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Yorkwold Pigpro celebrates half-a-century of working to be the best in the industry

With the philosophy to be the best rather than the biggest, Yorkwold Pigpro has celebrated 50 years in the pig industry and is looking forward to the future as it continues to invest in its facilities and people to continue its progression for the next 50 years.

Reporter Debbie Sutton met managing directors Joe Dewhirst and Robert Beckett who said with the pig industry facing its biggest crisis in living memory, it is now more crucial than ever to support local British pig farmers.

Yorkwold Pigpro was first incorporated in March 1972 by Jim Dewhirst, who set up the business with 100 breeding sows at Field House Farm, off Scarborough Road in Driffield.

At the age of just 23, Jim had taken over the running of the farm at Field House Farm from his grandfather, Ernie Reed.

The Reed family had been farming at Field House Farm since 1907, when Ernie’s father, James, bought the farm with proceeds from his business in Driffield, Reeds Stores.

Striving to be the best, and not the biggest, is still at the heart of the business.

joe dewhirst

During the years 1907 to 1972 the farm had focused on arable crops and sheep.

Ernie Reed had never had anything to do with pigs and was very wary of the pig industry cycle, which traditionally sees peaks and troughs in profitability.

He therefore insisted that if Jim wanted to make an investment in the pig industry, he should purchase a plot of land off him to construct a pig unit in his own name.

This is exactly what Jim did and Yorkwold Pigpro was born, growing steadily during the 1970s under Jim’s management.

Rick Dewhirst, Joe Dewhirst and Robert Beckett.

In 1976, Kevin Walker joined the business as joint managing director with Jim and together they formed a very successful partnership that enabled the business to grow successfully over the next 30 years.

Joe said: “Dad was always keen to go into farming and he liked the instant reward gained from pig production and the changes and continual improvements in the industry.

“Jim and Kevin’s mantra was not to be the biggest, but to be the best and to combat the infamous pig cycle that great-grandfather had been so wary of, by ensuring that they were the last pig business to go into a loss-making situation and the first to be profitable when the market improved.

“This philosophy remains today.”

Yorkwold staff celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary with cake and champagne.

During the 1980s, the business grew through the acquisition of four pig farms in Holderness and, in the 1990s, a small breeding unit was purchased near to Hexham, Northumberland.

This enabled the business to set up a high health nucleus unit, becoming the source of all of the business’ replacement breeding stock for the commercial breeding units.

In the 1990s, four pig units in North Lincolnshire were added to the business on long-term leases. These leases, with the Strawson family, are still in place today.

These units have had significant redevelopments in recent years to bring them up to modern standards.

Similar long term leases were taken on pig units in Lincolnshire and Holderness during the early 2000s, taking the breeding herd up to 6,000 sows.

Much of the business expansion during the late 1990s and early 2000s occurred during very difficult times for the pig industry, when pig prices were regularly below the cost of production.

The 1998 crisis led to the UK sow herd halving in the space of just a few years, which gave Yorkwold the opportunity to take on leases on some good pig units.

“Before the current crisis we are in, 1998 was probably the worst crisis the pig industry had seen,” said Robert.

“Before the recession, the UK had close to one million sows, which dropped to 450,000.

“For Yorkwold, it was a case of improving efficiency and reducing costs to get through the difficult recessions in the industry.”

Jim Dewhirst

In 2005, Kevin and Jim decided to take on an opportunity overseas, going into partnership with Sunterra Farms to create a new Canadian pig production business called Sunwold Farms.

This business had two breeding sow units in Ontario, totalling 5,000 sows. This was a multi-national business with all of the weaner pigs transported to Iowa for fattening on third party farms before being sold into the US food chain.

The business grew to 10,000 sows with the acquisition of a large sow unit near Calgary, before Yorkwold decided to sell their share to their partners, Sunterra Farms, in 2017.

Kevin Walker retired from the business in 2007 after 31 years.

Alongside Jim, he had transformed the business from a fledgling pig production enterprise to one of the leading indoor pig production businesses in the UK.

At this point, Robert and Joe, who both joined the business in 2001, took on the roles of joint managing directors under Jim’s guidance as chairman. Very sadly, Jim’s role as chairman was short lived as he passed away unexpectedly in December 2008.

Rich Riley, Joe Dewhirst, Robert Beckett and Phil Harman

However, Jim and Kevin had laid an incredible foundation for Robert and Joe to move the business forward.

This was made all the easier by the fantastic team of people that the business has always been blessed with, both on the farms and in the head office at Driffield.

Joe’s brother Rick joined Yorkwold in 2004 and became a director of the business in 2009.

However, his time is now focused on the 64,000 free-range laying hens that Yorkwold’s sister business, Nafferton Wold Farms, has on the outskirts of Nafferton, as well as the overseeing of the 3MW anaerobic digestion plant at Burton Agnes, which is a joint venture with Burton Agnes Estate.

Over the last 10 years, the business has invested heavily in its facilities, with a lot of the original investments made by Jim and Kevin in the 1970s and 1980s being demolished and rebuilt to modern standards.

Joe said: “Improving the facilities for not only the health and welfare of the pigs, but also the fantastic team of people at Yorkwold has been the primary focus.

“Striving to be the best, and not the biggest, is still at the heart of the business.

“This has meant that in recent years, whilst some sow units have expanded, others have been decommissioned. The sow herd now stands at just over 8,000 sows.”

Much of the business development in recent years has been through a strategy of redeveloping breeding units to produce 35kg pigs and to finish these pigs on third party finishing units.

An old Yorkwold lorry from the company’s early days.

This has involved Yorkwold working closely with local arable farmers, who have invested in modern finishing buildings dedicated to the Yorkwold production system.

The business is now fortunate to have 18 of these arrangements with relationships stretching back over 20 years.

The business has always had one eye on the future and succession planning is a very important part of that. 2022 saw the appointment of Rich Riley as production director of the business.

Rich joined the business in 2020 from Cranswick Plc, where he was agriculture manager.

The pig industry currently faces arguably the most severe crisis in living memory.

Joe added: “The backlog of bacon pigs on farms caused by a shortage of butchers in the slaughter houses is still a major issue and this has been followed by an unprecedented price spike in the key ingredients that make up a pig’s diet.

“The dip in the pig cycle of prosperity has never been deeper and pig producers across the UK are battling to survive whilst the pig price slowly catches up with the cost of production.

“The message to the consumer would be to buy British, because an increase in demand for British products will help to keep the pigs moving from farms.

“We have had tough times in the past and got through them and invested in the business to make sure we are more efficient for the next time.

“The key to the business over the past 50 years has been the good people we have, working closely with our customers and suppliers and investing in facilities to make sure we get the best results and be as efficient as we can be.

“Sadly, some pig farmers will exit the industry in 2022, but everyone at Yorkwold is determinedly looking forward to the next 50 years.”

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