AFSA calls out biased reporting on Victorian planning reforms

[Cross-posted from the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance]

Peter Hunt, a Weekly Times reporter, has treated the concerns of Victoria’s pastured livestock farmers over proposed planning reforms with total contempt, calling them ‘delusional.’

This seems unsurprising given Hunt spent many years in a policy role with the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), a body whose reputation for attacking small-scale farmers is increasing.

Pastured pig and poultry farmers have rejected factory farming and are instead growing animals outside in the fresh air. They devote their farms to growing healthy animals in ethical and ecologically-sound ways.

In an op ed in last week’s Weekly Times, Mr Hunt trotted out the drivel the Victorian Government is seeking to rectify when he called pastured livestock farms ‘intensive’.

Hunt went on to make spurious claims about the biosecurity risks of free-range poultry and pigs. However, it is sheds full of thousands of animals living with their own excrement that are the real source of a massive public health threat – those sheds are ‘food for flu’ as evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace states.

The Government’s attempt to reform the planning provisions has fallen short of the 2016 recommendations of the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC). The AIAC called for the scheme to recognise the lower risk small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms pose, and for planning controls to be commensurate with that risk.

The AIAC called for small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms to be treated like other grazing production systems.

The AIAC went through an independent public consultation. However, once handed to Agriculture Victoria, the ongoing consultation was limited to peak bodies for intensive agriculture – Australian Pork Limited (APL), Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), and the VFF, and a handful of cattle farmers. There was no representation for pastured pig and poultry farmers, and Ag Vic came back with a draft that sees all pig and poultry farms with more than 200 birds or three sows needing a permit.

The Government, the VFF, and the likes of Hunt keep repeating that all pig and poultry farms have always needed to get a permit, however, they fail to acknowledge that requirement was only recently established by a VCAT case in 2015. This was a trigger for the need to reform the planning scheme. Calling a farm with 100 pigs on 40 acres ‘intensive’ was deemed inappropriate, and the controls applied incommensurate with the risk.

Hunt’s track record of sloppy and inaccurate journalism does the public interest no favours, and his disdain for pastured pig and poultry farmers tells where his allegiances lie.

Tammi Jonas, President

Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

Dead Local Meat: Building and Operating a Small-Scale Abattoir

Introduction

Lack of access to abattoirs is affecting small-scale farmers across Australia. Small regional abattoirs have been closing down for years, and the issues smallholders face in accessing large industrial abattoirs are diverse. With the loss of regional abattoirs, farmers are driving very long distances to process small numbers of animals at larger, more centralized facilities. A shift to export focus at large plants has seen pigs ejected from multi-species red meat abattoirs. And at least one poultry abattoir in Victoria has denied farmers access based on the perception that they are ‘competition’ because they produce the same breed of ducks as the abattoir owner, and the same abattoir just informed small-scale growers that they will no longer process their birds at all – with many scheduled to process the very next day.

In an attempt to stay one step ahead of this growing problem of access to processing facilities, we started considering abattoir solutions four years ago. (At the same time we built an on-farm boning room and commercial kitchen to ensure access and control of more of our value chain.) Our initial focus was on mobile abattoirs in hopes of achieving the highest possible welfare at slaughter – no transport, and ideally a totally un-stressed animal whose life is taken without any fear.

Two years ago, I went to see a mobile slaughter unit (MSU) in Kansas in the US, but found that it was in reality parked permanently in a shed. Owner Mike Callicrate, who was very generous with his time and knowledge, shared that it’s difficult to prove a viable model unless you can get a higher throughput than a single farm is likely to generate, and that movement between farms comes with a number of associated costs (e.g. staff accommodation). There are also issues with compliance when operating an abattoir across multiple sites, all with potential zoning issues and/or complicated overlays. Further research has led me to believe that mobile abattoirs might work in remote areas, where the farmers could bear a higher slaughter fee in recompense for the recovered opportunity and motor vehicle costs of long transport distances, but that in a region populated with small-scale livestock farmers such as the central highlands of Victoria, a fixed abattoir is more likely to be both viable and sustainable in the long term.

Shifting our focus to fixed facilities, in July 2017, my life and farming partner Stuart and I went on an abattoir tour and visited eight small-scale abattoirs in nine days over 4200km from Georgia to Vermont to Indiana in the US (one abattoir was still under construction, the other seven were all operational). We found that there are many committed people running viable businesses but that there are significant challenges to sustaining small-scale slaughter facilities, and in particular poultry abattoirs.

The following report was created based on our years of research, the recent tour of abattoirs in the US, and knowledge subsequently shared with us by Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats in North Carolina when we flew her out to participate in Australia’s first Slow Meat Symposium, as well as that gleaned from other farmers and processors who attended Slow Meat. The fully operational farms and plants we visited include: White Oak Pastures (Georgia), Cool Hand Meats (North Carolina), Alleghany Meats (Virginia), T&E Meats (Virginia), Vermont Packinghouse (Vermont), Maple Wind Farm (Vermont), and Gunthorp Farms (Indiana).

We’d like to thank the many farmers and abattoir operators who opened their doors and shared years of experience, knowledge, and wisdom with us. Your openness and generosity are deeply appreciated as we embark on a venture to build our own local abattoir and support others across Australia to do the same. To paraphrase a famous philosopher, ‘those who control the means of production control the world,’ and I’m glad to be in the company of the likes of you taking that control back for the people!

I would also like to thank the Victorian Government for their support in awarding me with a Food Source Scholarship to help make the trip to the US possible.

Lesson One: Slaughter is a break-even business & there’s no money in poultry

Multiple operators told us that slaughter is a break-even business, and that the boning room (further processing) is what makes it work. Having cooking and/or other value-add facilities further increases profitability. We learned that red meat is demonstrably more viable than poultry – just consider that it requires as many people to break down one poultry carcass as it does one beef or pig carcass. Clearly that is an enormous amount of labour for a very small yield, so high numbers of birds through the system are required to justify the process. We were flat told by more than one operator that there’s no money in poultry, and even that some lose money on poultry – dispiriting for poultry growers to say the least.

While the average poultry processed across four poultry abattoirs was 1450 chooks a day, the majority were only up to 1000 in a day. When processing ducks it was frequently emphasized that you need to double the time it takes due to QA time. In terms of staffing – we saw no facilities with less than eight people, even in poultry plants without a boning room. Note that wages in the US are at best 50% of what is paid in Australia, but then they also only command around 50% of the price Australian pastured poultry growers can charge.

A key challenge will be to prove a viable business model for slaughtering poultry. There are a number of on-farm poultry abattoirs in the US (we visited three) and in Australia, which seems to demonstrate that there is a viable model there. However, I’m keen to do more investigation and seek financial insight from those with on-farm abattoirs into just how viable that business model is before promoting it to others.

