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Striving for the perfect pig

6 August 2020, at 4:09pm

For one Suffolk, UK pig farmer, the journey to farming a fully free range herd has been about grasping opportunities, meeting customer demand and getting the product just right.

Jimmy Butler has been farming pigs in Suffolk for over 40 years, but it was an approach from Waitrose to supply the supermarket chain with free range pork that set his business on the path to where it is today.

“Working with Waitrose opened my eyes to the potential of free range pork but I wanted to test it for myself,” says Jimmy. “So, I took a pig to my local butcher, and asked him to cut it up and give some meat to 10 of his best customers, leaving some for me.”

The feedback from those customers, and the opportunity to taste his own produce, convinced Jimmy that free range was the way to go for his business. He gradually stopped supplying Waitrose so he could develop his own brand – Blythburgh Free Range Pork.

All the pigs are born outside to sows that live outside.

That was 20 years ago, and the business is now selling 300 weaners a week to a finisher in Yorkshire, finishing 400 gilts a week free range and 120 boars indoors on a freedom food contract (RSPCA approved).

It’s a thriving business that Jimmy now runs with his two sons; Stuart, who heads up production, and Alistair, who spends half his time looking after sales and marketing and the rest working with his brother making sure the farm runs smoothly.

So, what does free range mean to Jimmy and his family?

“All the pigs are born outside to sows that live outside,” he explains. “They spend a week in a tent when they’re weaned and from then they run in one acre paddocks. They’re in those paddocks, running free, until they are loaded onto a lorry and they never set foot on concrete.”

Getting the product right

As well as supplying high-end butchers around the country, Blythburgh Free Range Pork also ends up on the tables of some of London’s top restaurants. As Jimmy says it’s a premium product that demands a premium price so every pig that leaves the farm must be exactly right.

“If a customer tells me that he wants pigs 65 to 75kg dead, then it’s no good sending him 85 to 95kg dead because he’s not getting what he wants and then I’ve got an unhappy customer. So, there’s not a pig that leaves the farm that hasn’t gone through the scales,” he says. “As farmers, we tend to produce something and then try and sell it. In our case we have to find the marketplace first and then produce to it.”

That constant striving to get the product just right has seen an ongoing focus on genetics for Jimmy and his team.

The challenge of breeding a hardy pig that is happy outdoors, doesn’t need frequent doses of antibiotics, and also produces good flavour is one that has occupied Jimmy for a number of years.

"We work hard to produce what we think is the right pig for the right job,” he explains.

Part of the process has involved speaking to other farmers and learning from their experiences. One visit to a pig farmer in Scotland helped Jimmy discover the genetic blend he has now, giving his pigs the right mix of flavour, hardiness and strong breeding numbers.

For Jimmy, that element of networking and speaking to fellow farmers is absolutely vital.

“When I first started keeping pigs, no pig farmers talked to another one in case you took one of his ideas and did it better. Well, that is rubbish,” he says. “We’re here as an industry and the quicker we realize how much we can learn from speaking to each other to improve processes and ways of doing things, the better.”

Getting the word out there

With a premium product to sell, Jimmy is well aware of the importance of getting his marketing right.

“For most farmers, marketing is not a strong point,” he explains. “A lot of farmers I know will happily spend 70 hours a week out there producing the product but think they’re wasting their time if they spend a quarter of that time marketing. For us marketing is absolutely vital. The world isn’t waiting for us to produce free range pork so we have to get out there and sell it.”

Part of Blythburgh’s challenge in the early days was weeding out those customers claiming that all the pork they were selling was free range when Jimmy had only supplied them with one pig.

Chefs and butchers tell our story for us.

As a result, a lot of the marketing Jimmy does is through word of mouth. For example, one of his key customers, wholesale butcher Aubrey Allen, brings some of London’s top chefs to the farm once a year to see the pigs in their habitats, see the workings of the farm and, most importantly, taste the meat.

“We think that’s the best way,” says Jimmy. “Because those chefs and butchers then go and tell our story for us. They can say look, we’ve seen these pigs, we know their welfare and where they live.”

As an extension of that approach, Jimmy places a strong emphasis on the relationship he has with his customers.

Part of that is having a presence on those customers’ websites and asking them to state clearly where their free range pork is sourced, but it’s also about communication.

“I make a point of keeping in regular contact with my customers,” says Jimmy. “It’s not just about them phoning me to place an order. I ask them for regular feedback so we make sure we’re supplying what their business needs to succeed.”

Valued support

The emphasis that Jimmy places on relationships extends to the support he and the business receive from the HSBC agriculture team.

“Since we moved to HSBC, the service we’ve had from the bank and the way they’ve treated us as a business has been exemplary,” says Jimmy. “They’ve been there when we’ve needed financial support, such as when we had to increase our ownership share of the pigs that we farm, and our relationship manager, Terry Butcher, clearly understands the industry.

“But it’s not just financial support. Terry knows that farming can be a lonely business and he’s often on the phone to talk through any challenges we may be facing and to reassure me that we’re not the only ones with those issues. That can be invaluable.”