As part of an ongoing project to meet some of the producers who supply The Real Food Store, Natalie and Lois went to meet Simon Price from The Free Range Farmer. Car troubles in the morning meant that our trip turned into more of an adventure than expected, but a train, a bus and a hire car later we turned up on Simon’s doorstep where we had a (by this point very much needed!) mug of peppermint tea and started chatting to Simon about his background in farming.
Simon grew up in Poole, Dorset and fell into farming at a young age when he began working part time on a local farm during his final years of school. He told us that he has always loved working outdoors, and quickly developed a passion for the farming industry. Simon explained to us some of the challenges that pig farming has faced over the last couple of decades, such as prices falling due to overproduction, huge increases in the cost of feed, supermarket price wars, and of course the foot and mouth outbreak in the early 2000s, and we got the impression that it hasn’t always been easy for him to keep going. He also told us how young people are being more and more put off a career in farming due to the hard labour, financial challenges and difficult conditions, especially during the winter.
After a 5 year stint working with Waitrose, and running a farm near Beer in East Devon, Simon became involved with Devon Rose in 2009. Devon Rose is a family business based in Seaton, and source meat based on traceability, welfare, taste and purity. They supply a wide range of meat products to caterers, markets and shops all over the country. Simon started working with them as they were specifically looking for outdoor raised, free range pigs, and he also developed his own label “The Free Range Farmer”, which supplies meat to the local area, as well as Bath, Bristol and he also has some stockists in London.
Simon explained to us that he feels more in control as a small independent farmer, compared to working on large sites, and that the work feels more rewarding now that he is dealing with small, local businesses who appreciate the work that he does.
After our tea, we jumped in Simon’s truck and went to see the breeding farm at Seaton. Simon told us that he raises approximately 7500 pigs a year, and can have up to 1000 at any time. The breeding sows are a cross between Red Durac and Landrace, and the boars are Hampshire, crossed with Large White’s. This produces a very hardy animal, suitable for staying outdoors during the British winter, as well as very flavoursome meat. We were amazed to see the size of the feed storage units at the breeding farm, and even more so when Simon told us that they get through 30 tonnes of food a week on the breeding farm alone! All the feed comes from the UK, mostly Wiltshire, and is processed in a mill in Devon. The fields are rented, so every spring the pigs are moved to fresh grass on a different field.
The breeding sows produce 2 litters of 11-12 piglets each year, and will have 8 or 9 litters during their lifetime. Once they are no longer able to breed, the sows are also slaughtered and often exported to Germany (the biggest pork consumer in the world!)- where apparently they like stronger tasting pork. Simon explained that they never take pigs to market, as the risk of disease is very high.
The sows are artificially inseminated, as this is the most effective way of ensuring that as many as possible are pregnant at any point in time. The sows are kept with two boars in case of a failed pregnancy, but on the day we visited the boars seemed more interested in sunbathing!
Simon explained that animal welfare is his biggest priority. All his pigs are reared outside and are completely free range. He told us that Free Range animals are more expensive to produce as growth is naturally much slower. He believes that ensuring the animals are happy is worth the cost, and that the Free Range method also produces tastier meat. Despite Britain having very high welfare standards compared to other areas of Europe, we were very shocked to hear that outdoor farming accounts for only 20% of pig farming in the UK. This is partly due to supermarkets putting pressure on farmers to keep prices low. Simon is clearly concerned about the future of farming, and believes that food is falling in people’s priorities. He believes that there is a lot of work to be done in changing people’s mindsets, and that we should all eat less meat. When we do eat meat it’s important to ensure that it’s been reared in the best possible way (he told us that his family are sick of only being allowed pork with their Sunday roast!).
Our next stop was to see the sows that had recently given birth. Simon explained that sows are moved a week before their due date, and are given their own sty and 24 hour access to food. We weren’t able to go in with the piglets as the mothers are very protective of them, but were lucky enough to get a great view of a little suckling piglet who was taking the opportunity to have as much food as possible while his brothers and sisters were inside! We also made the mistake of comparing them to “Babe”, but were quickly told that all talk of Babe was
forbidden as it was too hard to not get attached!
The piglets are weaned at 4 weeks, and then moved to another site near Ottery St Mary before being slaughtered at 23 weeks (when they can weigh up to 120kg!). The abattoir that Devon Rose use is in Chard, about 30 minutes away, then the carcasses are brought back to Devon Rose’s main site at Seaton, where the meat is butchered, cured, smoked and packaged. These processes are very simple and use natural methods. The smoking process uses apple and oak wood, and the curing process just uses salt, a little sugar and apple cider vinegar.
Our final stop was the site at Ottery St Mary, where we were introduced to some of the friendliest, most inquisitive pigs on our travels so far! These pigs were just getting over a bout of pneumonia so were still a bit coughy, but we were able to go in with them and say hi. They were very curious about who we were, and had a good munch on our wellies! They were clearly very happy and playful, and enjoying rolling around in the mud!
The Free Range Farmer meat is not certified as organic. Simon explained that there is lack of clarity around feed (up to 25% of feed doesn’t have to be organic under the Soil Association), and that organic does not necessarily ensure higher welfare standards. He agrees with a lot of organic principles such as keeping pesticides and artificial fertiliser to a minimum, but feels as though it would not be a viable move for him. He is registered under the Freedom Foods scheme, and Red Tractor.
We would like to thank Simon for taking the time out of his busy day to show us, we really enjoyed spending the time to learn more about the business, and meeting your lovely pigs!
Find out more at www.thefreerangefarmer.co.uk