As I write this, Cool Hand Meats run by Amanda Carter in North Carolina just slaughtered its last chickens. The community came together to keep the plant operating while living in hope of investment from quarters that did not present themselves. While not wanting to be too doomsday, I can’t help but share Amanda’s comment when she was with us in Australia that if they were to go under, she sometimes thought it would be a ‘mercy killing’ for her community of small-scale pastured poultry growers as they struggled to make a decent living.

Lesson Two: Operational Insights

 

Lairage

Temple Grandin has revolutionized the conditions for slaughter in America and elsewhere, and part of how she has dramatically improved welfare for livestock is to design much better lairage that takes into consideration the things that spook or stress animals as they are in holding pens and walking through chutes to approach the knock box.

The best lairage we saw was at Vermont Packinghouse, where Arion has used high poured concrete walls for the holding pens. The solid walls ensure lower stress for the animals (as Temple says, ‘they don’t fear what they don’t see’), they are easy to keep clean, and they should last a very long time. We saw Grandin’s influence in a few other places as well, such as in curved chutes to entries to kill floors.

At one plant we saw workers using high pressure hoses just outside the kill floor, and even though the cattle were in holding pens some distance from the activity, they were clearly stressed and cowering from the noise and flashing movements in the summer sun. It sharpened our focus on the need to get the lairage right to ensure the highest welfare environment pre-slaughter. And it also highlighted the importance of training for all staff to ensure they understand the fundamentals of high welfare livestock handling.

The point was also made that plants need sufficient exterior holding pens for the planned throughput, and that these should also be carefully sited.

Stunning

Knock boxes – we saw one modified beef knock box with head resting and a drop down collar for complete immobilisation before the bolt, which is desirable in the American context as their standards have a zero tolerance for failure in stuns. However, my understanding of Temple Grandin’s work is that she believes that cattle are stressed by total immobilization, so this may not be entirely desirable – more research to be done!

While most plants had separate knock boxes for large and small animals (e.g. cattle v pigs), some had simple modifications in the beef knock box (steel inserts) to make it smaller for pigs. At one plant we also saw the ‘v’ shaped design where the floor drops out from underneath and the ‘v’ holds the pigs suspended, which was used to calm and better immobilize the pigs.

Stunning method – no facility we saw used gas stunning, only captive bolt or electric. Previous research had indicated that carbon dioxide stunning was considered best practice in spite of its potentially aversive qualities due to the lesser (stress-inducing) restraint requirements and lower reliance on highly trained staff for mechanical stuns, but our discussions with Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats and others offered other insights. An issue with gas stunning is convulsions – there can be bruising because of flailing, unlike in an appropriately applied electric shock. For further comparison see EFSA ‘The Stunning Report’.

According to Joe Cloud of T&E Meats, ‘when stunning for hogs, electric is definitely preferable to fixed bolt or bullet.  More sure; far fewer, if any, bad stuns; less thrashing, thus less chance for carcass damage or employee injury; less blood spotting in carcass.’

More research is warranted on stunning methods, and of course cost is a consideration and gas chambers and associated infrastructure may prove prohibitively expensive.

Staffing and Space Requirements

Labour is the most expensive aspect of running a small-scale abattoir, and even more so in a country like Australia where we have a commitment to fair work provisions and a living wage for all. From our observations, the design of the abattoir can play a significant role in having a sustainable staffing profile for the business.

A take-home point after viewing seven operational plants is that dead space causes a loss of efficiency and increased labour component. Smaller spaces encourage highly efficient staffing quotients, a key difference between viability and non. Sometimes automation actually appears to require more people on the floor – there’s a trade off between speed and number of staff required to manage the equipment that needs careful costing to ensure the right decisions are made when purchasing equipment.

‘Every time you pick up an animal and put it back down you lose money,’ said Amanda Carter.

It is considered advantageous to move product out of a plant quickly so as not to take up space. Time in refrigeration needs to be as short as practicable to make room for the next product to maintain optimal throughput.

Conversely, there is a demonstrated demand for dry-ageing facilities for beef, and provision of this is highly desirable in the oft-artisanal space of small-scale producers. Victoria presents a particular challenge in this regard due to the stringent requirements demanded by PrimeSafe for the dry-ageing of beef, in which a separate dedicated chiller would have to be installed, and a testing protocol not required in other states observed, as well as a mandated reduced shelf life. Ageing only the argie (porterhouse/rump/scotch) rather than the whole carcass is an obvious and common way to reduce the space requirement of the dedicated chiller.

Even distribution of slaughtering across the week, months, and year is important for staff. Seasonal livestock such as most poultry can create a problem for a viable operation as staff need secure and regular employment. A stand-alone poultry abattoir would need to manage this risk, and one that is part of a multi-species facility might still present difficulties as staffing quotients might need to fluctuate throughout the year.

In regards to building a multi-species red meat abattoir, the height of the ceiling is important if you want to slaughter cattle, and should be included in the design from the beginning when building a new structure. Three rooms – kill floor, boning room, chill and store – seems to be a common and practical design across species, with a RTE room as a desirable final addition. You need separate curing and product chill rooms for RTE, and possibly packing space as well, to avoid cross-contamination

Customer Relations/Scheduling

Running a small-scale abattoir means dealing with far more clients with custom needs. The work this creates cannot be over-estimated. Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats shared that she spends one-third of her time on customer management, and Joe Cloud of T&E Meats said ‘you have to do a LOT of education and hand holding.’ While we were at Cool Hand Meats a woman came with two rabbits to be slaughtered, and Amanda shared that there had been multiple phone calls and emails – a customer relations workload totally incommensurate with the return to the abattoir. This is just one area where tiered pricing depending on the number of animals being processed is critical to ensuring a viable operation.

In a small-scale abattoir you need to have at least one dedicated office staff member who sets the schedule and handles customer communications by phone and email. It is envisioned that this person also orders consumables, handles compliance, etc.

Many of the operations we visited have a six-month schedule. While this might be good for security of throughput for the abattoir, it has obvious drawbacks for small-scale producers who may not be able to confirm their slaughter dates so far in advance. In the case of a cooperatively-owned abattoir, it exists to serve the needs of its members, and in this case there is a potential conflict as on the one hand, there is a duty to remain viable for the benefit of the whole community, and on the other, to support small-scale farmer members with sufficient flexibility.

