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The Swineherd of Kew Park

BY PAUL RODGERS Business Editor rodgersp@jamaicaobserver.com
Sunday, August 19, 2012


THEY are called weaners, and behave like obnoxious teens in a nightclub. As Annabel Williams enters, they flock around, nostrils flaring. One sloppily kisses her hand, another leers up at her. All of them are hoping to get stroked. They really are a bunch of pigs... literally.

"They're naturally curious," says Williams from the centre of an open-topped concrete pen on Jamaica's largest piggery. You can tell that she likes being around the porkers — laughing and talking to them as she scratches their backs — as much as they like her to be there. "They quite enjoy being pampered," she says.

The swine don't know how good they've got it. Most other piggeries use intensive farming techniques, locking their animals in small pens. For the past three years, hogs on Kew Park Estate have spent much of their lives roaming large enclosures, rooting around and removing the grass and shrubbery at their leisure. "Happy pigs are healthy pigs," says Williams.

Free-range farming requires more management time, but fewer medicines and no blanket use of antibiotics or hormones. It's also more efficient. "Feed is 75 to 80 per cent of our costs," she says. Outdoors, her pigs need 1.65lbs of grain for every 1lb of body weight they gain. Indoors, they need 1.73lbs of feed, all of it imported.

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"Because of the way my pigs are raised, the way we look after them, we have an exceptionally good quality product," says Williams. "Farming well gives you a product that consumers prefer." As acting president of the Jamaica Pig Farmers' Association, she's trying to encourage other farmers to adopt similar practices. "But not every farmer has the facilities to do what I do," she admits.

Kew Park has 280 sows and a dozen boars and produces some 6,000 pigs for market a year, some from contract farmers. It also has 400 head of cattle and 2,000 hens on its 1,000 acres of hilltop, and grows citrus fruits, ackee, coconuts and coffee. But 95 per cent of the farm's income comes from its swine.

And it could be even more. The move to free-range techniques means that Williams is only using a few of the existing finishing pens, leaving plenty of room for expansion if only she can find a market. Her herd could easily double in size, she says

Her pigs, a mix of large white, landrace and duroc breeds, are currently slaughtered on site and sent to Arosa, a processor on the Drax Hall Estate in St Ann's Bay, which in turn sells most of the meat to the hotels on Jamaica's north coast. But Kew Park Estate has just started supplying the Brooklyn supermarkets in Half-Way-Tree and Twin Gates, Kingston, with sides of pork, and a butcher on Constant Spring Road is taking her carcasses. "It's a big deal," says Williams. "It's something I'm slightly nervous about. Marketing is not my strong point."

Williams' ambitions extend beyond the nation's capital, though. She hopes a proposed new $20-million pig slaughterhouse, the first on the island to meet international standards, will enable producers to export their hams and bacon around the Caribbean, if not further afield.

Jamaica has several advantages when it comes to pork. Being isolated, it has few of the bugs that infect herds in America, and most of the animals are descended from genetically strong Canadian stock, the only country allowed to export live pigs to Jamaica. Recent improvements mean that the time to slaughter has fallen from seven months to five and a half, while the average final weight has risen from 180lbs (82kg) to 250lbs.

On the down side, the island has not one single swine vet. Farmers either have to rely on non-specialists or on visits from foreign vets. When a new disease, Porcine circovirus, struck Jamaican pig herds a few years ago, Williams had to send samples to the US for analysis, but fell afoul of rules designed to protect America against bio-warfare. Fortunately, the scientists were able to persuade America's Department of Homeland Security to let them through.

A decade ago, Jamaica had over 2,000 farmers, three quarters with fewer than 10 sows. A new count is under way and it is hoped that the data, once loaded on to the Internet, can be kept current. Accurate counts help farmers to match supply with demand, leading to less volatile prices.

"The chicken industry knows well in advance whether it's going to have a shortage or a surplus," Williams says. "With pig farmers, it's more reactionary." Oversupply is currently depressing prices by about 10 per cent. "For a farmer who is at best making 15 per cent profit that's a considerable amount of money."

Williams is an unlikely pig farmer. Though raised on the family estate, she was sent to England to be educated, earning a degree in marine biology. She worked as the head of hatcheries at a fish farm owned by her husband, leaving when the marriage ended. She returned to Westmoreland to help her mother, Pamela, who had started the pig farm to fill her time after her children left home. Williams does not say how she and her siblings felt about being replaced by pigs.

The family's forebears came to Jamaica in the mid-17th century, granted land by their cousin, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England after the Civil War. Family lore says that their fortune was lost in a single poker game.

A century after those pioneers arrived, their descendants bought Kew Park. The Great House had been burned to the ground at Emancipation and the Williamses built the current structure in 1855, adding to it with each generation.

It is a charming but somewhat ramshackle building, with trophies from African hunts in the main hallway and furniture made by her great uncle in the reception rooms. Old books line the shelves. "I vowed when I came here I was going to read all the books," says Williams. "I'm on book two." This is a working farmhouse.

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