Chris Graham meets a pig keeper at peace with his life, his herd of Tamworths and his exciting, pork-related plans for the future.
Jamie Emberson is a man who enjoys a challenge; he’s not one to sit on his laurels, either privately or professionally. He chose a demanding and difficult career for himself and, perhaps predictably when the moment was right to get pigs, he settled on a breed with a reputation for being a bit of a handful.
But a successful health-related business career, serious injury while 5,000m up on a remote, Himalayan mountain and, at a more domestic level, a string of 10 house renovation projects, have fashioned a man who appreciates the hurdles that life throws up. Jamie Emberson is a self-confessed ‘doer’; a character who thrives on getting things done, and doing them well.
But his passion for pigs is a relatively new one, which grew out of a work-related association rather than a childhood peppered with summer jobs on farms. In fact, having grown up in London, the countryside was something of a novelty for Jamie during his early years. It wasn’t until much later, when qualified as a behaviour nurse therapist that he moved to Kent and started working with conservation organisations on projects to help those with learning disabilities.
He was renting a farm at the time – providing residential support as part of an educational scheme – and rescued a pair of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. This was back in the early 1990s, when these animals were all the rage; their owners hadn’t expected them to grow as big as they had! But, as Jamie points out, these animals weren’t taken on with any serious, farming intentions in mind. “We took them in purely to provide positive activities for people to get involved with, and they were my first experience with pigs of any sort.”
However, it wasn’t until 2001 that another house move brought with it the land needed to feed Jamie’s rapidly developing interest in keeping livestock. “I set out with the aim of providing the family with meat that we could eat with confidence, and so I wanted to start keeping sheep, chickens and pigs.
“I signed-up for a weekend course at Pig Paradise, where I found Tony York a mine of useful, practical information about the fundamentals of pig management. But he didn’t have to convince me to start keeping pigs because I’d already made that decision. The enclosure was fenced and ready, and the ark was waiting. In fact, I came back from Tony’s with three Oxford Sandy & Black weaners in the back of the Land Rover, and one of my enduring memories is having to transfer the squealing bundles of joy from the car to their new home at 1.30 in the morning!”
Jamie is nothing if not realistic about anything and everything he does. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the years is to confirm my own fallibility, and this applies to keeping pigs as much as to anything else. Accepting that you are going to make mistakes, but being willing to learn from them, are both important requirements when keeping livestock. Having a sense of humour is essential too!”
However, as he recalls, all went pretty smoothly with the Oxfords, until the end. Slaughter time was difficult for the family, and Jamie admits that there were a few tears shed as they’d all become attached to the trio. However, he felt then – and still does now – that one of the most important things when home-rearing livestock for the table, is to take full responsibility for the animals involved, from start to finish. He went on to explain: “Although this certainly isn’t the easiest approach, it’s a very honest one. I think it’s essential to respect the animals involved, and to ensure they have a good quality of life, and then to appreciate what you finish up with on the plate.”
All three pigs ended up in the freezer as planned but, nevertheless, Jamie was left feeling slightly lukewarm towards the breed. While he certainly has nothing against the Oxford Sandy & Black, or the quality of the meat produced, the rearing experience didn’t leave him with any real affinity for the breed. “I just felt something was missing, and that I wanted more from the whole process,” he recalls. Then fate took a turn in the events that followed.
Out of the blue, Jamie was asked if he’d ‘adopt’ a Large White boar and a Tamworth sow, which he agreed to do. This was about 10 years ago, and the pair produced several litters. As time passed, he began to feel a growing attachment to the sow – the family had named her Iggy – even though he didn’t think that she was a pure Tamworth. Nevertheless, her character struck a chord with him; so-much-so, in fact, that she’s still alive and well today, at the grand old age of 12.
I was keen to discover how Jamie had taken to the breeding aspect of the hobby, and to see if everything had run smoothly. As it turns out, I think that making the transition from weaner-rearer to full-blown breeder, may just have given Jamie the extra ingredient that he’d been missing with the Oxfords. “Thankfully, I was able to call on some very knowledgeable locals who were on hand to help and advise me when I needed it,” he explained.
“While I’m aware that some of my antics have been the source of great amusement to those more experienced than me, I can honestly say that they’ve all been brilliant. I’m never afraid to ask for help when I think I need it, and their level of expertise and friendliness has been amazing. Domestic pig keeping is a very friendly business; it just seems to attract interesting people who are always happy to offer the benefit of their experience.”
The first pure-bred Tamworths arrived with the Emberson family in 2009 in the form of a Yorkshiremen-line boar and a sow from the Princess line. By that stage, Jamie was rearing two litters a year, and was already happily making his own sausages and bacon.