Abattoirs are industrial as well as agricultural facilities

Joe Cloud of T&E Meats provided the following very useful input around the siting and design, and energy and water needs of abattoirs, highlighting planning for resilience in the face of climate change:

I cannot emphasize enough that while abattoirs are agricultural facilities, they are also industrial facilities, and they work best with access to adequate infrastructure. Immediate access to public water, power, sewage treatment, gas, plentiful trained tradesmen, and rendering are all preferable to other situations, if possible. Of course, these often aren’t. If you don’t have this you will have to plan very carefully. If you are on wells, you need to test your water regularly & have robust filtration/treatment systems. If you are far from your local substation, you will need a good back-up generator. If you are on a drainfield, you will need to invest in a very good design, and also have traps and sumps to remove as much blood and grease and fat as possible from graywater.

I also think that in the years ahead, with climate change, we have to think differently about our world, and plan more robust adaptive infrastructure systems. Think about winds. We are likely to have more and higher wind storms. How are you planning for that? Especially your roof systems, and your back-up generators for when power lines are blown down. Look at Puerto Rico right now – a disaster. What about fire? If you are in a rural area, are your facilities vulnerable to wildfire? What about drought? If you are on well systems, what will you do in a severe drought? Are you capable of enduring one? What about flooding? We are going to be experiencing much much more precipitation levels in the years ahead. What is now considered a 100 years flood will become commonplace – look at the recent hurricane in Houston, TX – a disaster. DO NOT site your facility where it is vulnerable to flooding, unless you can also provide some adequate mitigation infrastructure.

I think that solar panels are great. But, unless you have a significant battery system (very expensive) your system will be inoperable in case of a regional power outage. Still need back-up generators. Also, a solar array may be vulnerable to damage from high winds – must be built stout.

In the design phase hire a very good mechanical engineer, and emphasize qualities of sustainability and low cost of operation over low initial costs.

Ideas – cluster compressors together and capture waste heat through de-superheaters. Use gas conversion solar technologies to preheat water for sanitation. Abattoirs use a LOT of hot water.

When we installed a new hot water system, I looked at a lot of on-demand systems, like Renai, and I thought I was going to go that way. But in the end, I realized that they were fussy, and needed a good bit of tinkering, and that I was not going to have a qualified and dedicated engineer on staff, and so went with a high efficiency but more traditional system of ganged up hot water heaters. You want simple robust systems.

Think about solar angles and roof lines when siting and designing your building – if your roof is designed as a solar panel support system, that can reduce the costs of such a system, which in the long run can really help save money for refrigeration/water heating costs. Find someone who is forward thinking. However, also give a lot of thought to maintenance trade-offs. You DO NOT want down-time.

Waste management – an opportunity rather than a liability

The on-farm abattoirs we saw appeared to be making the most of what are often waste streams for abattoirs sited in industrial areas. There are opportunities for further revenue as well as ecological benefits from processing ‘waste’ on site into compost or other value-added products. However, Joe Cloud offered a note of caution:

As Will Harris showed you, you can do your own waste management through compost. But you need a good design, and adequate supply of inputs. And that will require labor adding to overhead costs.

Compost – make ‘lasagne’ of windrow compost heaps with abattoir waste and local agricultural and forestry carboniferous waste (See Cornell Waste Management Institute for excellent resources on safe carcass and waste processing options.) We saw a great example of this at White Oak Pastures, where Will Harris makes good use of his abattoir ‘waste’ mixed with ubiquitous local peanut shell husks.

Value add bones, etc

  • Dehydrated chicken feet, pig trotters, ears, etc as dog treats
  • Tallow and/or lard candles
  • Tallow and/or lard soap
  • Decorative skulls
  • Hides salted on-site and tanned – potential relationship with local traditional tannery to make a range of leather products.

Business Structure & Funding Model

One reason it is difficult to run a viable abattoir is because in a highly industrialised food system that values cheapness over quality the profit margin will never be high, and in many cases will not be sustainable. We believe that nobody should profit from slaughter – it’s a critical part of the food chain that should provide a service for a fee, not profits for shareholders. In Australia we’ve seen the closure of countless abattoirs over the past twenty years, including the recent shut down of Churchill, Australia’s largest domestic-only abattoir (which processed up to 2300 beef carcasses per week and did 20% of Woolworths’ northern processing).

Given this context, I’ve always believed any abattoir we build must be a not-for-profit, and preferably also a cooperative. That is not to say it shouldn’t pay all workers fairly and run as a highly professional business with clear accountabilities, but there should not be shareholders who take an enduring profit from early investment and drive the cost up and viability down. As such, the start-up funding must be carefully procured, most likely from a mix of government grants and community funds.

In terms of those accountabilities, Joe Cloud says, ‘responsibility and authority has to be clear – and simple. When things break or go wrong – and in a meat plant that is likely to be EVERY DAY – it needs to be clear who has decision-making authority, and that person or those persons need to be right there, right then.’

Our Hope: the feasibility of Hepburn Meat Collective

We want to build a multi-species abattoir in Daylesford, here in the central highlands of Victoria. We have a thriving region of small-scale producers who regularly collaborate and support each other, a strong community of like-minded eaters, and also a thriving tourism industry, with a Council that has included outreach and educational opportunities from agriculture as part of the strategic brief of our shire. Together we are working to build food and agriculture systems that are ethical and ecologically sound, and the Hepburn Meat Collective is the next logical step to ensure our ability to continue this important and fulfilling work.

Our initial thinking was that we would start with poultry, then add a boning room with cook facilities, then build the red meat facility and ensure it’s of a size to slaughter everything from lambs and pigs to full size cattle. We’re seeking advice from the consultants to whom we have access through the Federal Government’s Farming Together program to see whether we can demonstrate a viable poultry facility before settling on the exact model and build process.

For the reasons discussed above, our preference at this stage is also that the abattoir will be a cooperative – co-owned by farmers and potentially other community members (there is much more to be discussed before we can determine the optimum model for coop membership). Including all species from the beginning will ensure buy in from more farmers than if we only focus on poultry in the initial stage. So while a staged build is envisioned, the entire project should be scoped, costed and planned for.

Staffing – our aim is to have a diversified facility where staff can work across the system – e.g. a day on a farm, a day on slaughtering, a day on processing, a day on distribution… and no one killing five days a week. As a small-scale abattoir, we don’t envision being able to fully employ people at just one thing, but there is potential employment across the value chain. The facility could in fact function as a farmer incubator, teaching whole value chain skills to help develop a future generation of farmers and farm and food workers.

While this highly diversified farmer incubator model is our preferred staffing model, we acknowledge the need for specialization and the challenges of cross-training a diverse workforce. We envision a need to balance our hope for a socially just and transformational system with the pragmatism required to run a successful operation.

