'Some people call us backyard farmers but we love what we do and take it seriously'
My Week: Dermot Allen talks to Siobhán English
'I know a lot about pigs, but I don't know everything," says west Wicklow pig breeder Dermot Allen as he prepares for another busy evening with his hog roast business, which takes him the length and breadth of Ireland between April and October.
One of the biggest breeders in Europe, and one of only a handful of breeders in Ireland, to keep the rare Oxford Sandy and Black, Dermot still knows more than most and definitely has the 'gift of the gab'.
"He is usually exhausted from talking," joked his daughter Georgina of the many times she has assisted him during a hog roast party. Cooked to perfection every time, a 60kg pig in dead weight can feed up to 120 guests in one sitting.
From Cork to Meath, and Carlow to Kildare, Dermot cooks at, on average, 100 parties a year, mostly facilitating hotels for after-wedding get-togethers. Home-cooked pulled pork, sausages, pork burgers and salads are all provided, making it a very attractive package.
"We rear our pigs specifically for the spit and they must not be heavier than 65kg. Once they go over that, they are too heavy to turn and instead are slaughtered for their meat, which is turned into burgers and sausages.
"It was purely by accident that I got into the business at all," Dermot said as he tended to his pigs on Winetavern Farm outside Baltinglass. "I got my first pigs 27 years ago when my daughters Georgina and Lisa were very young. I really wanted them to know where their meat came from so I bought some to rear. We also had some sheep and beef, so everything we slaughtered we ate."
Fast forward to 2010 and while cooking at home for Georgina's 21st, the pig on a spit proved hugely popular. "That night, I got five requests to do other parties. It just snowballed from there and soon after, we designed our own machine to be used outside of the farm."
Dermot was running a taxi business at the time, but enrolled in the HACCP course (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point) for food safety before investing in new equipment.
With a smaller taxi service now running on the side, Dermot regularly rises at 5am to head to his next venue, where it takes six hours for the pig to roast. "There is nothing like the taste of meat from the Oxford Sandy and Black," he said. "It has a bit of fat and an incredible flavour.
"Our pulled pork is cooked at home in the slow cooker, and we prepare all the salads as well before hitting the road. Most of the time I can manage on my own, but on a busy day, Lisa and Georgina will help out."
When Dermot first got interested in pigs, he kept Tamworths and Gloucesters, but in 2011, he took a shine to the Oxford Sandy and Black breed after a visit to the farm of British breeders Andy and Maureen Case. "I just wanted something different. After that, I was hooked," he says.
Dermot now keeps some 220 pigs and all bar a few are Oxford Sandy and Black. In fact, Dermot boasts 24 of 592 prized breeding females in the world. "We also have 14 of the original female bloodlines and four of the male bloodlines which is a great asset."
As a result, Dermot's boars are regularly in demand by other breeders of these rare animals.
"I also run courses here at the farm on keeping pigs. I will never sell a breeding female to someone unless they have a good bit of knowledge on how to look after them. We try to educate people as much as possible and I even take pigs to some of the schools now to chat to the kids about them."
For one, Dermot knows how to look after all of his pigs, who are free-range and roam as they please. In addition to meal, they have a daily ration of leftover vegetables from a nearby greengrocer.
"I also lease some pigs out to farmers who want to clean up forestry and at the moment, we have some in two big estates in Carlow. They will live in the forestry for the summer and come back in super condition in October.
"And I've been getting more calls lately as there's a bug killing eucalyptus trees, but pigs are stopping the cycle by eating what's on the ground."
As founder and chairman of the Irish Pig Society, he operates very differently to commercial pig farmers.
"Some people call us backyard farmers, but we love what we do and take it seriously. We get no grants, and everything comes out of our own pocket."
Every summer, Dermot takes time out for showing some of his best animals and each August, he can be seen in the ribbons in the pig section at Tullamore Show with his rare breeds.
However, one F1 hybrid female which made a guest appearance there in recent years is well remembered for her lead role in the television ad for Vodafone filmed in the Wicklow Mountains.
"Piggy Sue is rather famous now, but at the moment, she is enjoying some down time in the woods," added Dermot.
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