Michel Hooper-Immins finds that happy animals provide good meat for their farmers
Published in March ’10
These days consumers are much more interested in the provenance of their food and drink. Food miles have become a big issue. Many now routinely ask where their food was produced and are rightly concerned about welfare issues. That’s good news for all Dorset producers, but particularly for hardworking Kevin and Amanda Crocker at their combined 360-acre farms in Bere Regis and Tolpuddle. They sell their own succulent pork, goat meat, lamb and beef directly to customers.
Most dairy farmers struggled in the late 1980s and the Crocker family’s Central Farm in Tolpuddle was no exception. They sold the dairy herd in 1990, deciding instead to breed pigs and sheep. A fourth generation Dorset farmer, Kevin Crocker studied agriculture at Kingston Maurward College and with his late father Norman, then ran the Tolpuddle farm.
Kevin’s life took a new direction and a new meaning thirteen years ago when he met Amanda at the Martyrs Inn karaoke evening at Tolpuddle. Although Essex-born, Amanda grew up in Poole and qualified as an accountant, overseeing the Hamble and Brixham marinas. They married on Guy Fawkes Day in 1997. ‘Always fireworks on our anniversary,’ she laughs. Amanda much enjoys the rural peace, having swapped high heels for Wellington boots and left an office for an open shed, but obviously appreciates the healthy lifestyle of a farmer’s wife.
They were early supporters of farmers’ markets and have built a successful business on the concept of selling directly to consumers at Bridport, Blandford, Poundbury, Wareham and Christchurch. ‘Buyers really enjoy talking to the farmer,’ Kevin Crocker tells me. ‘I give them advice on the best cuts and tell them how to cook it as well. It’s our chance to meet the consumer face to face.’
Finding a trading name was a puzzle. ‘One night we were relaxing and trying to think of a snappy name,’ recalls Amanda. ‘On our second bottle of red wine, I remarked to Kevin how our animals were pampered – they roamed the paddock, rather than being packed into sheds. So Pampered Pigs was born!’
Around fifty pigs are split between the Tolpuddle farm and Rye Hill Farm at Bere Regis, which the couple have rented since 2004. Slow-maturing breeds like saddlebacks and saddleback crosses live over six or eight months – elsewhere many are slaughtered at only four months old. Being outside and contented, ‘pampered’ pigs will surely produce better meat.
From the early days, the Crockers were concerned at the ethical dimension of keeping animals – in the vanguard of welfare reforms which have since become the industry standard. Many farmers kept pigs inside on concrete – a practice now outlawed. Kevin uses no routine medication, nor does he clip the pigs’ teeth or dock their tails. ‘We’ve always kept our pigs outside for 80% of their lives, bringing them in only towards the end of the fattening process.’
Some of the pigs’ food is decidedly high class. Every few weeks, Kevin collects the waste biscuits, flapjacks and cheese dough from Fudges Bakery. More comes from Dorset Cereals, a useful bit of upmarket recycling that adds to the flavour of the meat.
Pampered Pigs HQ is the Rye Hill farm shop, which opened in 2004 just outside Bere Regis on the Wool road. Of course, their meat takes pride of place on the crowded shelves and freezers – everything from steaks to mince, from chops to spare rib. Just off the road, the well-stocked farmshop attracts a lot of passing trade and in summer, many tourists on their way to Monkey World and the Tank Museum. Amanda’s spectacular Dorset cream teas, part of the growing café operation, are another attraction.
Pampered Pigs’ sausages have become a gourmet product. ‘We use only good leg meat,’ says Amanda, ‘and in natural casings.’ Produced in the butchery room under the shop, they come in up to twenty different flavours, including pork with Tincleton watercress. New is Dark Knight, including black pudding; another popular variety is Hog Roast – apple, sage, onion and pork.
I sampled the plain pork sausages. You can tell they’re 80% meat, a good solid tasty meal. ‘Over the years, many consumers have become sausage connoisseurs,’ Kevin tells me. ‘They’re probably the best selling product in the shop and with zero food miles.’
They began stocking goat meat last year and noticed a spectacular leap in demand, partly from the Gurkhas at Blandford Camp and from an expanding Mediterranean community around Bere Regis. Although possibly an acquired taste, Kevin realises that Dorset people are becoming more adventurous in their eating, which is good news! They are buying some boar goats, a traditional African breed which produces what many say is the best goat meat – healthy with low fat and low cholesterol. Some customers enjoyed a goat leg as their Christmas lunch.
The sheep flock is being run down – a glut of lamb on the market – but again the old breeds predominate, such as Poll Dorsets, Portlands and Dorset Horns.
The fourth strand of the farm meat business is the beef herd, again slow-maturing breeds like Belted Galloways, British Whites and Highland cattle. They take 35 months to fatten. I have always enjoyed good beef and there will always be a market for such a quality product, hung for three to four weeks.
One section of the farm shop showcases local beers like Badger, Piddle and Studland; and they now sell wine as well. A Somerset farmer was just delivering bags of potatoes as I was looking round, another new line. Amanda and Kevin have a sideline – hog roasts and barbecues: a good summer attraction for weddings, parties and fetes. One new venture this spring will be the shire horses, Sherman and Spectacular, taking cart rides around the farm.
‘Farming is in a better state now than it has been for many years,’ says Kevin. ‘Livestock sales are making realistic money and the high euro against the pound has stopped a lot of imports.’ Amanda could not be happier: ‘I couldn’t bear being cooped up in an office again – I’d much rather spend the days outside with the animals.’