The current preferred site is at the old Daylesford abattoir which has 100 acres attached – this gives a great deal of scope for the project to develop into a world-leading food hub. We envision that the project that starts with an abattoir, boning room, and commercial kitchen, but could also include on-site composting, rendering, leather production, and other methods of creating a no-waste nutrient-cycling operation, as well as ensuring highest animal welfare practices by locating the holding pens somewhat removed from the entrance to the kill floor. The site also already has like-minded small-scale existing tenants with food processing and distribution facilities, something we see as deeply synergistic to the project.

Download the full report below with additional appendices regarding ‘the need’ for abattoirs and detailed notes on the facilities we visited.

171103_Jonas abattoir research report_final

Planning for Industrial Intensive Animal Agriculture: The Regulation Diaries (7)

In October 2015, I visited Jo Stritch of Happy Valley Free Range, Livestock Farmer of the Year in 2014.

Jo had just been ordered to remove all her pigs from her farm after losing a case in VCAT trying to prove that her farm wasn’t ‘intensive’.

One of these is not intensive.

According to the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPP), intensive animal husbandry refers to ‘importing most food from outside the enclosures’. “In Happy Valley Piggery v Yarra Ranges SC, VCAT [2015] determined that ‘most food’ meant most nutrition. This had the effect of making a free-range piggery fall under the definition of Intensive animal husbandry. This classification was counterintuitive to some people as a ‘free range’ piggery was not seen as ‘intensive’.” (AIAC 2015)

In late 2015, an independent body (the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC)) was appointed by the Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford and the Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to address concerns that the planning provisions were no longer sufficiently meeting the needs and expectations of farmers nor the community.

I will here quote extensively from both the consultation paper and the final report of the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC).

The VPP Advisory Committee of 1997 that reviewed the implementation of the VPP said: It does not matter where the food is sourced from because it is the concentration of the animals which leads to the need for planning control. The current definition is an input measure – it seeks to define the use based on the source of the feed inputs. What matters in planning are the outcomes, or impacts, of a use. Shifting the definition and control of animal industries to focus on their impacts would seem to make more sense.

Victoria’s planning approval system for intensive animal husbandry is unique compared to other states in that Codes of Practice have been developed for a number of livestock industries that rely on intensive housing and production systems, to support the planning process. There are codes for the piggery, cattle feedlot and broiler industries. These are incorporated into the VPP and all planning schemes in Victoria.

Development of the codes was triggered by expansion of these industries coupled with a recognition of the need to achieve environmentally and financially viable development. The intent of the codes was to provide a detailed and stringent framework of accepted principles and where possible standards for the establishment and operation of intensive animal industries under Victorian conditions. (AIAC 2015)

In 2016, the AIAC recommended a ‘graduated approach to planning controls based on risk’, pointing out that “some intensive animal industries are of a scale that people not associated with the industry might find confronting: chicken farms of 1.2 million birds, goat dairies of 14,000 goats.  But many intensive animal industries are of a small scale catering to local or boutique markets – the planning system needs to manage the lower risk these operations pose in a manner commensurate with that risk.” (AIAC 2016)

So the AIAC recognized that the relevant permit requirements of the VPP and associated codes of practice were designed to address the risks to environment and amenity posed by large-scale industrial sheds of pigs and poultry and that free-range pig and poultry farms had been inadvertently caught up in the definition over the technicality of importing the majority of the feed. The independent committee also recognized that the risk profile of a small-scale free-range pig farm is very different to a shed full of pigs, and that the planning provisions should account for this difference in risk.

The AIAC recommendation that there be graduated controls that would treat small-scale pig and poultry farmers much like other grazing systems (subject to meeting minimum standards), would have removed the onerous and unnecessary requirement for a permit.

They also recommended to allow these low risk farms to be allowed operate in Green Wedge Zones with a permit, which is significant because the prohibition on intensive animal husbandry in Green Wedge Zones is what ultimately caused the move of Happy Valley Free Range to a different shire in order to continue farming. This was broadly acceptable to most small-scale pastured pig and poultry farmers and the eaters who want access to ethical and ecologically-sound meat.

What is also significant is that the Government is now proposing to allow intensive pig and poultry sheds into Green Wedge, Rural Living, and Rural Conservation Zones with a permit, quite contrary to the recommendations of the AIAC.

The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) put in a submission to the AIAC and attended the public hearings, and felt that the committee captured our members’ concerns reasonably well, and that we had reason to be hopeful that the Government would take the recommendations and rectify the situation where pastured pig and poultry farmers had become collateral damage of the need to more closely monitor our industrial counterparts.

The Final Report was delivered to the Victorian Government in April 2016, and so we waited. And waited.

In September 2017, the draft of the graduated controls – the tool we expected would rectify pastured pig and poultry farmers’ inadvertent treatment as though we were industrial intensive livestock producers – were released for public consultation, and we were beyond disappointed.

While the independent committee (the AIAC) had demonstrably understood how unnecessary it is to apply the same controls to low-risk pastured systems as to large-scale intensive sheds, once the report disappeared behind government doors, it appeared that the Big Ag lobby (in particular Australia Pork Limited (APL), but also the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)) have virtually written the draft provisions. I cannot shake the phrase ‘where malice is enabled by incompetence’ from my head.

Make no mistake – APL, VFF, and MLA are no friend to small-scale producers. APL have been sending their representative to VCAT hearings to testify against small-scale pastured pig farmers such as Jo Stritch. President of the VFF Livestock Group, export beef and grain farmer and feedlot owner Leonard Vallance (who is also the former chair of the Board of Victorian meat regulator PrimeSafe) is on the record saying that “Farmers’ markets are the achilles heel of the Victorian food industry,” he said. “The reputational risk to our export markets is massive…”. Head of the VFF Pig Group is 500-sow intensive pig producer John Bourke. And Head of the Egg Group is a caged-egg producer.

The VFF even submitted to the AIAC that the Public Health and Wellbeing Act should be amended to exempt agricultural producers from nuisance complaints.

In a recent newsletter, the VFF asserted that they:

do not support the planning permit exemption for some piggeries and poultry farms for a number of reasons. Often people start small and grow over time. Will the person who started with 150 hens know to get a planning permit when they have 1000 hens?

Planning is about asking the questions on land use, environment and amenity – 200 hens on a quarter acre block has a different impact on five hectares and 33 pigs is a large number of pigs even on this same area. We feel these questions need to be asked of all pig and poultry farms given these aren’t grazing animals and will always need additional feed.

This is intensive.
This is not intensive.

