Proving age is just a number, 18-year-old Aaron Wilkins has established his own rare breed pig herd and direct supply venture, The Wilder Ones, with sell-out success in the past two years. Rebecca Jordan fins out more.
Aaron Wilkins did not grow up on a farm, but he knew it was an industry he wanted to get into from a young age. For the past couple of years, Aaron, 18, has spent any spare time he has had helping milk cows with Maurice Davey at East Kimber Farm, Northlew, Devon. Then, on leaving school, he went to work on a beef and sheep farm for Peter and Mary Heard at Yelland Farm, just outside Okehampton.
Before this, he and his parents moved across Devon from Torbay to Bratton Clovelly, near Okehampton, when Aaron was 11 years old for a fresh start, after years of bullying at primary school. Aaron, who has severe dyslexia and dyscalculia, left school three years ago with no qualifications.
The family’s move took them to a smallholding, where they kept a handful of Oxford Sandy Black pigs which were finished for the home freezer. A a r o n s o o n realised he had a real interest in pigs, and they might provide him with a way into farming.
Aaron says: “I wanted to do things differently and produce pork as wildly as I could in the five acres of woodland we have at home. For me, it was a test to raise rare breed pigs without chemicals or medicines as nature intended. I watched masses of videos on YouTube, anything which showed people talking about farming with nature or regeneratively.
“Joe Salatin is a real hero of mine for his non-intensive methods of pig rearing – and Derek Gow for his conservation.
“I also saw posts from vegans saying how cruel farming was. They made me determined to try something high welfare.”
In September 2019, Aaron asked his mother for a loan to buy six eight-week-old British Lops at Holsworthy market’s rare breed sale. The idea was to support the rarest breed and sell slow-grown, naturally-reared, medicine and antibiotic free pork in meat boxes direct to the customer, locally,” he says.
In six months, these were ready for slaughter and all sold via Aaron’s first The Wilder Ones meat boxes. After paying back the loan, Aaron used the proceeds to buy two British Lop in-pig sows. They farrowed down 24 piglets between them in May 2020, by which stage the country was in Covid-19 lockdown.
Aaron also bought two Large Black sows which had farrowed earlier in the year as well as a pedigree British Lop boar which came with an in-pig gilt of the same breed. As Covid lockdown took a grip across the country, it looked as though the fledgling business would flounder.
Not only did the local slaughter house shut due to Covid-19 infections among its employees, but Aaron’s mum also had to isolate as she was vulnerable to Covid-19. This meant he was unable to deliver any boxes, as she helped with the driving. At the same time, the boar Aaron had bought was also not working and no sows were in pig.
This all led to cashflow problems as there was no meat for the meat boxes and he could not afford to replace the boar.
“I very quickly discovered it’s really hard being a young entrepreneur,” he says.
“Everyone wants you to do it, but the support just isn’t there before you are 18 years old.
“I was still 17 at that time, which meant I wasn’t eligible for any of the Covid-19 grants and I was too young to get a bank loan or an overdraft. In fact, I was too young to open a feed account or a business bank account.”
As those piglets born earlier in the year matured, Aaron needed to rent more ground to finish them. Fortunately, he came into contact with Carol Barkwell, who farms at West Fishleigh Farm, near Hatherleigh, where she has also set up Made-Well, a community interest company which gives opportunities to disadvantaged and disabled local people while also educating them about growing, processing and marketing local food. Carol offered Aaron 20 hectares (50 acres) of woodland on the farm. To be able to achieve this expansion.
Aaron set up a crowdfunding page which raised more than £12,000, enabling him to move, set up and keep in business. He also applied to The Addington Fund later in the year and was awarded £3,000.
“I was so grateful for all the support,” Aaron says. “It would have been impossible to keep going without it and has meant the business continues and can start to expand, which is such a relief.”
Before farrowing, sows are individually penned in the woodland where they stay until they selfwean when their young are between eight and 10 weeks old.
“The piglets are rotated around the woodland in their social groups to ensure the soil gets a rest,” he says.
“They are generally finished between six and eight months old at 70 to 100kg deadweight.”
They are fed a finishing ration as well as rolled barley, which levels at a £200 per week feed bill, with each group consuming an average 12kgper day by finishing. All in, Aaron says it costs him £152 per piglet to finish, when he also calculates in the sow ration of nuts and rolled barley as well as abattoir, butchery and delivery costs, which level at £60 per head. Finished pigs go to P. J. Hayman and Sons in Ottery St Mary, where the pork is also cut, labelled and boxed.
Aaron then markets the boxes at £120 for a 10kg box.
“As soon as we are ready to sell pork, I put a post on Facebook and Instagram. We are always sold out within 24 hours,” says Aaron.
“Nearly everyone is a repeat customer or new to us through word of mouth.
“I am told we are producing the best tasting pork and I am so grateful for that loyalty. I’m now sending o u t b o x e s nationally by courier and The Wilder Ones website will soon be up and running.”
Aaron finished 100 pigs last year, but aims to double that this year with an average 12 piglets weaned per sow.
With demand for pork outstripping supply, the plan is to expand up to 30 sows by the end of this year. He has used lockdown as a time to learn how to make nitrate-free bacon and charcuterie, so products which are artisan cured and smoked can be added to the boxes in the future, along with black pudding and pork scratching, for which there is high demand.
“By connecting with customers and selling pork directly to them I hope I can go some way to conserving the British Lop breed, something which is really important to me,” says Aaron.
“The pigs have a good temperament and finish relatively quickly at good weights. Currently I have a litter of five females from one of the rarest British Lop bloodlines to bring on and breed from. It will therefore be very important to find the right boar for them.
“I am hoping this amazing breed will be around a lot longer than me.”