Triumphing over adversity to build a thriving pig business
Tracy Mackness was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug offences. A job looking after the prison farm’s rare breed pigs provided the catalyst to change her life around, overcome desperately hard times and set up a booming pig business enterprise. WILLIAM SURMAN meets the woman behind Giggly Pig.
Tracy Mackness is behind bars, sat in a cramped cell, her ears still ringing with her mother’s haunting screams in the court room.
It is Christmas 2001 and the judge has just sentenced her to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to supply cannabis with a street value of £4 million. At a time when families should be together, Tracy was alone with her life in tatters.
Fast forward to a bright, sunny morning in 2008. Epping Farmers’ Market is buzzing with people picking and tasting local produce, but like bees to a honey pot, one stall attracts more attention than most and Tracy Mackness is holding court.
“Go on love try this one – ooooooh you’ll love this one, it’s stilton and celery. What do you think?” the customer nods approvingly and parts with cash for a pack of sausages.
“And don’t forget to tell your friends,” chirps Tracy in her friendly Essex intonation.
The customer won’t forget – none of them do. In less than two years, Tracy has built up a reputation for delicious home cured bacon and hand-made sausages and, as a result, her business is growing exponentially.
As testament to her determination and grit, she won the Barclay’s Bank ‘Trading Places’ competition last year, which scoured the country for entrepreneurs who had triumphed over adversity.
Adversity would be putting it mildly. Tracy, 42, went into prison on the back of two failed marriages and a history of mental illness that involved two attempted suicides.
“Prison came at a good time and to be totally honest it is one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she says.
“Obviously I wouldn’t want to go through it again – not in a million years – but it has turned my life around and given me the opportunity to turn my back on the life I was leading. I wouldn’t have got out any other way.”
In total, Tracy did 52 courses in prison. She became a qualified gym instructor and had thought about setting up a fitness business when she got out, but a defining moment changed all of that.
“I was moved to an open prison after nearly three years. They had a prison farm and I quite fancied going down to see what was going on. So I asked around and one of the staff took me down there.
“We turned a corner and there was a saddleback sow. She looked at me and I looked at her – Biddy I think her name was – and that was it, it blew me away.
“I will never forget that from that moment on I thought – right, this is what I want to do.”
True to her word, from that moment Tracy spent every free second down on the prison farm.
“All I did was look after these pigs, which was mad, but I guess it was a way of coping.”
She went on to complete National Vocational Qualifications 2 and 3 in pig husbandry – “no-one had ever done NVQ 3 in pig husbandry” – before working in the prison’s butchery once a week to learn how to make sausages and cure bacon.
The Kent prison sells its produce at local farmers’ markets and Tracy was given the rare opportunity to spend a day on the outside as part of her rehabilitation.
“It was brilliant – they treated me like a normal person. I was driving everyone mad telling them about how the sausages were made and about the pigs.
“Customers couldn’t get away from the stall and we sold out within hours.
“I hadn’t spoken to people for such a long time and that day I thought – there is a niche here, I can do this.”
And so The Giggly Pig Company was born days after Tracy was released from prison in early 2007, having served five and a half years of her ten year sentence.
Initially, she bought 30 saddleback pigs, which she bred herself from the prison farm and put them on an acre of land borrowed from a friend.
“I had worked it all out in prison so that that within two months, I would be having my own piglets. Now I have got 300 pigs and about 24 breeding sows.”
She is now a regular at over 20 farmers’ markets in and around London, where she does most of her business and feels most at home.
“The farmers’ markets were really tough to get into, but I have always been very ambitious and when I set a goal nothing will stop me getting it.”
All of the sausage making, bacon curing and butchery is done in an old butcher’s shop just down the road from the piggery and her Romford home.
The owner of the butchery had been struggling to make ends meet, so Tracy decided to buy the building and put the butcher on her payroll.
The beginning of the week is usually dedicated to sausage making, packaging takes place in the middle of the week and farmers’ markets occupy Thursday onwards.
There are over 49 different sausage varieties, including ‘ginger and spring onion’, ‘curry delight’ and ‘apricot’.
Giggly Pig also does thick dry cured bacon, pork joints, ribs, pork patties and hog roasts for parties and events.
“I am doing the hardest thing in the hardest industry,” she says.
“If it wasn’t for the fact that I do the whole package and was just selling the pigs to market, then I wouldn’t make money.
But we do full farm to fork and get the full potential out of the product.”
“The sausages are not fatty and the bacon doesn’t shrink – just how I would want it.”
As she markets her produce, Tracy’s personality and good humour is palpable.
In prison she became what is known as an insider – a contact point for scared women – putting a friendly arm around new prisoners and listening to other prisoners’ problems.
She has recently taken a young offender under her wing at Giggly Pig.
“I am trying to help him. He is 15 and has been in all sorts of trouble already.
“I think if I can save one person from going down the sticky road that I went down, then that is one less.”
It comes as little surprise that the Princes Trust recently asked her to be an ambassador for the charity.
Tracy has ambition and drive in spades and intends to progress her business over the next few years.
“I want to get involved in the breeding and showing side of things next year – probably with pure Essex pigs.”
“But what I really want next is a sausage and mash café – my own one. Last year I supplied a few Sausage and Mash cafés, including the one in the London Dome. That is the next step.”
The Giggly Pig farm is on the verge of expansion too.
“I am really proud to have just got some leased land of my own where I am having a piggery built. We should move in the next month.”
Like the last five, the next five years promise to be eventful for Tracy, but one thing looks certain, she will go onwards and upwards powered by an ethic of hard work and a will to achieve.