 

 

 

 

 

To summarise some of the key issues, the draft provisions would:

  • Treat a pastured producer with 500 birds the same as an intensive producer with 500,000 birds in sheds.
  • Treat a pastured pig producer with more than 8 sows on paddocks (around 80 pigs) the same as an intensive producer with 800 sows in sheds (possibly 8,000 pigs in total).
  • Allow an existing intensive poultry farm to open a new range for up to 150,000 chickens without any of the restrictions placed on a farmer with 500 chickens.
  • Enforce 100m buffer zones from neighbouring dwellings on pastured poultry farms with up to 450 birds and pastured pig farms with up to 8 sows – rendering small scale farming on land less than 200m wide practically impossible (to give some perspective, at least 1000 birds and 100 pigs is typical for viable small-scale systems).
  • Allow cattle feedlots with up to 1000 cattle to be established with no permit.
  • Allow intensive pig and poultry sheds in the Green Wedge, Rural Living, & Rural Conservation Zones with a permit (currently prohibited).

To be clear, where we expected the new provisions to rectify the unintended consequence of recently treating pastured pig and poultry farmers the same as intensive shed producers, the Government’s draft instead codifies this interpretation.

No longer does risk to environment or amenity appear to be a key consideration – intensive producers have successfully lobbied the Government and the result is prohibitive and expensive permit application requirements that will be the death knell of the growing movement of small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms in Victoria.

Taking only pigs as an example, here is the striking difference between what the AIAC recommended and what the Government is proposing.

AIAC Recommendation (April 2016)

Category 3 – Midscale           No permit if specified standards and requirements are met

Intensive supplementary feeding of cattle, sheep or goats (not a feedlot) where provided for in a code. Small sheep feedlot where provided for in a code. Small free range pig and poultry farms where provided for in a code.

SOMEHOW BECOMES

PSAI Draft (September 2017)

Permit required – Streamlined application process*

No more than 8 sows + 1 boar + progeny

No pigs located in these setbacks: 100m from other dwellings

I’ll save it for our longer public submission to explain the entirely arbitrary nature of the numbers proposed by the Government that is rendered even more meaningless by failing to attach any land size specification to the number of stock.

FAQs

So why shouldn’t small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms be required to seek a permit to farm in the Farming Zone?

Because we are farming, and the Farming Zone’s purpose is to enable farming, and because other pastured livestock systems do not require a permit to farm. Even the potato farmers whose paddocks are routinely kept barren and many of whom spray glyphosate and fungicides right up to their boundaries do not require a permit, so why should we?

And what is the big deal if the Government insists that we must obtain permits despite the lack of evidence-based arguments for why we should?

Because it is an expensive and complicated process. In our shire, for example, a permit costs about $1300. Most people do not feel confident writing their own applications with all the attendant documentation and need to access multiple government agencies for information, and so hiring consultants is the norm, at many more thousands of dollars. If subject to a notice and review period, one must post notices and alert neighbours to the application, and then sit through local council meetings and be interrogated about the plan, often questioned about aspects totally irrelevant to a highly mobile, pastured livestock system (‘please explain the siting of the sheds’ – ‘there are no sheds’).

The history of the Victorian Planning Provisions reads like Dracula meets Yes Minister. If we take away the intentions – good and bad – and seek to enable farming while judging farming systems on their merits, it’s really not that difficult. Here are some useful principles:

  • The Farming Zone is to enable farming.
  • Pasture-based livestock systems are (potentially) healthiest for soils, animals, water, air, and workers.
  • A permit should be required for technologies and systems known to present higher risks to environment and amenity.
  • There must be recourse for complaints and enforcement when farmers (of any size or production model) are failing to farm responsibly.

So what do we want?

AFSA has started a petition that needs as many voices as possible. The Government needs to know that the people want access to ethically and ecologically-sound produce, and that you stand as and with small-scale producers working to grow a better, fairer food system for everyone.

We call on Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford and Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to explain why low-risk small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms are to be subjected to greater scrutiny and compliance costs than cattle feedlots.

We demand that small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms be treated under the Farming Zone like other low-risk grazing systems that rely on supplemental feed such as the majority of Victorian beef and dairy cattle.

Sign the petition NOW.

Join AFSA and add your voice to the food sovereignty movement that is working to secure access to nutritious and culturally-appropriate food grown in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems.

References

Animal Industries Advisory Committee Discussion Paper (Dec 2015): https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/10080/Animal-Industries-Discussion-Paper-Revision-1.PDF

 

Animal Industries Advisory Committee Final Report (April 2016): http://agriculture.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/323424/PPV-Animal-Industries-Final-Report-.pdf

 

Planning for Sustainable Animal Industries (Sept 2017): https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/policy-and-strategy/planning-reform/sustainable-animal-industries

Feeding livestock & weaning farmers off industrial grain

This is a cross post from the Jonai Farms blog: The Farmer & the Butcher, originally entitled ‘Feed: Weaning ourselves off industrial grain‘. 

I’ve spent the better part of what will soon be (gasp!) three decades worrying about the ills of industrial animal agriculture, and most of today gathering some of the relevant stats around the amount of feed grown globally to feed livestock in preparation for writing about what we’re trying to achieve in our feeding system at Jonai Farms. Bear with me…

The inconsistencies in data depending on the source have been doing my head in – does the livestock industry contribute 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) or 3%? Which life cycle analysis is accounting properly for all parts of the food chain, and which acknowledges the differences between Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and small-scale pastured animal farming? Is 60% of American corn fed to animals or is it 80%? If 47% of soy produced is fed to animals in the US, how can it be 85% globally?

And then it occurred to me that the numbers don’t matter that much. We simply must stop growing monocultures of grain crops only to process and feed them to animals. Whether it contributes 3% or 18% to greenhouse gases, it’s just bloody unnecessary and entirely a result of industrialised agriculture, which segregates each aspect of production in the most unnatural ways instead of growing food in diverse, integrated, and holistic systems.

Here are some more numbers (sorry not sorry but I spent so much time gathering them): according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) 26% of the earth is used to graze animals, and 33% of the earth’s arable land is dedicated to feed crop cultivation. The FAO also reckons that 50% of all grain produced in the world is fed to livestock, mostly in the wealthy countries of the Global North.

There’s a complicated discussion to be had around the differences between feeding grains to ruminants (such as cattle, sheep, and goats) and non-ruminants (aka monogastrics like pigs, poultry, and people), but that’s for another post. (Fun fact for those who don’t already know this – horses are not ruminants, they’re monogastric herbivores.) In that discussion we could talk about the suitability of a part or whole grain diet for ruminants, and differences in greenhouse gas emissions from different species, but I’ll simply offer this short quote about some of those complexities before moving on:

‘…pork and poultry production currently consume over 75% of cereal and oil-seed based on concentrate that is grown for livestock (Galloway et al., 2007). Therefore, while ruminants consume 69% of animal feed overall, nonruminates consume 72% of all animal feed that is grown on arable land (Galloway et al., 2007). Consequently, while enteric fermentation from nonruminants is not a significant source of GHG, indirect emissions associated with cropland dedicated to nonruminant livestock might be significant.’ Ref.

