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Author Topic: PORK & BACON  (Read 558 times)
« on: June 08, 2009, 05:54:02 pm »

Makin' bacon

Pig-farming has attracted accusations of cruelty since controversial television footage of crate-farmed sows near Levin appeared a fortnight ago. Tracey Cooper talks to a Waikato pig farmer who is proud of the way he operates, while Kate Monahan investigates whether consumers are prepared to pay more for free-range products.

By TRACEY COOPER and KATE MONAHAN - Waikato Times | 1:48PM - Wednesday, 03 June 2009

DIGGING IN: Piglets on Jonathan Walker's free-range farm in Ngaruawahia. — IAIN MCGREGOR/Waikato Times.

DIGGING IN: Piglets on Jonathan Walker's free-range farm
in Ngaruawahia. — IAIN MCGREGOR/Waikato Times.

When Mike King huffed and puffed and blew the pork industry house down two weeks ago, it was the pig farmers who'd built their sties of metaphorical bricks rather than sow crates of straw that best withstood the onslaught from the wolfish comedian.

The ones who raise their pigs in conditions which don't attract covert night-time raids by animal rights activists and who can proudly stand behind their products when their little piggies go to market, as they most certainly will.

Jonathan Walker is one of those farmers and if proof were required, one need only go to the markets where he sells his free-range pig products.

"When I stand at the market, I completely believe in what I'm selling," says the 45-year-old forester turned pig farmer.

"The best thing you can do is something you believe in."

Walker sells his Soggy Bottom range of bacon and sausages at markets in Cambridge, Tamahere and Hamilton while wife Sarah covers the Clevedon market.

Aside from one burger bar in Raglan, the markets are the only place his produce is available.

He discourages potential buyers from visiting his 24.2-hectare converted sheep farm just outside Ngaruawahia and "can't be bothered" with internet sales.

"Couriers don't come out here, which means I'd have to go to town and that just takes too much time. And I'd have to buy all the polystyrene containers."

Walker raises rare breed pigs, mainly Tamworths, outdoors on his steeply gullied property, which he happily admits isn't ideal pig country, with their rooting in the clay soil causing worrying amounts of erosion.

Erosion wouldn't be a problem if he kept his pigs inside, as most modern commercial pig farms do.

But that would put him on the "slippery slope" he says.

"I sometimes think I'd like a half-round barn to keep them inside for the wettest couple of months, but then it would be easier to keep them inside all the time. It's all controlled, it's just like a big factory."

If he did that, he'd be the same as most other commercial pig farms, which have attracted the anger of the community since footage of King, inside a pig farm where sows were kept in crates barely large enough to stand, was shown on television.

Farm owner Colin Kay, a former New Zealand Pork Industry Board chairman, says the pigs do not normally behave in the way shown.

Although the Levin farm was cleared of breaking any laws, the condition of the animals caused widespread outrage.

Ad Feedback King says he is now ashamed of his previous role promoting pork on television and even Agriculture Minister David Carter and Prime Minister John Key say they found the images disturbing.

Surprisingly, Carter says he wasn't aware how much pigs were confined.

According to the pork industry, the key reasons for confining the pigs in cages are to protect pregnant sows from attack by other pigs and to stop sows from rolling on and killing piglets.

Walker says he's had piglets crushed by sows, who make nests before giving birth.

"Sometimes in the first two days the sow will lie on a couple of pigs, so you may lose a couple. Often it's the runts."

It's also the runts who are most at risk of being trampled as the stronger piglets get the front teats, which supply more milk and are further away from the mother's hind legs and the potential for an unintentional kicking.

Once latched on to a teat, a piglet will return to the same one for every feeding, Walker says.

He says one of his sows once rolled on top of, and killed, an entire litter of 10.

But he's never had any problems with pregnant sows being attacked and says claims they need to be kept in cages for their own safety are "a load of crap".

"All of my sows are together and I've never had any problems."

"There's no animosity between them."

He thinks the cramped conditions pigs are kept in are to blame.

"I think that's got a bit to do with why sows attack each other, they don't have much space and they're bored."

The Walker family Jonathan, Sarah and children Finnegan and Mallory moved to the Waikato from Britain five years ago for the space and the climate.

They bought the land and went about devising a way to make a living off it.

"We started out with one paddock and one pig," Walker says.

"I'd kept pigs before in Scotland."

"We came here and I wanted a pig because they're good fun. And every English person who comes here says you can't get good bacon or ham in New Zealand, so there was a gap in the market."

"My challenge was how to make a living from this bit of land and we're just about there now."

He's built shelters for his pigs to escape the cold of winter and planted trees to provide shade in summer but says the breeds he grows are "pretty hardy".

"That's why I keep old breeds, they can cope with the weather."