“We were careful with our abattoir selection,” he told me, “and, after visiting three, eventually chose a family-run operation that seemed to have just the right atmosphere, and was Soil Association-registered too. My objective has always been to minimise the stress potential for the pigs at the end, and our abattoir is very accommodating in this respect.
“Tuesday is ‘pig day’ there, and I’m able to telephone on a Monday to get a time slot booked for the following day. Then, if I turn up at that time, I know that the pigs will be led straight in without any stressful hanging around. The system works really well and, best of all, I’m completely confident that the animals are treated properly at every stage of the process.
“During the days leading up to the abattoir trip, I start feeding the pigs that will be leaving, in the trailer. This gets them used to being inside it so that, come the day, they can be loaded with ease and without fuss.”
As far as home butchery is concerned, Jamie has learnt as he’s gone along, in much the same, enthusiastic way that he’s tackled his pig keeping generally. “I relied again on my network of experienced friends and advisors, and have had several bartered lessons on the basics. But I’m determined to get better, and am planning to book a place on a proper butchery course soon. This, I hope, will polish up my skills in preparation for my next project.”
Jamie was recently granted permission from the local council to build a small meat production unit, which will consist of a cool room, walk-in fridge, preparation room (for cutting, smoking and curing) plus a small office and a shower. He’s evidently extremely excited about the project as, for the past year or so, he’s been having to rely on the butchering services of his abattoir. He and his family have only been in their current house – another renovation project – for about a year, and cutting up pigs and sausage-making have been shunted down the list of priorities in favour of cutting-in paintwork and home-making.
But I could tell that Jamie is itching to get started with this aspect of the project. He’s very excited about the prospect of setting-up a small-scale, premium pork supply business, and is confident that he can make it work. “I can still remember being totally amazed by the difference in taste between joints from the first pigs we reared, and similar meat bought from the supermarket. Even the high-end, organic, shop-bought meat simply couldn’t compare. And we’re certainly not alone in thinking this.
“The Tamworth thoroughly deserves its marvellous reputation as a bacon and joint-producer. We’ve built up quite a market for our home-reared pork among friends, family and neighbours, without even trying to do so. It only seems to take a single tasting for people to be hooked. I’m convinced there’s a market, which is why I’m investing in the meat production unit.
“I shall be looking at traditional products and following many of the recipes and techniques developed by master curer, Maynard Davies. I’ve tried just about all of them already; everything from air-dried Palma ham to bacon and sausages.
“My aim is to start producing a special product for that special occasion. I fully appreciate that we’ll never be operating on a large scale, and I wouldn’t want that, anyway. But I’d like to be producing high-quality products on a regular basis, and maybe offer a meat delivery service too. Farmers markets are another obvious outlet to be explored.”
Obviously, such an operation is only ever going to feed a niche market, as premium products come at premium prices. But Jamie is convinced about the importance of doing things properly, and feels sure there’s a body of people out there who care enough about what they eat to pay a proper price for it. “I’m looking forward to the education process that will be required. People's attitudes might have to alter before they start to appreciate the benefits to themselves – and the animals involved – that come from eating the sort of pork products I’ll be producing.”
Overall, then, Jamie is an extremely happy and satisfied pig keeper. I couldn’t detect a single downside to the involvement he has with his Tamworths. The pigs themselves have behaved impeccably in his ownership, and certainly haven’t lived-up to the reputation they have for being mischievous and even troublesome characters. “As far as I’m concerned,” he explained, “the wider reputation that these pigs have does them an injustice. My overall impression, gained from a good number of years with them now, is that the Tamworth is a very gentle pig.
“Of course, the sows can be protective when they’re with their young, and an affectionate nuzzle from a large boar can represent quite a loading on an unsuspecting, human knee joint, but I’ve not discovered anything vindictive or aggressive in their behaviour. It’s possible to have a great relationship with them.
“There’s certainly been no cases of fence-smashing or escapes. Two of them nipped out of the pen the other day when I’d forgotten to close the gate. But I didn’t chase them, shouting and hollering, I just carried on with my straw-spreading. They sniffed around for a few minutes and then ambled back to the enclosure to re-join the group. No drama, no fuss.
“I think, as with all livestock, if you get the environment right and the animals are healthy and happy, then they’ll be contented, relaxed and good-natured too. The pigs, sheep and chickens that I keep get the best care that I can give them and, while I’d be the first to admit that I’ve still got plenty to learn, their welfare remains my top priority. It takes me about three hours every morning to feed, water, straw-down, let out, collect eggs and observe my stock. It’s very important time that we spend together and I’m convinced that we all benefit from it.”