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Bringing home the bacon- When Peter Mortimer left school, two very different career paths beckoned. He explains why pig farming became his chosen route and why he has never looked back on his 40-year journey.
When Peter Mortimer left school, two very different career paths beckoned. He explains why pig farming became his chosen route and why he has never looked back on his 40-year journey.
Peter Mortimer was always very good at woodwork at school and was offered an apprenticeship with a respected firm of cabinet makers in Ipswich. But, the son of a vet, hed always loved animals and so instead decided to buy a few sows and breed pigs on his fathers land in Harleston. I know being a pig farmer isnt the best paid job in the world, admits Peter. Cabinet-making might have paid a lot more. But I have no regrets. Ive loved my life as a pig farmer and got such a lot out of it.
Peter, who is 62, now wants to put something back, as he puts it, and so has donated a trophy to encourage young stock handlers at the Royal Norfolk Show. Hes been a regular exhibitor there since the 1970s, and now his knowledge and expertise are put to good use commentating on pig classes in the show rings.
He travels across East Anglia commentating at agricultural shows and will be in full voice at this years Royal Norfolk Show. Theres something Ive always loved about the show, he says. It is a terrific place for meeting up with friends and for talking to people about pigs. The public is so interested; you only have to get hold of the microphone and people start flocking to watch the animals. Sometimes theyre standing three or four deep round the ring. Competing at the show is really important to Peter, who farms commercially at Metfield, near Harleston, rearing around 5000 pigs a year for local butchers and caterers.
His animals have won many prizes over many years but he was especially pleased to win the Royal Norfolk Show Championship for the Best Commercial Pig in 2000. It took me 30 years to win this championship, so we were very pleased with that, he says proudly. Rearing animals for the summer show starts with breeding programmes before Christmas, the first of the animals being born early in the New Year.
Peter and his son Richard, who now works in the business with him, produce pigs at differing weights for the different classes. Theyre grown on until they reach optimum weight, with plenty of meat on the animal.
An old boy once told me that if you want a nice looking pig, it should have the face of a queen and the back-end of a cook, laughs Peter. You want to show a pig that will have plenty of meat on the carcass, and you are always trying to improve what you do every year. Peter moved from his fathers land at Harleston on to eight acres at Metfield in 1969. The site was derelict, having previously been the officers quarters on a former wartime American airbase. He married his wife Gill, who is a teacher but is involved in the family business,
Their herd has grown from its modest beginnings in the 1960s to around 250 sows now. The sows are a cross between the Large White and the Landrace pig, one of the UKs most popular breeds. The boars are Pietrain crosses, named after the Belgian town which was the birthplace of the breed. Pietrains are renowned for producing plenty of good, lean meat.
Each sow produces up to seven litters, with an average of 11.5 piglets per litter. The young pigs are weaned at around one month old and then are fattened for slaughter at around 20 weeks. The proximity of a local abattoir, 14 miles away, means Peters pigs dont have to travel far to slaughter and so are not stressed by the experience. And, as environmental concerns become increasingly important to customers, the food miles involved in producing his pork, bacon and ham are very low.
He is one of a few farmers in the whole of East Anglia who makes a living from farming just one product. We dont have enough land here to grow crops, and I have had a small flock of sheep and some calves over the years, but the pigs are what I enjoy breeding most, he says.
As a commentator at the Royal Norfolk Show, Peter is a great authority on pig breeding and is also knowledgeable about rare breeds, such as the Gloucester Old Spot and the Berkshire. The type of exhibitor at the show has changed over the years, Peter recalls. You dont get many of the big pedigree producers any more; there are a lot of people who just keep a few rare breed sows the hobby farmers, really. Although he has never kept rare breed pigs commercially, Peter fancies that, when he gets out of large scale production himself, he might be tempted to have a few Berkshire sows.
But the likelihood of him actually retiring seems remote; after many years of difficulty for pig farmers, the market is currently good and production is in profit again. Having been shut down for 19 weeks during the swine fever outbreak of 2000, Peter has faced and overcome lots of challenges to be a happy and successful farmer. I think that if you have a good product, then you have to get out there and sell it, he says. And whether its supplying meat to the local butchers or taking your animals to the Royal Norfolk Show, theres no substitute for putting in the hard work if you want to be successful.
Peter Mortimers Metfield herd will be on show at the Royal Norfolk Show, June 30 and July 1, 2010, where he will also be commentating in the pig showing ring. Peter is a council member of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association.