Essex girl Tracy Mackness turned her life around when she launched a pig farming business on her release from prison.
Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.
When Tracy Mackness was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a drugs related crime, she resolved to change her life round so she could earn an honest living when released. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine it would lead to a new life as a pig farmer.
Brought up in Romford, Essex, her father kept Hackney horses which she enjoyed riding in her early years.
She dropped out of school in her early teens and worked with him and the horses in his fruit and vegetable business. But everything changed when her father went to prison for handling stolen goods and soon after, he and Tracy’s mother divorced.
“Things then started to go wrong for me,” says Tracy.
“There was no money. I was a good time girl, out enjoying myself every night, but I couldn’t afford it. Drugs were the easy option.”
Tracy’s life spiralled into a chaotic mix of drug use, dealing and tumultuous relationships, including a couple of short prison sentences for drug offences. In 2002 she was sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy to import Class B drugs.
Initially, Tracy was planning to become a gym instructor and she completed various relevant qualifications while in prison.
But those plans all changed after she was transferred from Highpoint to the open prison East Sutton Park, Kent, for the final three years of her sentence. Here, she took a job on the prison farm working with the 200 Saddleback pigs.
“It was the highest paid job in the prison, paying £15 a week. I had been there about a month when the lady who ran the pig farm, Mrs Coveney, suggested I take the pig husbandry NVQ courses.
“I told her I had taken my fitness instructor NVQs and I was going to do this once I left prison but she encouraged me to look into it, so I did.
“I loved it and ended up doing my levels one to four. Mrs Coveney and another member of the prison staff were NVQ assessors and tutors from Hadlow Agricultural College were brought in for the higher levels.”
Leading up to her release Tracy was also allowed to leave prison by day to work.
Through a friend she organised an apprenticeship with a butcher in Harold Wood, on the outskirts of Romford.
She learned how to butcher a pig, to make sausages and bacon. It was a three-hour round-trip from Kent, but Tracy knew she wanted to return to Essex and by then the seeds were sown for her business – The Giggly Pig Company.
The butchery job also allowed Tracy to save up £3,000, which became her start-up funds for the business.
“Before I was released I told the governor I wanted to be a pig farmer. He said ‘of course you do Tracy’.”
But as her release date grew nearer he began to see she was serious, having planned it all out, so he agreed she could buy 30 Saddleback pigs from the prison farm.
After arranging to use some land belonging to a friend and her husband, Tracy bought pig arcs, electric fencing and her first van, and the company was born.
Tracy was released on February 26, 2007, after serving 7.5 years. A week later she returned to East Sutton Park to collect the pigs she had bought and take them home to Essex.
For six months she kept the pigs on her friend’s land near Brentwood, but she knew needed to find an alternative.
“I had a phone call from a young lady who wanted a part-time job. She came to work for me and when I told her I was looking for somewhere to keep the pigs she told me to talk to her dad.”
He had a disused pig farm at Hornchurch which, being close to the M25, was ideal for Tracy and her business.
Although historically a pig farm, there was nothing much else other than the one-hectare (three acres) of land, so Tracy had to invest in pig housing and later got planning permission for a mobile home so she could live on-site.
“We didn’t have electricity for the first two years so we’d come home from doing the markets and have to feed the pigs in the dark,” she says.
From the start Tracy was breeding pigs and finishing the offspring before butchering and selling pork, sausages and bacon.
After a year of trading she bought the butcher shop in Harold Wood where she had been an apprentice.
The owner, Bill Emerson, wanted to retire and she needed somewhere to butcher her pigs. Today, it remains a butcher shop and it takes a small amount of business from local residents but primarily it is for butchery and sausage-making, explains Tracy.
Although Bill is now in his mid-70s, he continues to work a couple of days a week for Tracy.
She started selling at local farmers markets and as her reputation grew she was offered pitches at more locations.
“I am always thinking about the future and 10 years ago farmers’ markets were popular but they are not so much now.
“I can see them changing. People don’t bring a bag to do their shopping there any more. They come to get hot food for lunch.”
This observation prompted her to branch out into hog roasts and she now caters for events from dog shows and garden shows to weddings all over the country, even traveling as far afield as Scotland and Wales for big events.
“I have got to have an income all year to cover the feed and wages bills.”
She now has team of about 22 employees working on-farm, in the butchery and selling and serving at markets and events, with a fleet of 16 vans in her distinctive black and pink Giggly Pig branding.
The business name came from the nickname she and a childhood friend were given when they would go out.
“We were the Giggly Pigs, so it was a good name for the business,” says Tracy.
he and the team offer 20 types of sausage, including the spicy Wow Wow, cracked black pepper, chunky bacon, chilli and garlic and Marmite flavours, but the overall best seller is the traditional Old English.
The farm has two boars, one Saddleback and one Middle White, which is a recent addition.
“Having seen it in prison I’ve always wanted to produce a blue pig by crossing the Middle White and Saddleback,” she says.
“We’ve had a couple of litters now and he is doing well. I hope by introducing the Middle White it will produce a longer carcase.”
Tracy has about 70 sows and aims to produce two litters per year from each.
“I don’t want my sows to be baby-making machines,” she says, “I am happy with two litters a year from them.”
Litter sizes are typically about 12-14 and she prefers them to farrow indoors. They then generally spend the first five weeks indoors before being turned out into the farm’s central paddock which offers outdoor space and wallows for a mixture of ages.
She weans at 10-12 weeks of age when they are about 30kg.
“They go into what I call the weaner pool. We divide the males and females at that point.”
The groups are then housed and kept indoors until reaching finished weight.
Boars are sent to slaughter at about 11 months of age, and the gilts go a bit later. The aim is for a 65-70kg carcase which she takes to an abattoir at Chelmsford.
“I don’t castrate the boars as I don’t believe it is necessary as long as they are slaughtered before they are 12 months old.
“It’s a 45 minute drive but I believe it is worthwhile as it is a small family-run business which can cope with my small batches.”
She takes a group of pigs every week to ensure a constant manageable supply for the markets and events.
As well as sausages, the team at the butchery produces dry cure bacon and a ‘new age faggot’, which have both won Gold Bpex awards.
“I call the faggots a posh meat ball when I’m selling and then people are more willing to try them. The recipe is lean pork and 2 per cent liver. They are very popular.”
Tracy juggles overseeing the business with a busy schedule of talks and appearances. She is often asked to talk to local groups but is particularly interested in working with prisons.
“I do a lot of talks in prisons and my message to them is always to do something constructive with your time there. Turn your life around,” says Tracy, who has co-written a book called ‘Jail Bird’ telling the story of her life so far.
“I was in a bad place, but I used the time to my advantage. I left school with no qualifications but I did 52 courses in prison.
“I knew I had to change the cycle I was in and I had to start fresh when I came out. It has been very hard work, particularly the first five years of the business, but I knew I had to make it work. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”