Good’s editor Jai Breitnauer looks at the problem with pork
If you watch Country Calendar, then on Saturday you’re in for a real treat. Daniel Todd, owner of Woody’s Farm near Levin, will be on screen May 2nd, introducing you to his pigs and talking about his free range farming practices and heritage meat.
“The truth is, focusing on heritage breeds allows us to sell our product at a higher margin, which in turn allows us to farm the way we want to – 100 percent free range,” says UK born Daniel, who gave up a 17-year-long career in consumer electronics to try his hand at farming in 2013.
“I knew I wanted a change of career, I wanted to make a moral profit as well as a financial one,” he explains of his decision to buy 80 acres in the Tararua Ranges after researching alternative ways of farming pigs. “It’s a great life out here – beautiful scenery, clean fresh air, a stream nearby. And it’s work you can take pride in,” says Daniel, who is married to Claire and has one child, Frederick, 10 months. “No one wants to tell their mates in the pub they work on a high intensity pig farm – but you could be proud and happy to work somewhere like this. It’s fun”.
Daniel is concerned by the way we farm pigs in New Zealand, and the way it is presented. “Even what the industry calls free range is different to how many people think it is,” says Daniel, who argues high intensity farming is solely about profit, and largely consumer driven. “In New Zealand we pay high prices for most things, and it’s difficult to argue the case for the real price of meat to the already struggling consumer. But avocados should not be more expensive than steak. We need to be more realistic about costs.” Scaling up free range farming, says Daniel, is possible – especially as land isn’t something we’re short of here. It’s more person intensive, so it would create jobs and teach young people skills, but ultimately the meat would cost more, meaning that it needs a moral investment from the shopper as well as farmers.
On the other side of the producers’ fence is Ian Carter, Chairman of NZPork and pig farmer for 26 years. His concern is not about the methodology used by the majority of pig farmers in New Zealand, but in educating the consumer.
“I think people are confused as to who NZPork are, and what we can and cannot do,” Ian explains. “We’re an industry body, funded by a levy from pig farmers, but we have no say as to who can actually farm pigs.”
What NZPork can do is help guarantee a basic standard of care for all animals, regardless of how they are farmed. “That is why Pig Care accreditation was introduced,” explains Ian, who admits that a decade ago it became obvious that changes in the industry were needed. “Pig Care isn’t about free range, it’s about the standard of care all farmed pigs receive,” Ian says. “The Pig Care stamp says that regardless of whether pigs have been raised indoors or out in pasture, their welfare needs have been met.”
Pig Care is actually run by AssureQuality, who are responsible for the audits on farms. While many people may still feel it falls short of where we should be, it has influenced the industry for the better, opening up the debate to the public on how high intensity farms care for their pig herds. And they do listen to the consumer.
“For example, we have addressed public concerns on appearance and cleanliness of farms by adding an aesthetic component to Pig Care accreditation,” Ian explains. “And from the end of 2015, no pig farm in New Zealand will use dry sow crates or stalls.”
Ian is passionate about pigs, which he says are interesting and often difficult animals to care for. But he believes the demand for free range pork is more about the consumer easing their conscience than about what is good for the animals. “Pigs today are so far removed from their bush pig cousins and other domestic farm animals. Sheep and cows can be put out in paddocks and they eat grass. Pigs don’t do that well,” Ian says. “They don’t retain body heat well; even a small change in the weather can affect them badly. They also have a very complex social hierarchy that needs to be managed – pigs fight and the results can be catastrophic injuries.”
There is also an environmental element to pig farming, Ian argues. “Pigs don’t digest grass well like sheep and cattle, they require a balanced diet to be brought to them,” says Ian. “Sows in the field eat more than sows indoors, that’s why nearly all grower pigs live inside. Living outside means more grain per pig to feed the same number of people, and more trucks on the road to deliver it.” Ian argues you need to balance the needs of the pig, the needs of the consumer and the needs of the environment to run a sustainable operation.
Back at Woody’s Farm, Daniel – who is a member of NZPork – feels the environmental argument against free-range farming is outdated and mis-placed. “Every day a pig is on my farm it costs me the price of 2kg of feed – they’re big eaters out in the pasture. We also keep them for twice as long before they’re sent for slaughter, so that’s also a cost that needs to be considered,” Daniel explains. “But the effect on trucking emissions would be tiny. It’s a well-known fact that intensive farming produces toxic effluent which often needs to be shipped off the farm and disposed of.” Daniel says many free-range farms grow their own feed on site, which the animals harvest themselves, and have a commitment to recycling waste products from other industries like vegetable growers and brewers. Plus, they don’t use controversial growth formulas or antibiotics, which can be harmful to the end consumer. “Free range pigs also have a lower carbon footprint than intensively farmed animals due to carbon sequestration by the grasslands they graze on.”
Ultimately, Daniel says, the end product is far superior. “Free range meat is darker in colour and more textured – and not as fatty – as pork from large scale indoor farms,” says Daniel. “When you cook it, it doesn’t shrink, so you consume less as well.” Ultimately, Daniel says his pigs are happy and that is his driving force.
“We’ve sacrificed quality over such a long period of time we’ve forgotten what pork, and farming, used to be like,” says Daniel. “We just expect food to be cheaper each year, without thinking about how it is made cheaper. Ask yourself, what’s the knock on effect?”
One piece of common ground where both Daniel and Ian’s views are united is on the issue of imported meat. “A lot of cheaper bacon is imported,” says Daniel. “The New Zealand consumer has no control over how those pigs have been raised, and many of them will have been kept in sow crates.”
“Imported meat is the bigger issue,” Ian agrees. “With Pig Care accredited meat, you can guarantee that the minimum standards set by the consumer for animal welfare have been met. Those pigs will have been socialised, fed well and kept in a warm and clean environment – and if it hasn’t the consumer voice gets heard. But there are no guarantees with imported meat, and no way to address those concerns.”
Daniel says if you’re going to buy meat ask, where did it come from? What life did it have? “If the shop you are buying from can’t answer those questions move on. In the UK butchers have to have a real understanding of their product – supermarkets like Waitrose can tell you all you need to know about the animal your cut of meat came from. It’s going the same way in Australia.” If Kiwi consumers keep asking the right questions, producers and stockists will have to respond – and than can only lead to improvement for our pigs.