Commercially grown breeds such as Landrace are "no use outside," he says.

He kills about six pigs each month and would ideally like to produce a litter per month "but it never works out that way".

"I wean mine at about eight weeks, whereas commercial farms do it at about three weeks."

And the results are in the meat, he says.

"There are two issues, one is welfare, and you either care about that or not, and the other is taste, and this is so much better."

Although Walker's farm is not certified organic "the pigs get non-organic feed" he has put no chemicals on the animals or the farm in five years.

"I give them apple cider vinegar and seaweed."

"There've been no signs of ill health, no disease whatsoever."

"Part of that is the lack of pressure they're under."

"Pork has got a reputation as being cheap but it should be the most expensive you can get because you have to feed them every day."

"Every day I feed them, milk, cheese, grain, apples, whatever's in season."

The taste of apples comes through in the meat, he says.

He says the economics of keeping pigs outside or inside are "not that different" and he'd like to see the industry send several farmers on fact-finding missions to countries where a big portion of the total herd is kept outside.

"We have got plenty of space in this country to do that," he says.

"In the UK, 30 per cent are outside. Holland and Denmark do outside very well."

Walker says the furore about pig farming couldn't have happened at a better time for him.

"It came the week after we were on Country Calender. That was good sales then this comes out. It's good to be busy in this climate."

Animal welfare is the issue which keeps Jody Christian busy on the streets of Hamilton.

On Wednesday, the music teacher was in Barton Street wearing the distinctive blue vest of animal welfare group Save Animals From Exploitation (SAFE) and handing out leaflets to passersby.

She's been actively involved with SAFE for about five years but has been a member since she arrived from Britain 13 years ago.

"I was always into animal welfare and belonged to organisations in the UK," she says.

She's vegetarian and says most SAFE members are.

"If you feel you need to eat meat then make sure they have been treated humanely before you eat them," she says.

She agrees everyone will draw the line about what's acceptable in terms of animal welfare in a different place and "it's important to draw a line you can stick to".

Not buying pork products is "a big step for a lot of people, but you could buy less or you could buy free-range," she says.

A young mother stands in front of a supermarket chiller at Te Rapa New World, her brow furrowed.

Shelves of bacon before her, she stands for almost 30 seconds, pondering the options.

It's not just the usual decision on brand and price.

The recent television images of pig farming on the Sunday programme have some consumers wondering about the ethics of what they are putting in their trolleys.

"I really love bacon, so it's really hard," says Jenelle Bunker, 31-year-old mother of two.

She saw the pictures on TV. "My husband says he's not going to buy pork any more." However, Bunker admits, with a guilty smile, that she couldn't resist picking up a packet of Kiwi ham. She'd like to buy free range but "we've got two young children and one income. If it was cheaper we'd buy eggs and chicken free range too. It's a very expensive option."

She tends to buy it only if on special.

Another mother considers the bacon in the chiller.

"I probably tend to go for a New Zealand bacon, but I'm quite conscious of price too," says Amanda Rodley, mother of three."

She's also seen the TV coverage and is aware of the issues around intensive animal farming from other television shows. UK-based television exposes on the commercial chicken breeding and egg production industries by celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, have helped bring more attention to the issue.

"I had an idea of how pork was grown in New Zealand anyway," says Rodley, who grew up on a dairy farm. "(Sunday) didn't change my view too much. I read somewhere about a Taranaki farmer who suggested six pigs per acre, but how expensive would that make bacon if every farmer did that?"

Rodley says a lot of the debate over free range does seem to come down to rural versus urban understandings of food. A friend's five-year-old daughter asked what meat they were eating for dinner.

"Her mum said ‘beef’, and her daughter said, ‘what kind of animal is that?’ and her mum said ‘it's a cow’ and her daughter said, ‘but Mummy, how can you fit a cow into this packet’," laughs Rodley.

She wants her kids, aged from 3 to 7, to know where their meat and eggs come from, and supermarket shopping is just a "short-term" thing before they go truly free range and sustainable.

"We've moved out to the country and plan to have our own pigs and chooks."

The shiny new Te Rapa New World store, which opened in October 2005, has a good range of free-range food items, including Freedom Farms bacon and ham, various brands of free-range eggs, and a couple of brands of free-range whole chicken and chicken thighs (including Rangitikei Corn Fed and Waitoa).

Over in the egg aisle, Erin Allen is shopping with her daughter Debra and granddaughter Sammy, 3.

Erin tends to buy free-range eggs. "I feel the chooks have been looked after better," she says. "I would never try the Budget brand eggs, you just don't know about them."

Daughter Debra, 41, says she uses standard eggs for baking, but if she is making a special brunch or any food for her two young children, she plumps for free-range. "You notice a difference in the colour, the yolk is so much brighter with free range."

