The couple run Povey Farm in Sheffield, tending to 2,500 pigs and making award-winning pork products at their on-site butchery, Moss Valley Fine Meats – but the shutdown of hospitality venues in March halted a vital source of income.
“The restaurant trade stopped overnight which left us with a lot of stock on the farm... we were very worried,” Stephen recalls.
"We had 20 full hams in stock which I thought we were never going to get rid of.”
As their anxiousness grew, the farm signed up to the City Grab home delivery service operated by Sheffield firm City Taxis – a decision that heralded a remarkable upswing in fortunes.
“It was a godsend, it just went mad,” says Stephen.
"At the beginning, when people weren't going out at all, they were using it marvellously. It's dying off now but it got us out of a big hole because it used up all the stock we'd got. The next week we were making hams again. They cleared us out. We just had a row of taxis outside at one point... it really did 'save our bacon', to put it mildly.”
And the Thompsons’ efforts to provide good, locally-made food at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic – when supermarket delivery slots were hard to come by and shelves were stripped by panic buyers – are being noticed. Stephen and Karen have been jointly shortlisted for the accolade of the UK's pig farmer of the year at the 2020 Farmers Weekly awards – an honour that is, by all accounts, a very big deal in the agricultural world.
“For a farmer it's about as good as it gets so we're extremely chuffed about it,” says Stephen.
The ceremony itself is a black-tie affair at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel in October, though Stephen wonders whether a Covid-related question mark might hang over the proceedings.
“It's a sit-down meal for 1,100 people – they're saying it's going ahead at the moment but I don't know how you socially distance 1,100 people," he says. “They can but try. We might have a vaccine by then.”
Stephen represents the fourth generation of his family to helm Povey Farm, just inside North East Derbyshire on Lightwood Lane at Norton, since 1890. The deeds of the 240-acre farm go back to 1601; legend has it the site belonged to landowners the Sitwells but had to be sold to pay gambling debts.
When Stephen was 13 his father Gordon died of farmer’s lung, after which his mother Jean led the farm for a decade – he went to agricultural college in Nottingham where he met Karen before returning to Sheffield, taking the reins and expanding.
Moss Valley Fine Meats was launched in 2007 following a slump in pig prices. The Thompsons viewed the venture as something of a gamble at the time, but now the brand supplies dozens of independent restaurants and outlets with pork, bacon and more. Trading with the slogan ‘naturally different’, it holds the coveted Made In Sheffield mark and has won ‘meat supplier of the year’ at the Food Awards England.
“You don't know what the public is going to think about you when you do anything – it's very hard to second-guess them,” says Stephen.
"It seems to have worked. We came in at about the time people were looking to know where their food had come from. A lot of people have switched to buying local.”
The farm’s herd is kept indoors, comprising around 220 sows and their offspring – Duroc crossbred pigs are used for the butchery as their meat contains a greater amount of intramuscular fat, Stephen explains. “You get marbling, like you get in beef. It makes it really tender and nice.”
Povey Farm operates in a world where there is an increased awareness of veganism and vegetarianism – recently Waitrose reported an 80 per cent rise in sales of plant-based barbecue food – but Stephen says he and Karen ‘don’t need to’ counter any opposition to meat-eating.
"The pork and meat results since December have been upwards every month. When lockdown started sales went through the roof when they were saying you need a balanced diet, iron and vitamins.”
The pig herd has prize-winning ‘ultra high health’ status, he adds. “We've got no disease in it whatsoever, hence why we have a very low antibiotic usage.”
Pigs, he says, are ‘not bad’ to work with. “They don't attack you like cows can. They can hurt you but they're small so you've got a better chance. Sows are very easygoing and sociable with each other. You don't have to get up at the crack of dawn to milk them, that's the main thing.”
Their animals are hand-reared at first before being fed through a mechanical system as they grow. The herd chomps through 25 tonnes of feed every week.
“Pigs keep us, we don't keep pigs,” Stephen quips.
A new extension has just been built at Moss Valley’s butchery, tripling the facility’s size and allowing the Thompsons to offer cooked products such as sliced ham and black pudding.
It should already be up and running, Stephen says – but the pandemic has caused a delay with getting the necessary health and safety paperwork signed by the authorities.
"Because of Covid we can't get the inspectors in to give it the final push. Hopefully within the next month or so that should come online. It's all clad out in white, and hygienic – we could move in tomorrow but we can't do it without everything in place."
The ambition is to supply prepared food to Morrisons supermarkets.
“They approached us,” Stephen says of the Bradford-headquartered grocer. “We've got to jump through the hoops and then hopefully they'll have us. One thing we are tentatively looking at is exports as well, using the Made In Sheffield mark as part of that. Throughout the world it's known for quality – usually in steel but hopefully in sausages as well.”
The job of a pig farmer can be all-consuming, he admits, especially when the sows are giving birth. “Because you work on the farm, you can finish and think 'I'll just go out and do so-and-so', and then you'll come in and do some accounts... it never stops. It's very hard to turn off.”
Karen and Stephen have three children; their daughter Katie is studying art at Loughborough University, son Mark works in private security in London and their other son Oliver is taking over the arable side of Povey Farm, having attended agricultural college.
Stephen says he feels pressure to maintain the family’s farming legacy.
“You want to pass it on to the next generation and make sure it's as good, if not better, than when you took it over. That's what we're always striving for. A lot of the things we do don't make money for us – it's going to be a 20-year payback. Farming isn't short-term.”