Like I said, it’s complicated. So this is a slightly long-winded introduction to telling you the story of what we feed our animals at Jonai Farms and why we’ve made the choices we have.

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From the outset with our pigs and cattle, we wanted to farm agroecologically – ‘working with biodiversity to provide the farming system with ecological resilience and reduce dependence on costly, often harmful, conventional inputs’. One thing that means is that since obtaining our first pigs, we had intentions to salvage or produce enough feed for a complete diet for them without purchasing grain purpose-grown for livestock.

It’s been five years but last week we achieved that goal!

From very early on, our pigs have been fed primarily a diet of spent brewers’ grain (some of which Stuart ensiles with molasses to stabilize it for storage and increase the energy extracted by the brewing process). We drive twice a week to collect a total of around three tonnes of this grain. The cattle are fed any excess, particularly during the height of summer and depths of winter when nutrient value of the feed on the paddocks is lower.

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In addition to the spent brewers’ grain, Stuart has managed to salvage so-called waste stream (or in some cases ‘surplus yield’) feed from the dairy, fruit, and vegetable industries, including post-harvest ‘seconds’ of everything from potatoes to strawberries, colostrum-rich cow’s milk during calving season, and supply-chain damaged or unwanted dairy products such as milk and cheese.

Two summers ago a dairy processor delivered an entire container load of milk – in thousands of plastic bottles – when they had an oversupply due to some kind of logistics failure. We contacted every pig farmer we knew and got them to collect as much as they could haul away but were left with enough milk to feed out for many months. In consultation with our vet, we were confident that spoilt milk is not dangerous nor non-nutritive for the pigs – they continued to enjoy it well past the point where we enjoyed feeding it out.

We’ve only made minor inroads into fodder cropping, with some success at growing turnips and brassicas in the mostly rye paddocks we inherited in our attempts to wean ourselves off purpose-grown commercial grain.

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We have, however, planted at least one hundred oak trees and a couple dozen other nut and fruit trees to provide fodder in what we hope will eventually be a full-blown agro-sylvo-pastoral system. Trees take a really long time to grow and they’re hard to keep alive through our hot summers, but Stuart does his best to nurse them through the heat.

While the brewers’ grain is a steady supply upon which we can rely and the paddocks provide a proportion of the happy piggehs regular diet (up to 20% depending on the season), the other salvaged feed has been sporadic – not enough to rely on without ensuring we had a nutritious regular feed on hand to supplement the brewers’ grain.

This other ration has always been a pelletised grain we’ve bought from a Victorian feed supplier. The standard ration we were originally offered was a mix of barley, wheat, peas, lupins, bread mix, mill run, soy, post-industrial food waste (such as bread meal and Smarties off the factory floor to increase the energy), essential amino acids (such as methionine, tryptophan and lysine), and vitamins and minerals. We said ‘no, thanks’ and asked for a custom ration that was just barley, wheat, and lupins and paid an extra $50/tonne for the privilege of keeping all the nutrititive and non-nutritive additives and soy out of it.

The pellets formed anywhere from 15-30% of the pigs’ diet for the past five years (depending on their age and stage, e.g. wet sows get more pellets to ensure they’re getting sufficient proteins to support reproduction). It was convenient, very little wastage, and simple to monitor nutrition as the feed company’s nutritionists did all the knowledge work for us. But it never sat well with our principles – we’ve been relying on the very industrialised food system we rail against!

Last week everything changed when we got a call to collect 23 tonnes of water-damaged rice (only about 2 tonnes of which was actually damaged). It wasn’t lost on us that this rice was sent from a country with much higher levels of food insecurity than Australia only to be condemned on food safety standards when the vast majority of the shipment was perfectly palatable, but much better to at least divert it to feed and keep it out of the landfill. We shared the bounty with some other farming mates, and ultimately collected 14 tonnes ourselves, which we unloaded manually one five-kilo bag at a time into our shed.rice-haul-2016

On the second day of collecting the rice, we were also offered some 14 pallets of milk from the landlord of a distributor who’d gone into (heh) liquidation. Again we shared the love and collected five pallets for ourselves, all of us grateful to the landlord who wanted to see the milk used and not wasted.

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The rice stores well, and if we feed it out at 10-15% of the pigs’ normal ration (as advised in the plethora of research articles I’ve read on the topic) we have enough for nearly two years. The milk will last a couple of months if fed out at up to 20% of their ration. We actually live next to a dairy and have been discussing buying milk directly from him as we would pay the same as we were paying for pellets (50 cents per litre, and we pay 50 cents per kilo of pellets) for a higher quality feed, while supporting one of the many struggling dairy farmers in Australia (he’s been paid as low as 25 cents per litre this year). So if more waste-stream milk doesn’t come our way we have another source of milk, a near-perfect feed for pigs as it contains the essential amino acids needed for optimal health, fertility, and growth.

Inspired by all this salvage feed, I contacted a local free-range egg farmer we know and have planted the seed with him to get their egg seconds as well, which he said he’s happy to barter for pork (when the other pig farmers who take some don’t get in first!).

This windfall of salvaged feed sent me back into a whirl of planning for 2017 – I do love a good spreadsheet – and we’ll be adjusting a few priorities now that we’re entirely reliant on salvaged feed.

For a starter, building a shed near the pig paddocks with a 20-foot container to store dry feed in a rodent-proof box has jumped up the list. While we wait for our oaks to produce for the pigs, we’re also keen to collect acorns and chestnuts in autumn and dry store them in the container to feed out, in this case not so much diverting waste as using a wasted resource that is abundant in our region.

The tractor we’ve wanted to buy for a few years but just couldn’t fully justify in a system we are physically capable of running manually (for now – ask again in a decade!) has also climbed the priority ladder. Offloading many tonnes of feed by hand is neither desirable nor sustainable when it’s our regular feed source. One mad week of offloading nearly 20 tonnes made us feel proud and strong, doing it regularly would quite likely make us feel dumb and tired!

A critical point about the shed and the tractor is that we can afford them because we just erased a significant feed bill from our budget – as with all things, taking on more labour ourselves rather than outsourcing it to others frees up more cash to invest in infrastructure and equipment.

But on that labour point – dealing with salvage feed is significantly more labour-intensive, and it also usually comes with a level of packaging waste that ultimately costs us as well. In the case of the rice bags, we have to pay if we need to deliver rubbish to the tip more than once per month. And there’s the extra time and labour to unpackage the rice and the milk, as well as milling and soaking the rice to make it fully digestible by the pigs. Some of this is a nuisance and is a hidden cost if you’re not paying attention. I’ve adjusted our business planning spreadsheet to fully account for the change in motor vehicle use and increase in waste disposal to ensure we know how much this ‘free’ feed actually costs us (financially – we also weigh all financial choices up against the environmental and social benefits of each decision, and salvage feed wins on every count).

