Chris Graham meets Josh Farrell, an enthusiast who manages to combine his life-long interest in pigs with a rewarding and fulfilling career.
Josh Farrell is the farm manager at the Nightingale Community Academy in Tooting, South London. The Academy is an independently-funded school for boys aged between 5 and 19 who have social, emotional or mental health issues. It offers a vital safety net for students who, for one reason or another, find traditional schooling too much of a challenge. As well as academic teaching, the Academy offers a range of vocational qualifications to students, an increasing number of which are now related to the newly-revamped, on-site farm.
Although he's only been in the job for just over a year, Josh and his small team have been responsible for a miraculous transformation, which has seen the 1.5-acre site turned from a muddy, down-at-heel facility with rather sad, elderly livestock living in leaky buildings, to a tidy, clean and smart-looking working farm that everyone wants to be involved with again.
In the beginning
"The farm was originally just a spare part of the school's playing field," Josh told me, "then, about 10 years ago, a charity called the Tom AP Rhys Pryce Memorial Trust, offered to help the school create a therapeutic resource to provide students with opportunities to learn about empathy while caring for animals.
"In more recent times, though, the farm fell by the wayside somewhat, and certainly wasn't being used to its full potential, which is when I was brought in. Things were pretty dilapidated when I arrived; there were broken fences all over the place, leaking roofs and mud that was so deep in some of the pens that we needed waders!
"But I'm the sort of character who loves a project to get his teeth into, so wasn't in the least bit daunted. I'd worked previously with the pigs on Jimmy Doherty's farm, in Suffolk, as a keeper at Colchester Zoo and come from a farming background. So, I'm not afraid of hard work and my intention, right from the off, was the rebuild the farm."
When Josh arrived, the only pigs on site were a handful of ageing Kunekunes. "There were about 40 assorted animals in all," he recalls, "but most of them had been rescued and were, by that stage, too old to be of much use from a learning point of view, which is what we're all about, here.
"I started by getting most of the original livestock re-homed and, rather regrettably, the Kunekune pigs went for sausages.
I've always had a passion for pedigree, rare breed animals, so wanted to bring in new livestock that fitted that idea. I also appreciate the importance of supporting the breeders who work so hard to maintain our precious, native breeds. In addition, I think it's important that our students are able to learn about these animals, first-hand.
"So far, I've brought in Golden Guernsey goats, Shetland sheep, Dexter cattle, Oxford Sandy & Black pigs, Shetland ponies, a pair of Emus and assorted rare breed poultry (including Bourbon Red turkeys, Rouen ducks, Orpington and Pekin chickens)."
Josh continued: "We pride ourselves on being a proper, working farm, albeit on a miniature scale. We currently have over 200 animals on site, all of which are properly looked after, bred and, where appropriate, shown at external events. The farm is funded partly by the school and partly from donations but, as far as the animals are concerned, they have to pay their way.
"I'm well aware that livestock isn't particularly profitable at the moment, which is one of the reasons I was so keen to stick with pedigree, rare breed stock – this always holds more value. It makes complete sense to me to be keeping and producing the best examples possible, which is why I've been so careful with the selection of the stock we've brought. For example, as far as the pigs are concerned, I spent a good part of last year visiting rare breed auctions across the land, looking for stock to buy."
It's clear from chatting with Josh that the pigs are his favourite animal on the farm, and I was interested to find out why he opted for the Oxford Sandy and Black? As it turns out, it was all down to the club! "I chose this breed simply because my relationship with its pig society is so good. I've worked with many of the clubs and societies over the years, but the OS&B Pig Society is simply the best in terms of communication and all-round involvement. It's also managed by a great set of people, all of whom are prepared to go the extra mile to help.
"I started breeding chickens when I was a 14-year-old, but it wasn't long after that that I got involved with pigs. I was simply drawn to them by their sheer usefulness. My family had taken on an area of wild, unmanaged woodland, which was a real overgrown tangle. But I soon discovered that pigs were extremely adept at cultivating the land, clearing the unchecked undergrowth and returning the area to a much more managed state; a condition that was better for the woodland as a whole, and for wildlife, too. What's more, the pigs did the job with absolute pleasure, and for free!
"The other big advantage, of course, was that after nine months of happy clearing and rooting, the pigs produced carcasses of supreme quality. We consumed the delicious pork enthusiastically at home, but also sold a little to friends and neighbours, as well."
"However, don't get the idea that the slaughtering stage is an easy one for me, because it certainly isn't. As an animal lover, the thought of slaughter has never been a happy one for me. It's made even more difficult by the relationship you inevitably build with pigs when working at the small-scale level. You just can't fail to get attached to these wonderful and engaging characters.
"But I've managed to start separating things in my mind, which allows me to keep slightly more remote from the animals that I know are being reared for pork. While I always ensure that they all get equally high levels of care and welfare, I make a point of spending less time tickling and scratching the ones that are abattoir-bound."
Of course, it can be a lot harder to stay mentally remote with breeding stock, as Josh admits. "You get so involved with the sows during their productive lives; you're on a journey with them as they progress through farrowing. Anyone who has bred pigs will appreciate the huge amount of time and effort that gets invested in helping sows through that process. But, sooner or later, those animals reach the end of their productive lives, at which point hard decisions have to be made; and that's never easy.
