From one pig and a small allotment to one of Yorkshire’s most successful food and farming businesses, Chloe Palmer meets Tim Wilson to hear the story behind the sensation of The Ginger Pig.
When Tim Wilson first picked up a copy of John Seymour’s book Self Sufficiency, he never imagined his early forays with Tamworth pigs would lead him to build one of the North’s most prestigious food brands.
Growing up in Nottinghamshire, he worked on a small pig farm near Worksop, and after buying his first house, his thoughts returned to the book.
Inspired by what he read, he decided to buy three Tamworth gilts.
He says: “Initially, the whole thing was a bit of fun, but it is where it all started.”
After a couple of unsuccessful boar purchases, his three gilts farrowed and 23 piglets formed the basis of his pig herd.
Turn the clock forward six years and Tim had a growing property development business, enabling him to buy a smallholding so he could expand his pig enterprise.
“I soon discovered no-one buys half a pig for the freezer twice, so I started making sausages and learning how to cure hams.
“I bought antique cookery books and two butchers’ blocks and acquired an old pork pie press.”
The Ginger Pig was first registered as a limited company in 1996 and operated out of the farm shop at Harwell, near Bawtry.
The same year, Tim opened a stall at Borough Market, London, and was stunned by sales made in the first morning of business.
Shortly afterwards, he opened another shop in Marylebone and has since opened a further six shops across London, selling a comprehensive range of pork, lamb, beef, poultry and the renowned sausage rolls, pies, scotch eggs, prepared meals and pates.
He also runs butchery classes at the Marylebone and Shepherd’s Bush shops via a whole variety of courses.
Despite the phenomenal success of The Ginger Pig, Tim’s heart remains in farming and he adopts a hands-on approach at his two farms near Pickering, North Yorkshire.
He champions traditional breeds and aims to produce an animal for flavour and quality.
He says: “Food is flavour and flavour means size. We will not kill an animal which has not stopped growing.
“We are looking for a pig which reaches its weight at seven to eight months and we want to see a little fat on it.”
Tim applies the principles of slow maturing production across all the enterprises and so a herd of pedigree Longhorn cattle and a flock of Scottish Blackface sheep accompany the Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot pigs.
Not surprisingly, the pig herd is the main focus of the farming operation and a herd of 140 breeding sows is kept at nearby Blansby.
All sows, piglets and weaners are kept outside and Tim has developed a system based on a three-week cycle to allow his team to oversee farrowing and weaning.
During week one, four boars will serve groups of 15 sows and remain with them for a day before they are removed. In week two, another group of sows will be farrowing. During week three, groups of piglets from another batch of sows will be weaned.
Tim says: “This system allows us to keep a careful eye, because farrowing takes place at the same time.”
The sows farrow in A-shaped arcs which allow piglets to escape to corners to avoid the risk of crushing by the sow.
Electric fences separate sows and are set high enough to allow piglets to mix, which Tim believes helps minimise stress at weaning.
He says: “We leave piglets on sows for five weeks, because it makes them grow into stronger piglets. A weaner nut is available to older piglets and, when they are weaned, they are already familiar with piglets they are grouped with.”
A recent investment in 20 marquees means Tim can divide weaners into groups of larger and smaller pigs. This will facilitate the feeding of a higher protein diet to smaller pigs.
Continual investment is needed at Blansby to keep up with demand for pork from shops.
He says: “At the moment, we produce 105-110 pigs every two weeks, but we want to double this over the next couple of years.
“If we continue using natural service for sows, we will need to double our boar numbers, which is not ideal. We want to spend most of our time on gilts and sows because they produce the piglets.
“So we have started using artificial insemination and have set up our own semen collection facility using our own boars.
“Keeping some of our own boars allows us to maintain genetic bloodlines and they are needed to serve gilts and smaller sows and provide the scent for sows served by AI.”
While Tim remains entirely loyal to his native breeds of pig, this does not prevent him from seeking to improve the performance of his herd.
He says: “The Tamworth is a great pig, but can tend to be a little fat and have smaller litters, so I cross a Tamworth with a Large White and put the female back to a Tamworth. This gives us hybrid vigour.
“I keep females which come from big litters, so hopefully they will produce good numbers. There is no reason why we cannot have old fashioned animals but modern practices.”
Maintaining the highest herd health standards is key to performance and the farm vet is an integral member of the team.
“Our vet visits the farm every 12 weeks and we discuss what we can do to continually improve health and welfare. The vet also visits the abattoir and examines all carcases to check for pleurisy and pneumonia in lungs.”
Feeding traditional pig breeds requires a different approach, according to Tim.
“We cannot feed old-fashioned pigs a high protein feed, as they will become too fat.
“We send our grain to the local mill which prepares our cereal ration. Before weaning, piglets are fed a 15-16 per cent ration with milk powder, then a 13-14 per cent protein feed after weaning.”
Outdoor pigs always carry more fat than indoor reared pork and explaining why meat is the way it is to customers is an important part of the retail business.
“We have customers who want lean pork from outdoor pigs, but in winter, we cannot supply this. They will buy into products, but they need to understand why we are selling it.”
Tim also has a flock of 450 pure-bred Scottish Blackfaces. A proportion of these are crossed to a Bluefaced Leicester, so they also run a flock of 650 Mule ewes which are crossed back to the Leicester to provide a fatter lamb.
The sheep flock grazes 729 hectares (1,800 acres) of moorland above Grange Farm and some in-bye grassland below. He also buys-in lambs from a small number of trusted farms sharing his ethos.
He says: “From Easter to December, we buy pure-bred lambs from producers around the country and we pay a higher price as an incentive for them to produce a heavier lamb for us. After Christmas, we take our own Blackfaces off the moor and sell them until Easter.”
Tim adopts a similar strategy for his beef, keeping just 40 pedigree Longhorn cows and 65 followers.
“I think Longhorns are the best looking cattle in the world. They are built for size with good horns and the beef from them is superb.
“We hang beef for a minimum of 28 days, so we want a hard layer of fat on the animal. Animals finished entirely from grass will not produce this.”
Arable land at Blansby is the final piece of The Ginger Pig jigsaw, allowing the provision of largely home-grown cereal ration, straw and manure.
“I think straw is a fantastic product. We put masses down for pigs and we rarely have any foot problems. This gives us muck which is invaluable, because this is poor, stony land, so it benefits from organic matter and nutrients.”
Telling and selling the story has clearly been a winning formula for The Ginger Pig.
The recent opening of an eighth shop in Wanstead has proven to be more popular than ever with local customers and Tim has every reason to be characteristically upbeat about the future.
He says: “I want to keep having ideas to make what we do better. If we have something which creates a lot of interest, people will get behind it.”