A Dalesman’s Diary
Leaving school without any qualifications, life didn’t immediately look too promising for young Michael James.
But 18,194 days later – having devoted his life to looking after porkers – this pigman is hoping to prove that where there’s muck there’s brass.
Michael has just published two books called 18194 Days in the life of a Pigman Part One and Part Two recounting the highs, and lows, of life as an itinerant farm hand.
Having recently retired, he’s keen to share his stories from his unexpected career in something akin to a confessions novel, in which he also acknowledges how the industry has radically changed, for the better, over the years.
Sipping a coffee in The Crown Hotel in Boroughbridge, near to his home in Helperby, Michael, who recently turned sixty-eight, chuckles at some of the memories he’s committed to paper.
“Looking back, I should have never become a pigman; after all, I had no family background in farming, although an uncle did have a couple of pigs in his back garden,” says Michael, recounting his childhood in Hessle in the East Riding.
“I remember the school’s careers advisor suggesting I go into shipbuilding, but I told him I wanted to go into farming and his response was: ‘I don’t have any information about that!’
“I remember going to get my O-level results, and my teacher said words to the effect, ‘I don’t know why you’ve bothered coming in’. Although I was quite good at English.
“Anyway, I managed to get an apprenticeship and started to work on a farm when I was seventeen. It was to be two years on the farm and then a year studying at agricultural college at Bishop Burton.
“The job meant leaving home at seventeen, living in a caravan on £13.50 a week and being thrown in at the deep end on a 200 sow pig unit where I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” says Michael.
“I didn’t have the best of starts,” he confesses, “I had a double accident one day when I was driving a tractor.
“We had an old Massey Ferguson 135, used for heaping up the muck. It was a dreadful thing: it had bald tyres and the brakes barely worked.
“Anyway, I’m heaping up muck, and I’m thinking I’m doing OK. I’m a novice, and concrete is very slippy when it’s covered in pig effluent, but I’m going well.
“Then suddenly, the front and back wheels lock and I’m suddenly rolling backwards. The brake’s not working and with a sickening crunch I demolish two pens.”
Michael has been a pigman all his working life
Michael is told to report to the farm someone if they know where the farmer is, manager and so decides to drive the tractor and I’m told he’s in the stackyard weighing to see him. “I just thought that there’s no cattle.
Now what I should have done was park point walking when I had the Massey to up the ‘Fergy’ and walk, but I chose to drive. hand,” he laughs. “So, when I get there, I ask “But given what had just happened a few minutes earlier, I took extra precautions. I put the hand brake on, lowered the fore end loader and left it in gear – nothing was going to go wrong, after all, I was on a fairly steep slope!”
Forgiven by the farmer, Michael was about to drive back to the pig unit, when he again loses control of the tractor which careers crazily out of control on the steep gradient and crashes into the granary.
“The air turned blue, and in words, many of which I’d never heard before, he told me to get out of his sight,” recalls Michael.
Somehow, he survived and qualified, and went on to manage a 400 sow unit in Milby in North Yorkshire where he remained for twenty-five years.
From there he went to Suffolk and Spain and back to Yorkshire, working in Easingwold and then Masham.
“I am hoping my story appeals to farm-oriented people and none farm people alike. One aim is to show how well we look after our piggies and how things have changed,” he says.