‘Barkie' business builder!
Chris Graham meets partners Julie Johnson and Chris Hudson, to discover more about their Berkshires and the thriving business they've built around them
It's not often we come across pig keepers who credit their chosen breed entirely with the success of a business they've created with them, but that's exactly the case with Chris Hudson and Julie Johnson.
The couple got their first in-pig Berkshire sow about 10 years ago, primarily because Chris – a specialist builder – wanted to rekindle a childhood passion. There was no grand plan at the start, and chance seems to have played a big part in what's happened in the past decade.
But what there's no doubt about is the fact that the Berkshire pig has remained at the very heart of the success that the couple now enjoys. It turns out to have been an inspired choice which, when combined with hard work and determination, has changed their lives.
Chris' connection with pigs goes right back to his childhood, when, aged nine, he took an afterschool job on a nearby commercial pig farm. "I really enjoyed the work and felt a real connection with the pigs, even at that early age," he told me. "But my father was a builder and, as the years passed, he started encouraging me down that route, suggesting that I could make more money as a builder than a pig keeper.
"By the time I left school at 16, and despite having stuck with the pig farm job for all those years, I went to work at a builders' merchant. But the farmer kept on at me to come back, so I eventually agreed to start back there on Sunday mornings, for 50p an hour. Of course, once I was back, I was encouraged to switch to a full-time basis, which I eventually did."
But, shortly after Chris had made the switch, the pig farmer sadly died, so he was forced back into the building trade. "By this stage, though, I knew my heart was really in farming," he recalled, "so I worked out a business plan and went to the bank for a loan to buy my own pig farm. I ran that for about 18 years and then, for various reasons, sold the farm and returned to work as a builder once again."
But Chris never lost his interest in pigs and, about 10 years ago, things took another twist. "I'd been doing some building restoration work on a local stately home," he told me, "and had become friendly with the American owner. The gardens were very overgrown, so I suggested that getting a pig would be a great way of starting to tackle the clearance work that was desperately needed. The owner agreed and, by that stage, Julie and I were together and we decided that traditional, native breed pigs were the way to go.
"As always, though, I was thinking ahead, and knew that I wanted pigs that would make me a bob or two in some way, rather than simply being pets. Of course, I had plenty of previous experience to fall back on (with Large Whites, Landrace and Welsh pigs), but Julie was a complete beginner, so we needed a rare breed that would be as easy as possible to manage and handle. After a good deal of thought and discussion, we settled on the Berkshire.
"As things have turned out, that really was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The Berkshire really is the perfect pig for novices, with its gentle temperament and undemanding nature. They don't go ‘wild' at feeding time, and I'll happily let my young granddaughters into the pen with a sow and her young litter; there's just never a problem.
"The first Berkshire I got was an in-pig sow – I'd already decided that I wanted to breed – and she a good litter of 10 piglets. However, the one problem was that ‘black' pigs are quite difficult to sell these days, with most buyers wanting white breeds. So, it soon became clear that I wasn't going to be able to make my fortune selling Berkshire weaners but, nonetheless, I wanted the pigs to earn their keep." Then good fortune intervened.
The stately home where Chris and Julie were keeping their pigs, had recently opened as a wedding venue, and the first event there happened to include a hog roast. Chris and Julie were immediately taken with this idea and felt it was not only something that they could tackle, but that it would provide an ideal way of utilising their surplus stock.
"A deal was struck with the owner of the house," Julie told me, "then Chris researched the hog roast machine market and bought a British-made, Hogg Boss, gas-powered mobile spit roasting oven. Little John's Hog Roast (little-johns.co.uk) was born and it was all very exciting but, as we had no catering experience between us, things inevitably started slowly. We studied the machine's instructions, did lots of research on the internet and read what we could about cooking pigs in this way.
"In the end, though, we had to learn by trial and error; there's just no substitute for getting on and doing it," she continued. "The machine can rotate the pig automatically, once a minute, as it cooks, but we soon learned not to do this for too long. If you do, the carcass starts to fall apart as the meat cooks and softens. We also quickly got to grips with temperature-probing and cooking times, and it wasn't long before our confidence started to grow.
"As luck would have it, the Berkshire turned out to be just about the perfect pig for the hog roast. Its level of fat means that the carcass can cook for eight or nine hours without becoming dried out, and the crackling produced is simply superb – it's something that everyone remarks on!"
Of course, a gradually increasing demand for bookings meant that more pigs were needed, so Chris worked hard on his Berkshire breeding programme. "We currently have six Berkshire sows and a couple of boars to service them," he said. "I also like to use a bit of AI, to introduce some new blood every now and again. I'm generally reluctant to buy new stock from ‘strangers' as, more often than not, you simply can't be sure about what you're actually getting.
"While on the subject of stock quality, another of my bugbears is the current tendency in show circles to breed with under-sized examples simply because they have good markings. This is being done at the expense of other utility considerations, which is bad for the long-term survival of the breed, in my view. As a result, most Berkshires I see in the show ring these days (especially in the south of England) are smaller than the examples I'm breeding here. I know that this is quite a talking point within the Berkshire Pig Breeders Club, and that some have argued that the examples I'm producing are ‘modernising' the breed.