The necessity of learning more about pig nutrition and carefully adjusting their rations to ensure they’re getting the best possible diet is some of the real work of farming, something that’s been lost in large-scale industrialised agriculture where the knowledge and competence to source, process, mix and distribute feed has been outsourced to another segment of the ‘industry’.

Stuart and I are both feeling excited and invigorated by our newest milestone and its requisite stepping up our skills and knowledge. It’s got us back on the case of working out an effective and productive mixed perennial and annual fodder cropping system in the paddocks as well.

There are more improvements happening with the cattle I’ll write about soon enough, where I’ll include details on the introduction of the chickens and their eggmobile out on the paddocks providing an incredible ecological service to our soils while nutrient cycling what would otherwise be ‘waste’ from our own boning room. This year we not only quit commercial grain and made it fully onto salvaged feed, we also went from being ‘paddock-to-plate’ to being ‘paddock-to-paddock’!

Bring on 2017!

Postscript: A quick note on waste-stream feed, animal health, and food safety.

Swill feeding (feeding waste feed that includes any meat product or product that has been in contact with meat) is banned in Australia and much of the industrialised world. There are some good reasons for this, as some downgraded food can become contaminated with pathogens that make animals and/or the people who eat them ill. For example, foot and mouth disease, which can be derived from contaminated meat products fed to pigs, has wrought havoc with pig production overseas. A blanket ban on swill feeding is typical of most regulation – incapable of dealing with complexity – and clear guidance and monitoring of use of swill would obviously be preferable for a small-scale farm. Meat meal is actually quite common in most pig feed (they are omnivores after all) – it is heat treated to kill potential pathogens. We have concerns about the origins of said meat (and fish) meal, so always opted out of that option in the pellets.

What I will say about the moral panic around feeding pigs swill, a practice claimed to be thousands of years old, is that it serves to protect the interests of Big Ag (whether intentionally or not) to the detriment of small-scale farmers. Intentionality is to an extent immaterial – the consequences are that a) food is wasted that could have gone to producing more food, b) small-scale farmers are forced to pay higher feed costs rather than use their labour to re-purpose waste, and c) most farms are forced to rely on monocultural grain production.

While we obviously don’t feed any swill to our pigs, we would love to see a day when sensible, safe regulations were put in place to allow swill feeding to reduce waste, increase smallholder profitability, and end reliance on unsustainable grain production for livestock feed.

On jamón, Slow Food, & the aesthetics & ethics of meat

Two years ago we traveled to France and Italy to learn more about how they raise pigs and produce charcuterie and salumi. Disappointed to discover that the pigs are virtually all raised in sheds, we stopped calling our air-dried hams ‘prosciutto’ and changed to ‘jamón’ as we understood at the time that Spanish pigs with the appellation ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ are raised outdoors and finished over autumn and winter on acorns – a beautiful system.

This year we visited Spain to see this beautiful system firsthand. There is a lot of jamón eaten in Spain, and a lot more exported. In 2014, 43.5 million pigs (almost equivalent to the population of Spain, which was 46.7 million in 2014) were slaughtered. (Compare that with 4.85 million pigs produced in Australia for a population of 23.5 million.) So as we drove down through the southwest and up the western half of the country before crossing to Barcelona, we were on the lookout for these millions of pigs. There weren’t many on the paddocks, but the white concrete sheds with their signature malodorous air were ubiquitous.

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As we traveled we were interested in the aesthetics – in the texture, flavour, and colour of jamón across Spain – and we also wanted to know where and under what conditions it was produced. Only then would we ask how the jamóns are cured – what is the salting technique, the drying times, the maturation periods? Although we contacted two farms in hopes of a visit, we received no response from either, perhaps because we arrived before the famous montañera time where (some of) the pigs are actually outdoors?

We found the famous dehesa landscapes where the prized Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are finished on acorns, but most were vacant until the nuts would start to drop at the start of October. In Extremadura and Huelva provinces, some dehesa still sheltered the bulls grazing the last of the dry-standing grass of summer as they awaited their bullfighting fate. The few pigs we saw outdoors were on bare, rocky ground, and according to the FAO only around 10% of Spanish pigs (the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) even get those few months outside under the shade of the picturesque oak forests.

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By the end of our time in Spain I was back to eating mostly vegetarian, and we will no longer be calling our hams jamón.

While the Spanish manage to produce quite a delicious product by finishing the pigs for three to four months on acorns, those pigs spend the first year of their lives in sheds, and the sows live and farrow entirely indoors. (NB I understand that there are a very small number of farms raising pigs on pasture, too few to discuss here where I’m looking at jamón production generally.) And so while the Spanish have succeeded in the aesthetics of their jamón, in my view they have not done so on the ethics.

What’s the big deal about raising pigs in sheds anyway if the final product tastes good?

I spoke recently to a crowd of about 200 people confined in a lovely long hall and asked them whether they’d be happy to spend the next five months there with no opportunity to leave. I didn’t even mention that they’d wee and poo where they sat, and if they were lucky the floor would be slatted for the excrement to drain away from the mass of bodies. Nobody popped their hand up to stay in the building, and yet I’d wager that the majority in the room would regularly eat meat from animals who never left the shed in which they were raised.

Most conventional pig and poultry sheds suffer from air quality that is so poor the animals are vaccinated for pneumonia to keep them alive until slaughter at five to six months of age. I understand that in Australia, the industry has been leading some innovative reform to build sheds that are open ended and have straw rather than concrete on the floor – definite improvements in intensive production systems.

But even if we improve the air quality and deal with the concentration of effluence in responsible ways, is it enough? What kind of lives do pigs who can only mill about in a crowded shed have?

And we need to talk about breeds and the serious risks posed by lack of biodiversity, especially when compounded by intensive confinement. Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, talks about sheds of 15,000 turkeys as ‘food for flu’. They’re a perfect feasting ground for viruses without an ‘immunological firebreak’ due to the homogeneity of the animals. While he was in Australia recently, we discussed the idea of regional planning for diversity and resilience – active, informed, grassroots community planning to ensure we raise different breeds across a region to create that firebreak in case a virulent strain of swine or avian flu escapes the intensive sheds.

There’s a strong movement to eradicate routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in intensive livestock production – administered to everything from pigs and poultry in sheds to cattle in feedlots. The industry itself is discussing the problems of over-use of antibiotics, namely the rise of superbugs like MRSA and the threat that soon we won’t be able to treat the most basic bacterial infections with the most common antibiotics like penicillin. Denmark already banned the routine use of antibiotics and yet it is still the biggest producer of pork in the world, so it’s clearly possible. The Netherlands has similarly banned antibiotics, prompted by the fact that pig farmers there are >760 times more likely to be carriers for MRSA than other Dutch citizens – if they visit the hospital they’re immediately taken to quarantine to protect the rest of the population.

