow’s rear end.”
“Fortunately, I was able to get into the pen, reach across her and lift it carefully out; she let me do all of this without any fuss of sign of protectiveness, which was such a relief. I was worried that the same thing would happen with subsequent piglets, so I moved an up-turned cattle ring feeder close to her, so that the youngsters had a bit of protection and could get to the heat lamp.
“An hour passed before the second piglet arrived, and that was certainly an anxious time. Thankfully, though, after that they started popping out in quick succession, and she’d produced the placenta by about 10pm, so I knew it was all over. The result was nine, healthy-looking and good-sized piglets, which was great.
I’d heard that the Middle White sow makes an excellent and attentive mother, and this certainly proved to be so in my case; she was just brilliant. This level of gentleness and docility was really what I was after, not only from a farrowing point of view, but also because of my young children. I was very keen that both of them should become actively involved with the pigs, so it was important that the animals I kept were friendly and safe to be around.
“Out of that litter we got four boars and five gilts, which was just about ideal. All were birth-notified, and four of them were sold as weaners. I registered the best three (one male and two females) from the remainder, and the other two will be grown on for us to eat. One of the two boars we have left has a scrotal hernia, so he’s one of the two destined for the freezer.”
Of course, living on a working farm brings with it a healthy dose of day-to-day realism, with regard to the cycle of life and the production of food. Nevertheless, Stef’s children are still young and, because the pigs have been much ‘closer’ to the family than the sheep or cattle, Stef was concerned about how the children would react when abattoir time arrived.
‘Kim’, the Berkshire sow, was the first to go, and Grace noticed that she was missing the same day. Stef’s husband, Richard, explained that she’d been taken to the abattoir, and the couple held their breath while this news sunk in. Grace’s very calm and matter-of-fact reaction to this was: “Is she going to come back as a sausage?”
Then, when the meat boxes arrived back a week or so later, Grace asked what they were, and Stef explained that they contained Kim. “I want to see what’s inside,” Grace said, and she proceeded to work her way through all the boxes and took the whole process completely in her stride.
This was a considerable relief for Stef who, even herself, had been very sad to see the pigs start leaving for the abattoir. But she’s spent time explaining to the children that the pigs are there to produce food, and is very pleased that they’ve taken this on board so well.
“Lots of my friends have asked me how I can bear to eat my own pigs, but I don’t have any problem with that at all. I know that they’ve had a good life and that they’ve been properly looked after. I also know what they’ve eaten and the medication they’ve been given.
“Even though all of our pigs have been named – and will continue to be, I’m sure – we are all very clear about what the pigs are for, and why we’re keeping them. I think that it’s very important not to forget that, and to value these animals for what they are.”
Looking at things more generally, it’s clear from chatting with Stef that she’s more than happy about the choices she’s made. “As far as I’m concerned, even during my relatively short time with the breed, the Middle White has certainly lived up to all the expectations I had for it.
“I’ve been really impressed with everything about these pigs, but their temperaments and ease of ownership are two of the highlights. I just don’t have the time to deal with any breed that’s in the least bit ‘high-maintenance’. So the reassuringly straightforward, no-nonsense nature of the Middle White really suits my set-up perfectly.
“I definitely intend to get back into showing the pigs, and have had a little taste of it again at the Heathfield and the South of England shows last summer. The pig exhibitors are just such a great crowd; so friendly and welcoming to newcomers, and I love the social side of the shows. Everyone has such fun in the evenings at those events, after the public have gone home!”
From a breeding point of view, Stef isn’t sure whether or not she will keep a boar in the future. “We AI’d one of my Middle White sows last year, which was another first. Once again, I relied on my dad for some expert tuition, but he’s a good teacher and I soon got the hang of it. We ordered the semen from Deerpark in Ireland, and that all went really well.
“Dad really has been such a help and I’m not sure that I’d have had the confidence to get started with my own pigs without the support he’s been able to offer. The vets at my work have been great, too. One of the associates is a real expert on pigs, so picking her brains from time to time has been a real help, as well.”
Stef is clearly besotted with the Middle White, and admits that she has no interest in any of the other native breeds. “I have no plans to keep anything else, and I don’t think there’s any great need for us to expand what we’re doing with the Middle White, either.
“We don’t have a great amount of indoor space so I don’t see the number we’re keeping increasing much on the near future. All the pigs have to live inside at the moment, although we are planning to create an outside enclosure for them soon.
Ideally, I’d like to have just two or three breeding sows, plus a couple of good examples to take to shows. Between them, these will be able to keep a supply of weaners coming to supply pork for us and bring in a bit of income from sales, and we’ll all be happy!”