"I don't agree, believing instead that I'm ‘improving' the breed, not ‘modernising' it. After all, the Berkshire needs to retain its usefulness if it's going to survive as a viable pig. So, producing examples that achieve a killing weight of 60kg rather than 40kg, over the same growing period and with a similar amount of body fat, has got to be a good thing. After all, as we all know, black pigs need to be made more desirable to a wider group of potential owners, if breed survival is to be assured. We've seen odd ones being sold for £5 at market, which is just an insult."
Steadily does it!
Chris and Julie have grown their hog roast business with care and attention over the past 10 years or so, never over-extending themselves or letting customers down. "We do 90 events a year, now," Julie said, "and are having to turn bookings down to keep things manageable. The three hog roast machines we have are all run by family members, so that we can ensure every event benefits from the same levels of quality and professionalism. We pride ourselves on being a family-run business and, although it's very hard work, the satisfaction levels are high."
Julie continued: "We restrict ourselves to top-end weddings and events, and steer clear of the ‘cheap and cheerful' end of the market. We don't need to be fighting for bookings on price because we're very confident of the quality we can offer. If prospective customers react to our price by saying they can get something similar more cheaply elsewhere then, because we have so much work anyway, we very politely invite them to do just that!
"Experience has also taught us not to take a booking unless the fee is paid in full, in advance. We've learned that getting money out of customers after the event can be frustratingly difficult, so we insulate ourselves from that stress altogether now."
Chris continued: "We pride ourselves on our reliability and professionalism, and all our bookings are generated through word of mouth. A big benefit of this is that we do not need to spend money on any sort of advertising. We have a website, which costs about £50 a year, and a Facebook page which is free. Between them, those two seem to work really well, and we've resisted all the approaches from sales companies offering to optimise our Google listing; it's just not been necessary."
As you might imagine, Chris and Julie have their hog roast operation down to a fine art now. The majority of the cooking is done at home, which allows them to arrive at the venue just an hour before the food is needed. The Hogg Boss units are certified for use inside as well as out, and are narrow enough to be wheeled off the van and in though a standard doorway, if that's what the customer wants.
"We also provide a full range of canapés, main meals, evening food, salads, tea/coffee stations and desserts. We're also able to cater for the increasing numbers of celiacs, vegans and vegetarians. None of the food preparation is sub-contracted out; we do it all ourselves. It's very hard work – especially when three events are happening on the same day – but it's enormously rewarding. We also insist on locally-produced rolls that are typically baked on the day of the event."
But it's not all about the hog roast business for Chris and Julie, as they both take conservation issues very seriously, too. Chris has worked hard on the quality of his pedigree breeding stock, the best of which now gets regularly and successfully entered at shows. "We probably didn't get into the showing side of things as soon as we should have done," Chris admits, "but now that we're involved, we have a great time. There's a terrific social side to showing pigs and, although the competition is certainly serious, this never gets in the way of the pleasure and excitement that everyone shares.
"I'm happy to say that we've managed some good results in recent years and, so far in 2019, we've picked up two Supreme Champion awards, the Best Pair of Pigs prize twice, and multiple Breed Champion trophies." The British Landrace has been a more recent addition to the herd, and its arrival was driven by the couple's interest in showing, as Chris explained.
"There are two fundamental reasons why I decided to buy a few Landrace pigs, and the first relates to showing. Typically, at the sort of events we attend, the traditional breeds are shown and judged in the morning, followed by the moderns afterwards. So I thought that having a Landrace to show as well would give me more to do in the afternoons!
"Secondly I feel that the breed is in real need of support, so that aspect appealed to my conservation interest. Although, over the years, I've always been more interested in the Welsh, once I discovered that Landrace numbers are so low, I decided to get involved with some of the rarest bloodlines. However, it's unlikely that the Landrace will ever figure in the hog roast side of our operation, simply because I don't think it can match the qualities of the Berkshire; it's a different kind of animal with its own strengths."
Chris, being a builder by trade, is ideally placed to deal with the hardware side of pig-keeping, and has single-handedly established his current set-up of pens, arks and buildings. The pigs enjoy a safe life within the walled confines of what was originally a large, vegetable garden, and share the space with a few goats, free-range chickens and ducks. "I've designed my own ark with a sectional construction," Chris explained. "The idea was to create a structure that I could dismantle/erect single-handed in just a few minutes, so that it would be easy to relocate as the pigs get moved from enclosure to enclosure. I don't have a tractor that's big enough to move conventional pig arks around the place, so doing it this way is the next best thing."
It's clear from chatting with Chris and Julie, that the pigs they keep are a central part of their lives now, not only from the pleasure they bring, but also thanks to the business that's been built around them. Today, Little John's Hog Roast not only supports the pigs, but also provides the couple with a good income. "The business could grow bigger," Julie added, "but we're wary of doing that for fear of losing that all-important personal touch. We're very mindful about not over-extending ourselves, which is why we only operate within a 30-mile radius of Newark.
"I know that some of the larger operators take bookings all over the country, and simply sub-contract the work out to other operators. But we never do that because it would mean putting our hard-earned reputation in the hands of others. We've worked long and hard to build the business around providing top quality and reliability, and our pricing structure reflects that. We're totally confident in the quality of the services we offer, and our customers are happy to pay to guarantee the highest of standards."
Wedding bookings remain at the centre of the business, and the complete catering package that Little John's Hog Roast now offers seems more popular than ever. But, as Chris pointed out, none of it would have been possible without one crucial ingredient. "All the success of our business has been built off the back of the Berkshire pig, plain and simple. I really don't think we'd be where we are now without it."