In this week’s Farmer Focus series, That’s Farming talks to Robbie Neill, owner of Stonebridge Cottage Farm.
We discuss building a sustainable pedigree pig production unit, managing rising costs, adapting to Covid-19, and their intention for the future of sustainable pork.
Robbie Neill, a third-generation farmer and full-time firefighter with NIFRS, acquired his family-run farm holding after his father passed away six years ago.
He now runs the enterprise alongside his brother, and while it one comprised exclusively of sheep and beef cattle, in recent years, they have branched out into pedigree pig breeding.
“I remember being a young land, around five or six, helping to lamb some of the commercial ewes we reared on our farm,” he explains to That’s Farming.
“I took a keen interest in livestock from those early days, and I have been farming ever since.”
Stonebridge Cottage Farm
The Neill brother’s enterprise has now transitioned to focus mainly on its pig production arm.
Oxford Sandy and Black, Saddlebacks and Durocs are their main favoured pig breeds of choice, while the farm is also home to a small number of pedigree Kerry Hill sheep.
“We find with the traditional pig breeds that we keep that they lay down more fat on the meat, which in turn means more flavour.”
“For the leaner cuts, we have introduced the Duroc crossed with the Saddleback or OSB. This cross gives a slightly leaner pig, with slightly less fat covering on the meat, which suits some of the restaurant clients we supply.”
Moreover, the herd has been built gradually from one in-pig pedigree sow bought several years ago.
Through hard work and dedication, Stonebridge farm now runs approximately 200 pigs.
Traceable pork by Stonebridge Farm
The story of Stonebridge Farm commenced in 2017 when Robbie purchased their first pig, a pedigree sow called Martha.
Following her first litter, they began selling various cuts to the family and realised there was an opening for traceable pork in Northern Ireland.
“It is a small family-run business, operated by myself, Robbie, my wife, Louise, and our three young children.”
“In 2018, we opened our farm shop, which concentrated exclusively on pork cuts.”
“Over the years, promoting our pork, we are delighted to have our products featuring in many restaurants, farm shops and deli counters across the country.”
Admirably, pork sourced from Stonebridge Farm has also been featured across Northern Ireland TV programmes.
“We promote our pork focusing on the unique diet our pigs are fed, consisting of spent grain from local breweries, whey from local cheesemakers, and a mineral meal.”
From this, Robbie has nicknamed the animals eco-pigs, due to their diet, which is a unique selling point when promoting to restaurants and clients alike.
At present, Stonebridge Farm supplies pork to 15 various outlets across the island, which gives the pig producers a great opportunity to tell their story of pedigree pigs and pork.
“The breeds we have specialised in are producing fantastic pork, and that we are very proud of.”
“We have a steady market for the sale of weaners, and this is often to new breeders. We are always more than happy to advise new breeders.”
“Often, we find ourselves advising breeders on the care of their pigs and the process of producing pedigree pork, something that can only be good for promoting our native pig breeds.”
As for many pork producers, these last few years have been difficult due to rising costs, and Stonebridge is not different.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented “very uncertain time”s for these farmers, as once restaurants closed, subsequently this had a knock-on impact on brewers and cheesemakers.
“This means that their by-product, which we used to feed our pigs, dried up,” he explains.
The reduction in readily available meal ingredients left Stonebridge subject to increased feed costs, and they turned to more concentrates for pigs instead.
“We were fortunate to be able to fall back on our farm shop, which was now well established.”
“Within days of lockdown hitting, our customer base increased substantially,” the spokesperson added.
Adapting to new ways
During Covid-19, the Neill family noticed that customers wanted to shop at Stonebridge Far due to the outdoor setting and rural location and the renewed prominence of “support local”.
“We initiated some changes, such as offering a click and collect service via our website, contactless card payments, and local delivery to all customers, especially those who were self-isolating and more vulnerable.”
“These ways to purchase our products proved to be popular; customers appreciate the small scale nature of our shop, which, in turn, limited their contacts and helped reduce the spread of Covid-19.”
“As the farm business is on the side of my full-time job, as a firefighter in the centre of Belfast, I continued to travel throughout the pandemic.”
“This gave me the opportunity to deliver our pork to the wider Belfast area, making our pork available throughout the city to the city folk, who would not always have the opportunity to visit rural farm shops.”
“Some of these have now become regular customers,” he adds.
Moving slowly out of the pandemic, as normal life resumed, its pork sales at the farm shop have remained consistent, along with many of its old pre-pandemic restaurant customers returning to purchase its products again.
“With recently increased feed costs, we feel we are still in a good place with our sustainable pork. We have built up good relationships with local breweries, cheesemakers, etc, which is keeping our feed costs manageable.”
“This is proving our sustainable ethos is working during these tough times. We have a sustainable pedigree pork enterprise that I think Northern Ireland was missing.”
“From day one, we have had such a passion for pigs and producing good quality pork and a lot of early mornings and late nights.”
“We fully intend to promote and increase awareness of our pedigree pork to this wee corner of the United Kingdom,” Robbie concludes.
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