Alastair Crown is one of the largest free range pig farmers in Northern Ireland and is responsible for creating the country’s first handmade cured chorizo. Barbara Collins meets the face of Corndale Farm.
What started with four rare-breed pigs being raised for the home larder has grown into a burgeoning hog roast, charcuterie and Christmas hams business.
Alastair Crown grew up in Corndale, Limavady, Co. Londonderry, the same location which is now the base for Corndale Farm.
He had been working in renewable energy and IT while his partner Sarah worked as a researcher for the examinations board. But in 2012 he decided to raise some rare breed pigs for for their own consumption. Although his father had a background in agriculture, he cheerfully admits to knowing next to nothing about rearing pigs.
“We started off with nothing” says Alastair. “We had no pigs, no ground, no nothing. I had no background knowledge. My father kept a few cattle and sheep, but never pigs. He gave me a pig health book he had at agricultural college which dated back to the 1960s.”
That book, along with internet research and inspiration from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Channel 4 series River Cottage, led to the purchase of four Saddleback pigs at the local mart.
Alastair said he picked Saddlebacks as he liked the breed.
“I liked their temperament and I found research which showed the sows had good mothering instincts.”
A neighbouring farmer lent them a corner of his field to keep animals in. Within the first eight months they had bought a couple of sows and a boar but numbers quickly started to grow and they had to take on more land. A 2.8-hectare (seven-acre) farmyard was available for rent, just 10 minutes’ drive from their house.
“Everything worked really well. It was still a hobby then as I was working full-time but I started breeding seriously and even taught myself AI from books and the internet,” says Alastair.
The sows were bought in and gradually they were able to retain the best of each litter. He also kept the best boar pig from an elders sow so he could service some and AI the rest with a pedigree breed or outside breed to keep the bloodlines different.
They rented this land until the latter part of 2015 when they moved the whole operation back to Corndale.
“There are about 30 acres and this is where we have the pigs grazing free-range. There are sheds for storing grain and meal and I used an old piggery at my house for farrowing.”
As the numbers grew, Alastair found himself with a lot of pork, so he taught himself butchery and began making sausages and burgers and selling freezer packs of meat.
Fortunately, he has experienced no issues with pig health and he is a strong advocate of high welfare and management standards.
“We depend on good milk and bloodlines. High welfare and good animal husbandry are key,” he says.
“The piglets come out of the farrowing house after two weeks and into sow pens. They have plenty of room to run about in the arc. They are with their mother for six weeks and they are then moved into wire-fenced weaner pens. There is more room and they have grass.
“As they grow bigger, they are moved into electric pens with bigger fencing. We can move them around if the ground is getting a bit rough. Piglets are weaned off the sows at eight weeks even though it is more costly to wait that long. You have to increase the feeding to sows to keep milk coming but we think it is worth it.
For feed, he mixes his own ration of local grain, using a mixture of barley, wheat and oats. They are also given a protein rich rapeseed cake from Broighter Gold, which is based nearby, supplemented with with potatoes and vegetables.
Boars are separated from the gilts at eight weeks, due to differing eating habits and different rates of growth.
“The gilt grazes while the boars tend to eat and eat, so we separate them to avoid bullying. The fields are also divided into different pens depending on their size.”
A natural appreciation for good food saw Alistair first consider charcuterie production around two years and he became the first person to hand-make chorizo sausage in Northern Ireland.
“I chose chorizo as I like eating it and charcuterie was not widely known in Northern Ireland at that stage.
There is a much stronger tradition in the Republic of Ireland and there are a few more producers here now, but still not that many.”
Alastair had no formal training but turned his attention back to his tested research methods, reading books and watching videos as he did when he started rearing pigs. He admits the move was a steep learning curve.
“It took a while to come up with the right recipe. I added some extra herbs to make it a little bit different but I always make sure to use the best de la Vera paprika from Spain.”
Alastair also spent a day with Norfolk pig producer Jackie Kennedy, who runs Marsh Pig Charcuterie on her farm and later invited her to visit Corndale in a consultancy role.
Once the recipe was fine-tuned, Alastair worked with North West College in Derry to scale up production and used an Invest NI innovation voucher to fund the work.
“It was a big help to get the voucher as I was starting from scratch in terms of getting the product out to market,” says Alastair.
Hotels and restaurants were soon eager to try the chorizo and demand became so great they had to move into a new production facility outside Limavady in September last year.
It is a unit in an industrial estate which has a chill room so they are able to hang the meat when it comes back from the abattoir. Pork is hung there for a day and then brought back to their small factory.
An average of five pigs are needed every week for hog roasts in peak season and the run-up to Christmas time for hams. There is a longer lead-in time for chorizo and salami but they still kill four animals a week at any time of year.
“Having the unit enabled us to double production in a few months. It has expanded to include various chorizo blends including picante [Spicy] and chilli. I dabbled with making cooking chorizo for a while but I decided to concentrate on the cured products.”
After experimenting with cross-breeding Duroc and Saddlebacks to lower the fat content on the carcase for burgers and sausages, Alastair has concentrated more on Saddlebacks as the charcuterie needs fat.
“The market is growing steadily as people have tasted salamis and chorizos on holiday and are now familiar with them.”
The hog roasts are another side to the business which maintain cashflow and publicise the name.
“We offer pulled pork burgers with red cabbage and apple sauce or a soft shell pulled pork taco with barbecue pickle, pickled cabbage and onion. There are also side dishes of salads and chorizo potatoes. They always go down well.”
Having started as a seriously small scale hobby, the business has now grown to involve four people at Corndale Farm. Alastair’s dad looks after the livestock; Sarah, Alastair’s partner, takes care of administration; and Alastair now also employs a part-time butcher.
“I develop products. I go to shows. I do sales and a fair bit of production too,” says Alastair.
Corndale now makes fennel salami and garlic and black pepper salami, which he believes are a natural follow-on product.
Having trialled them for a few months, they were well-received and he decided to enter them into the Great Taste and Blas na hEireann Irish Food Award, where the fennel product won two stars.
“I loved it but the chorizo does tend to sell better to the general public, while chefs seem to go more for the salami. The fennel salami has also made it through to the finals of the Blas na hEireann awards along with a chilli chorizo. This has led to more demand for the salami so we have retail packs of salami and chorizo in delis and shops across Northern Ireland now.”
There is also a strong food service market for the charcuterie and they now sell to four- and five-star hotels and dozens of restaurants.
“The Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink really spread the word about our produce in 2016. It definitely made a difference and we get so many email and Facebook enquiries about our products we knew it was time to set up an online e-commerce site. This is just about to go live” says Alastair.
Future plans include whole muscle products such as lomo (cured tenderloin), coppa (dry cured pork), pancetta (Italian bacon) and bresaola (salted beef) which will be available in the next few weeks.
“We have also launched a venison salami with Baronscourt Estate, Fermanagh, which is already getting fantastic feedback.
“It’s great having the three strands to the business. We rear the animals and then get to do the Christmas hams, hog roasts and the charcuterie. There is plenty of variety.”