Andrew Arbuckle: Happy as a pig in clover – or as a farmer producing pigs

There's a good living to be made in pig-farming, says Philip Sleigh
There's a good living to be made in pig-farming, says Philip Sleigh
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AFTER several hours where the main strains in the discussions were of discord, disadvantage, dispute and downright pessimism about almost every aspect of the farming industry, there came forth an unexpected shaft of optimism and light.

I should explain that last week I was attending one of the twice-yearly council of NFU Scotland meetings, and I was pretty well prepared for the onslaught of moans and groans that dominate such gatherings.

Perhaps there was a slight excuse for the collective wailing and gnashing of teeth, as the rain that has blighted the past summer battered and splattered against the plate-glass windows of the Battleby conference centre.

It was at one of those meetings a number of years ago when a long-gone colleague on the press bench whispered about the delegates: “Do they get degrees in moaning and diplomas in complaining?”

So when Philip Sleigh, chairman of the pigs committee of the union, initially complained about the price of grain and then followed it up with a little discourse on how some bad member states of the European Union would not be complying with the need to remove their sow stalls, I thought this was merely a continuation of the “poor us” theme.

I misjudged the man. He did his complaining in an easy, off-hand way – and then in a self-deprecating manner, he managed to tease his beef and sheep-producing colleagues for the financial support they get compared with the unsupported pig sector. He took a similar line with the grain barons over the high price of cereals, although they are feeling anything but baronial after this rotten summer.

Then, referring to being a pig farmer, he said: “You know, I really enjoy what I am doing.”

I was so shocked at this piece of positivity that I did not actually take note of whether he followed it up with “and I am the luckiest man alive”, but he well might.

Then having struck a seam of optimism, he mined it by saying that pig-keeping was a great career for young people to get into. Anyone with skill, enthusiasm and ability could earn a good living and enjoy a good life producing pigs.

Sleigh did not mention it, but he was instrumental in setting up specialist courses in pig husbandry. These were launched during the melee at the Highland Show, where every organisation seems to want to make an announcement and only the wise think there are better times to catch a bit of publicity.

If I did not report this worthy and far-sighted initiative fulsomely at the time, the reason is the press are swamped with news at the Highland.

Back at the union council meeting, Sleigh’s upbeat message must have been infectious, because sitting next to him was the chairman of the union’s milk committee, Gary Mitchell; a man who has spent much of this summer leading the campaign for better milk prices.

He said he enjoyed milking cows and in case anyone had not heard him say so, he repeated it in different words, saying it was what he had always wanted to do.

Then, echoing Sleighs’s views on 
careers in farming, he said any young person wanting to make a mark in farming should consider becoming involved in the dairy sector. It was a way to see the world, he claimed, with jobs abroad as dairy managers regularly being advertised.

He is a man of his word, and one of the features of his farming is the number of young people he has already encouraged into the industry.

He had just taken on two young workers and he told the council members the pair would end up in positions of responsibility and would earn good money.

A former employee had just gone off to New Zealand, where he planned to get his foot in the farming ladder by share-milking cows.

By now, there were murmurs of approval and support throughout the meeting, although the doughty Daye Tucker had quite rightly to chastise a few of the chauvinists for continually referring to boys, when in the 21st century any forward-looking profession makes no differentiation between the sexes.

So, despite all the weather-related problems and political shenanigans within the industry, there is optimism for the future and for those tempted into farming, a lot of job satisfaction.