However, retiree Val Shackleton, 71, says price is still the biggest concern when she is shopping. She's not alone. Several other shoppers the Times talked to, mostly retirees, say price is what they consider first.

Shackleton has seen the Sunday programme, but is making a bacon and egg pie for dinner and can't see the point of spending extra money on free range. "I've got the cheapest (bacon) in there," she admits, nodding at her basket. "It's not worth spending more if you can't taste it, and spending $10 to $12 for bacon is a lot. You won't taste it in a pie."

Te Rapa New World operations manager Chris Burr says there has been a slow and steady interest from consumers in free-range products over the past few years.

In the butchery section, plump free-range pork medallions and butterfly pork steaks are lined up among the rows of neatly arranged red steak and fat sausages.

"There is a demand for it," says assistant butchery manager Allan Nicol, who plans to expand the free-range options.

"People have been asking about it."

"It is more expensive though."

Customers who buy free range tend to be older and wealthier, working urban couples or empty-nesters, with the disposable income to afford it.

Young urban mums also tend to be concerned about the food kids are eating, and when budget allows, are plumping for organic or free range.

The supermarket has done well out of free-range products, although price is tending to erode that.

Last Christmas they were inundated by shoppers wanting free-range Freedom Farms ham. They sold two a day in December, with a price $30-$40 higher than standard ham.

Service deli manager Bob Faulkner shows off one of the hams, which is $28.90 a kg (or $170 for the whole leg). A similar sized ham, from the Premier Bacon Company, is just $135 (generic ham is about $16.95 to $20 a kg, depending on the brand, says Faulkner).

"There is little difference between them," says Faulkner. "It's just one of these little piggies was running around the paddock and the other was not."

Ironically, Premier is the licensee for Freedom Farms' free-range pork products, as well as their Beehive, Premier and Medallion non-free-range products.

In an open letter published on the company's website, managing director John Kippenberger says he was "appalled at the conditions of the piggery" shown on the Sunday programme, and will be revisiting all New Zealand pig farm suppliers to ensure a high standard.

He also states "free-range will become the base standard for all pig producers in the next five to 10 years."

Higher costs associated with free-range production is likely to impact consumers, and supermarket managers wonder if price will win over ethics.

"All growers who are free range, or organic, feel justified in asking for a premium," says store manager Chris Grace. "Sometimes that premium is pretty significant and we struggle sometimes to sell much."

If the fresh meat doesn't sell, it's a cost to the supermarket.

And consumers are clearly price conscious. At a certain point, cost wins over animal welfare concerns.

Since last Christmas, Freedom Farms has increased the price on its hams from $21.95 a kg to $28,90 a kg. Sales have tanked, says Faulkner.

"I would say that for every inquiry I get about free-range products, I'll get at least 10 or more complaining about price," says Jamie Kelly, assistant store manager.

New Zealand pork is competing with overseas pork in the supermarkets, including ham from Canada, which is driving prices down.

Grace says Foodstuffs tries to deal with suppliers of pork who are "at the higher standards" and are putting pressure on suppliers to ensure standards are kept at the top end.

Grace says the rural/urban differences in views towards food production are marked. "I think a lot of rural people are just shaking their heads over this."

There are few supermarkets in the Waikato that have a good range of free-range products, especially chicken. For regular free-range shoppers, the Fifth Avenue Butchery was a destination, but has recently closed down.

There are other free-range options in Hamilton.

Dinsdale Poultry, run by young couple Warren and Deborah Klein, is one. Since opening three years ago, the store has gone increasingly free range, and now most of the chicken available is free range.

Last October Ingham converted several of its chicken farms to free range, which gave the Kleins a regular supply.

Since then, the store has expanded, and the couple are making their own free-range manuka smoked chicken, as well as roulades and boneless rolls from free-range birds.

Customers have responded positively.

"We get a lot of young mums and middle-aged men," says Klein. "But it's mums with (Visa) Gold Cards, so they have disposable income. We get half a dozen middle-aged men who religiously come in on a Thursday or Friday."

The cost of free-range chicken breast is $15.70 per kg at the shop, which Klein says is cheaper than supermarkets.

They sell some product at farmers' markets and are also supplying several high-end restaurants, including Embargo in Garden Place and Zinc at Queenwood.

"Our turnover has increased and our customer base has become more desirable, rather than someone after a cheap feed," says Klein.

"It's all been customer-driven, and it's all about choice. I think the New Zealand consumer is becoming more aware about what happens to living beings before they eat them."

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« Reply #1 on: June 08, 2009, 07:04:50 pm »

LOL nothing really here that relates to the debate in the general forum - unless the water they are feeding the pigs stays in the meat  Undecided
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Laughter is the best medicine, unless you've got a really nasty case of syphilis, in which case penicillin is your best bet.

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