"On the positive side, I've always been able to comfort myself with the idea that the pigs in my care have enjoyed the best possible life; far, far better than those poor creatures that endure life in the intensive, commercial sector. The same applies to what I'm doing here, now. Our pigs benefit from a wonderful, stress-free lifestyle, and I will continue to ensure that that remains the case."
"I'm lucky to be getting paid for doing something I love," Josh continued, "but the interaction I now have with our students has added a whole new level of job satisfaction for me.
Every now and then I force myself just to take a step back and a few moments to observe the enthusiasm with which the students get involved with the animals. They love the hands-on learning that's associated with looking after the livestock, and the number of students who opt to increase their time on the farm (once they get to Year 10) really justifies everything we're doing here.
"We also open the facilities up to other schools so that their students can visit, and the pigs are always among the greatest attraction. For some of the students, born and bred in this part of urban south London, we're offering them the first chance to see a live pig, let alone piglets. It's evidently a fantastic experience for many of them; that's clear from their reactions.
"It's also great to see how our students become completely absorbed in what they're doing on the farm, with never a thought for social media or computer games. It allows them to switch off completely, and get involved in a world that operates at a slower and more relaxed pace than what's normal for them. That, I think, is the power that the farm has for students at this school. The time they spend with us and the animals is totally immersive, and free from the pressures of modern-day life that can be so debilitating. It's a little oasis of calm here for them and that, in my view, is worth its weight in gold."
"One of the beauties of working with livestock is that no two days are ever the same," Josh explained. "You never know what to expect when you arrive here in the morning, and I love that unpredictable aspect. The ever-changing situation here is also great from a learning perspective; things are never monotonous and there are always different, practical jobs for the students to get involved with.
"We teach animal care, horticulture and other land-based studies, but there are also ways of working more academic aspects in, too. I've had some fantastic results with students who, being all at sea in a traditional classroom situation, find themselves able to concentrate much better in the more relaxed environment of the farm. They discover that they can do mathematics after all, when applying it to real-world things like pig feed orders, for example. That can be a real revelation and is brilliant for building self-confidence – something that's so often sadly lacking in the students we're helping.
"I'm lucky to get tremendous support from the whole team here at the academy; from the principal down, everyone appreciates the value of the farm and the role that it can play in the education of our students. I was given a good degree of freedom to develop things as I wanted when I arrived, which was brilliant. We're still in our first year, of course, and a lot of what I've done in the past 12 months has been dealing with the infrastructure of the place."
Money well spent
"The expenditure required to sort the buildings out and bring in good quality livestock, has been high. For example, we've spent over £20,000 on building work alone in the past six months. But I'm confident that we'll start seeing a return on this investment going forwards. My policy of only buying top-quality, pedigree rare breed livestock should pay dividends in the months and years ahead, when the offspring from our carefully managed breeding programmes start being sold. Any money that we do earn will be ploughed straight back into the farm, so that we can do our bit to lessen the overall running costs."
So, it's clear that the farm is very much a work in progress, and that Josh and his team members are working extremely hard to push things in the right direction. For him, the pigs are at the heart of the operation, but his more general passion for rare breeds is helping to ensure that the range of livestock on the farm is both interesting for the students and worthwhile from a conservation point of view.
"As I mentioned earlier, I understand the importance of genetic diversity, and the need to support our rare breeds with sensible and well-managed breeding programmes," Josh explained as we wandered past the impressive new classroom and stable clock, towards the pigs. "One of our Oxford Sandy and Black sows has just farrowed, producing 13 piglets which, for a first litter, is pretty good. Unfortunately, one was mummified and another died, but the remaining 11 (six girls and five boys) appear fit and healthy. They've already proved a great attraction for students, teachers and parents!"
No boar needed
"We don't have our own boar here on the farm, and probably won't be getting one. With only two sows, and limited space available, keeping one doesn't really make sense. So, to get our girls in-pig, we hired-in an Alexander line boar, with the help of the OS&B Pig Society. The mating process went extremely smoothly. I'd watched our sows very carefully to get the timing spot-on, and the boar was only here for a week.
"My plan now is to bring the piglets on for eight weeks, pick the best female to retain ourselves and move the rest on to new homes. The female we keep will be shown at a few events during the season, then sold at the end of the year. I'm really looking forward to getting into the show ring; it'll be great fun and a whole new learning experience for the students."
As far as the future's concerned, Josh told me that there are plans to expand the farm a little more. "I've just received permission to take an additional strip from the school's main playing field, which will give us some valuable extra grazing as well as space to build some more stabling and hard standing.
"We're able to use the main playing field for grazing during the summer holidays, although the pigs don't get to benefit from that, of course! There are also other areas of land around the school buildings which we're able to utilise at various times during the three months that the school is closed each year.
"Finally, I must emphasise how lucky we are with the voluntary help we get on the farm. We only have four members of staff here; me and Kate – my assistant – who are full time, and a couple of part-timers. We're both qualified in animal management (I studied at Writtle University College) so, between us, we're able to deal with most, day-to-day eventualities.
"But we also benefit from an enthusiastic group of 30 volunteers who are here at the weekends to help with whatever needs doing. Some are parents of students, others are local residents who support our efforts, and we also get young people wanting the get involved. It's all incredibly encouraging and, looking to the future, I'm very optimistic about what we're achieving here, and the integral part that the pigs are set to play in that."