Pig farmers face risky few months - even if pressures ease

Chris Fogden's pigs that are kept on the Euston Estate

Pig farmers faced a turbulent 2021- and the crisis they are in is face from over - Credit: Sonya Duncan

The dire plight of East Anglia's pig farmers has resulted in culls across farmyards as they struggle to balance the books.

The National Pig Association (NPA), National Farmers’ Union and pig producers joined major retailers and pork processors to attend an emergency summit  at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) offices earlier this month (February 10). For those in the industry, progress remains painfully slow but the NPA said some progress was made.

It follows months of crisis for the industry – which has been brought to its knees by what one East Anglian industry expert described as a “perfect storm” of circumstances. The calamity has been triggered by a range of factors from Brexit to the pandemic which led to worker shortages at abattoirs and on farms, soaring feed costs, plummeting prices and huge supply chain backlogs.

And unless things change rapidly, little real progress will be made in reducing a huge pig backlog – now estimated to be well in excess of 200,000 pigs – until late-spring, early-summer, the NPA warned. 

Meanwhile, more and more farmers are running out of space and being forced to cull healthy pigs, it said.

East Anglia is a big pig-producing region – and has found itself in the eye of the storm.

“It’s now or never for the survival of the industry,” warned Bury St Edmunds pig consultant Peter Crichton, who speaks regularly to despairing farmers.

Most Read

Across the region, producers with overweight pigs were having to resort to desperate measures, he said. 

These included killing their overweight pigs and paying out sums to have carcases removed – dipping them further into the red. Most harrowing of all for those in the industry was having to slaughter young weaners or piglets because they can’t afford to feed them and have no market to sell them into, he said. This was having a terrible effect on morale, he added.

He fears that even after the industry across Europe contracts and the backlog of animals on farm is dealt with, pig farmers could then find themselves plunged into yet deeper trouble.

As and when prices recover as supply and demand comes back into balance, producers in hock to the bank could end up with the plug being pulled on their overdraft, he feared.

Banks – which would be left to pick up the pieces if pig farmers go to the wall now – were being understanding at the moment, he said. But they may in any case be reluctant to face a situation now where they foreclose without any equity at all. Banks would then have to feed the pigs and pay workers if owners go bust. However, that situation could change as the crisis recedes, he warned. 

“It’s a house of cards. I’m not over-dramatising – this is where we are. I have never had a situation in my long career where we have had to pay to kill the pigs.

“There’s a risk they (the banks) will take the view they will leave things as they are because there’s no real option but when there’s a recovery in prices there’s be a time when they are less exposed.”

This could potentially have a domino effect, he predicted.

“Hopefully, they (the banks) will take a longer-term view and continue to support their agricultural customer base,” he added.

Meanwhile, large quantities of cheap pig meat was being imported into the UK from the European Union which was having its own pig crisis, he explained. “Those consignments are literally being waved through by our customs.” 

At the same time, producers here were being wrapped up in red tape as they attempted to export their excess meat – particularly sow meat – into Europe, he said.

The NPA is calling for the government to help end the crisis by simplifying the skilled worker visa route, and for processors to set out and stick to a plan for getting rid of the UK pig backlog.

It wants retailers to agree to a mass promotion of British pork, buy more of it rather than EU meat and to agree to support processors by working with them on government support measures like Private Storage Aid and the Slaughter Incentive Payment Scheme (SIPS)

It also wants the government to allow valuable cuts from pig carcases from the extra SIPS kills to be sold in UK retail outlets, rather than only be exported or put into Private Storage, as is the case now.

Farming minister Victoria Prentis agreed to convene the summit after a joint request from NPA chairman Rob Mutimer and National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters.

The NPA chairman, who is based in Norfolk,  met with around 20 pig farmers in Suffolk on the eve of the Westminster meeting along with a DEFRA official. “The situation is dire. Getting the backlog down by the summer will simply be too late for many pig farmers. This is a crisis unfolding in front of our eyes – and we must act collectively now to save the British pig industry,” he said.

After the DEFRA meeting in London, NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said they “very grateful” to farming minister Victoria Prentis for her “strong support and desire to resolve the current issues on farm” but expressed disappointment at the progress made. 

“While the meeting disappointingly did not result in any firm commitments, DEFRA have made it clear that this is just the beginning and they will work with us on specific issues over the next few weeks to find solutions where possible,” she said. 

“A number of key actions were identified from the meeting which we will now ensure DEFRA sets out who is expected to complete and by when and press for urgency as for many producers, these discussions have already come too late.”

Chris Fogden – who runs a pig operation on the Euston Estate and was at the Suffolk meeting held at Quality Equipment in Woolpit – said some pig farmers were exiting the industry while others held on hoping the crisis would end soon. 

He felt the official he met with was understanding and reassuring, but believes the government needs to send out a clear message that it wants UK farmers to continue to produce food.

Chris is trying to develop a Breckland Free Range brand to counter the effects of the crisis. 

Meantime he has won a contract to supply a large processor which was helping to keep him afloat while he tries to sell the pigs he produces, he explained. 

“Prices are currently too low considering high feed prices. Supply will fall in time, which will raise prices, just as it always has – fingers crossed,” he said. 

“We do have too many overweight pigs unfortunately owing to our not having a supply contract in place over the Christmas period. These heavy pigs are being sold at very low prices on a ‘first loss is the best loss’ basis.”

He was “hanging on” hoping the situation improves, he said, but called for the government to back the industry.

“It’s looking quite clear they really don’t give a (damn) so we need some signals if you want us producing food,” he said.

“They don’t have to dip their hands in their pockets. We just need recognition. We need perhaps a bit more help with this whole migrant labour situation – that would help clear the backlog.”