Jess and Stuart Hooper, Castle Pill Farm, Steynton
If you go down to the woods today outside Milford Haven, you are in for a big surprise. Something remarkable is happening underfoot. The woodland is being transformed while people are being fed.
Jess and Stuart may not consider themselves revolutionaries, but they are part of a small, but growing farming minority practising agroecology. The concept is simple: producing food that benefits both us and the environment; working with nature rather than against it. Scale is key. Small scale farms not only produce more per acre than industrialised monocultural agriculture, they also do so while building up rather than destroying ecosystems.
This is where Mel and Ernie come in. A rather pretty black Berkshire pig and her boarish ginger Tamworth partner. The porcine equivalent of mini-diggers. Shovelling, rootling and clearing their way through 20 acres of woodland on a steep-sided valley. Mel is up at the farm taking a sabbatical, after caring for her latest litter of piglets. So Jess takes us down to meet Ernie, king of the wood.
A single strand of electric wire fence is all the stops him from running wild.
“Once trained, it’s actually pretty easy to keep them within boundaries,” Jess says, tipping out his food rations and resisting the urge to give him a very muddy belly rub, which he so obviously desires.
“With a nose this sensitive, getting an electric shock is not an experience he likes to repeat.”
The woodland is divided into pens of varying sizes depending on the terrain or time of year. Ernie has a cordoned off area of 4 acres to cover at the moment, not that he is making the best use of it.
“It’s actually pretty hard to get him to work an area that size. Mel is better, Ernie’s a bit lazy. He’s a man of routine, sticking to the same tracks and only picking the easiest jobs."
While woodland foraging for grubs, roots and nuts forms some of the their diet, more so during the summer months, it still needs to be topped up with daily rations of barley, wheat, soya and molasses. I ask Jess where the soya comes from and whether the feed is organic.
“We source the soya from a certified supplier in Europe, so we know it’s not causing deforestation in other parts of the world. As for organic, we’d love to be, but unfortunately on this scale it’s unaffordable. We are low-intensity farmers who only produce pork a few times a year direct to customers. As it is, we only just cover our costs - the feed, the stock equipment - not enough to pay us a wage.”
The couple began the project a few years ago as a side-line to full-time jobs elsewhere. It says a lot about our food system that farmers trying to produce good quality food in a sustainable way cannot earn a living wage from doing so. And to farm this way is labour-intensive. In order for the pigs to systematically move through the woodland clearing bracken and brambles as they go, opening up areas for new trees to grow and biodiversity to flourish, it needs to be carefully managed. Every pen needs fencing off with electric wire, and must have access to two things - fresh water from the stream at the bottom of the valley and a shelter built from recycled pallets to protect the pigs from wind.
If the pay-off is not yet financial, it is in the flavour of the pork and the benefit to the woodland as a whole. Jess shows me an area the pigs worked their magic on last year. What was once shoulder-high brambles is now a clearing of leaf-littered trees that thronged with pink campions throughout the summer. The change in woodland flowers has been most dramatic of all. Bluebells and snowdrops are slowly spreading out, and last spring the first delicate wood anemones emerged. As we talk, Ernie comes lumbering into view in the distance between the trees making the most extraordinary engine noise. He even sounds like a digger. We break off to watch him for a few long moments. There is something so joyful about seeing him here. A jolt of recognition from our ancient past. It strikes me that I have never once seen a pig in a wood, yet instantly I know it belongs here.
Before long the new litter of piglets will be released into their own separate area of woodland to rootle and tootle around before their time comes for slaughter. That seems a hard reality to bare, especially having seen them up close, yet also a subtly different dilemma. How many people I wonder, would think differently about eating meat if they saw it for what it could be - a connection to a much bigger system - rather than simply our right?
If you would like to enquire about pork from Castle Pill Farm, contact Jess Hooper on firstname.lastname@example.org