Essex/Suffolk: Grim warning over pig farming future

THE region’s pig farming industry is coming under increasing strain as pork producers struggle to cope with inconsistent farming rules and the rising cost of feed, it has been warned.

With one Suffolk farmer already planning to send some of his herd to slaughter, another family food business hangs in the balance in Essex.

Fergus Howie, farming partner at Wicks Manor, in Tolleshunt Major, near Maldon, will wait until Christmas for things to improve before deciding on the future of the 50-year-old family firm.

Farmers face the double dilemma of inconsistent farming standards across Europe coupled with rising grain and food prices in the UK, where it is estimated many producers are losing around �14 on each pig.

Vicky Ford, a Conservative MEP for the East of England, plans to write to all major UK supermarkets urging them to support the supply of meat compliant to EU rules and has also agreed to write to the EU Commission asking what action can be taken to tackle non-compliance in other countries.

Mr Howie said his business could not be sustained without help from the big retailers, adding: “The cost of feed is through the roof, while the value of pigs is not rising. Meanwhile, supermarkets are still earning normal profits by maintaining very low shelf prices.

“We have to force supermarkets to put their prices up and keep pig farmers in business. If it doesn’t happen now, it will be a lot worse for us in six months when there could be a dramatic shortage.

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“We are rooted in pig farming. My father started the business 50 years ago but we’re going to give it until Christmas before deciding if we have to step out of some production. It’s not a good situation to be in.

“There is a global shortage of wheat and fewer sows are getting pregnant. This is quite critical.”

Since 1999, UK farmers have been subject to higher welfare standards for pigs, and a ban on the use of sow stalls. With an EU-wide ban not due to come in until the end of the year, exported pork products that do not meet the same quality standards can be sold more cheaply.

Mr Howie added: “For more than 15 years there have been no stalls or tethers in the UK. If we had used them we’d be jailed –- but supermarkets import pork and put it on the shelf next to British pork. Those standards could be lost if supermarkets don’t play fairly.”

MEP Mrs Ford has visited Blacks of Bacton, a family-owned arable and pig farming business near Stowmarket, to hear a similar story.

Meeting the Black family and representatives of the National Pig Association, Mrs Ford learnt how the farm will be forced to send the pigs in two of its indoor units to slaughter over the next year, but will continue contract farming for supermarket chain Waitrose.

Managing director James Black said: “We were always promised the EU would follow suit by introducing the same standards as the UK, but it now appears a lot of countries won’t meet the deadline.

“Unless something is done to make the market more functional, we will hear more and more of farmers taking the decision to stop producing.

“We are not stopping pig production entirely. We have a supply chain that is functional and not a lost cause.

“I would dearly love to spend money refurbishing our older units, but what is the point when our European competitors are allowed to continue with no strings? We need a market place that recognises the difference.

“We have to cut costs and it will mean redundancies. It’s a disturbing outcome.”

Mrs Ford is urging consumers to get behind struggling farmers in the East by looking for products with the Little Red Tractor logo which can be traced back to a British farm.

She said: “This is a real tragedy for British bacon, and I’m sorry to say that what is happening at Blacks of Bacton is typical of what is happening elsewhere in the UK pig industry, which is facing great uncertainty.

“Pig farmers across the region have struggled to compete against their European counterparts since 1999 when the UK introduced higher welfare standards for pigs and banned the use of sow stalls.

“There is meant to be an EU ban from the end of this year but it is now clear that despite years of notice, farmers in some other countries will not comply.

“Not only are our own pig farmers across the East of England facing a huge increase in grain prices, but they are also having to compete with exported pork products which can be sold at a much cheaper price as they do not meet the same quality standards.”