So we have compelling animal welfare, ecological, and public health arguments to radically change how we raise pigs and poultry, and yet while the fair food movement consistently makes many of these arguments about the ills of industrial agriculture, there is a distinctive gap in our ethics of practice. Our time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre this year highlighted this very clearly – as we elbowed our way through the crowds of people enjoying a day of tasting alleged slow food along the kilometres of stalls, we were disappointed to learn that all but one pork producer we could find were growing their pigs intensively indoors.

While Slow Food (like the Spanish jamón producers above) excels at the aesthetics of the food it promotes – promoting ‘slow’, traditional, and delicious, how is it doing at the ethics? What do ‘good, clean, and fair’ really mean? Slow Food International took a stand against foie gras a couple years ago, but it has not done so against intensive animal agriculture, and hosts many prosciutto producers at Salone del Gusto every two years who raise pigs in sheds. I would really like to see them pursue this discussion and take a strong position against intensive livestock production.

As I said on the Slow Meat panel at Terra Madre, just because you cure it slowly doesn’t make it slow… you need to grow it slowly too.

And the same goes for serving factory-farmed meat at fair food movement events – you can’t simply intellectualise this stuff and pontificate on the ills of Big Ag and the oligarchy while munching on their produce. If procuring ethically-raised meat is impossible due to complicated catering contracts and a dearth of small-scale pastured livestock farmers, we can at least serve vegetarian food (with its own attendant issues if sourced from the globalized industrial food system, e.g. tropical fruit in Victoria in the dead of winter… that’s not even an aesthetic success.).

As most people reading this already know, food has material impacts on the land and people that produce it, the animals raised for food, and the people who eat it. If we only take a moralizing analytical stab at the problems of the food system and then serve it up for dinner we are doing a material injustice to all parts of the very system we are trying to transform. Slow Food and all of us in the food sovereignty movement can and should show leadership (as Slow Food has on many topics) and insist on the ethics of meat production being at least of equal importance to the aesthetics.

Spain: the pleasures and ethics of consumption and production

Travel consumes us, just as we consume the material and philosophical artefacts of the destinations of our desire. We bump onto foreign soil and commence imbibing difference with all senses, some more pleasant than others. We eagerly osmose saturated blue skies, reluctantly inhale the sourness of the unwashed on the train, and happily let the sweet and salty depths of jamón melt on our tongue…

Stuart and I have spent our entire shared life consuming culture, learning our way into other lands by eating churros in Madrid, gazing at Rembrandts in Paris and listening to sitars in Varanasi, reading Machiavelli and Balzac in the Tuileries, and ambling through centuries of Gothic flying buttresses and villages and cities planned and unplanned for habitation. 20 years ago we would read all the relevant novels we could lay hands on before traveling to a new country, and I would commence reading recipes and trying them out on family and friends even before our adventures, only to come home and improve on those dishes after having tasted their distinctions in situ.

So engrossed was/am I with understanding the ways in which we consume culture in pursuit of connectedness, and of a cosmopolitan ethic, that I spent eight years working towards a PhD on the topic, the formal study of which I’ve since abandoned, though it remains a lifelong preoccupation.

Since before becoming a farmer, my interest in consumption logically shifted to a more primary concern with production, ipso facto consumption’s supplier. Our recent trip to Spain, the home of jamón ibérico, exemplified this, as we searched for the roots of jamón, not just the taste. I’ll write more about our findings on jamón in a later post, as here I’d like to share my thoughts on our other observations throughout Spain.

We spent a scant 18 hours in Madrid, and in that time noted:

  1. carnicerías are everywhere in the centre with ceilings and walls lined with jamón,
  2. there’s a bottle of Spanish olive oil on nearly every table,
  3. Spanish olives are standard on tapas menus, but the quality is anything but standardised,
  4. the smoky spice of pimentón is as distinctive to Spanish cuisine as jamón.

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Where and under what conditions is all this produce grown?

As we dashed south out of Madrid in the motorhome we dubbed the Slothvan (unfair really as it was quite speedy on the autovía but lumbered around curves in a not-unpleasing sloth-like fashion), we couldn’t help but be struck by the endless monocultures of olives, seemingly Spain’s equivalence to the central valley of California’s almond groves without the obvious ecological disaster of irrigating a thirsty tree in a drought-prone land. There were rarely water pipes in sight, but also absolutely nothing but olive trees for hundreds of kilometres – no grass between the rows, no shrubs – just thousands and perhaps millions of trees dotting the rocky soils.

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I wondered who owns these orchards and just how big are they? What impact of the growth of Spain’s olive oil industry has there been on the land and local communities (let alone the Italian and Greek industries?) Surely the consequences are the same as anywhere agriculture scales up and smallholdings are lost – more chemical inputs in the name of efficiency and yield, subsequent land degradation, and reduced employment for rural communities who once relied on the viability of many small-scale farms… though a quick bit of internet research reveals that while Spain’s olive orchards are on average bigger than their neighbours’, they are still relatively small by Australian or American standards at 5.3ha (compared with just 1.3ha in Italy!). According to what I read though, lack of control of the value chain keeps the farmers from prospering, just as it does worldwide (the FAO has an entire workstream dedicated to connecting smallholders to value chains).

Dotted amongst the olive groves are huge solar and wind farms – in a dry, rocky land, the Spanish are very wisely harvesting the natural resources of which they have plenty – sun and wind. Something I read when we visited the windmills made famous by Cervantes’ madly tilting Don Quixote suggested the locals worked out a long time ago to harness these resources as their only reliablemainstays – if only Australian policymakers were so wise.

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As we rolled into the steep slopes of the southern tip of Andalucía, the olive groves shrank and seemed to welcome the presence of other species – aberrant oaks and life-giving figs poked up amongst the olives with an appealing diversity after so many homogeneous kilometres. Even grass is allowed between rows in many of the smaller farms, surely a welcome cover for hungry soils under the harsh Spanish sun.img_0178

It got me reflecting back on the abundance of Spanish olive oil available throughout the country (and indeed, in Australia and elsewhere) and wondering where the artisanal local oils are to be found? You know, that whole ‘just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good’. For example, the region in which we live in Victoria has an abundance of potatoes, most of them grown in big monocultures and sprayed regularly – not what I’d prefer to feed my family… (fortunately it is easy where we live to access the organic and chemical-free potatoes grown by the many lovely small-scale farmers with which we’re blessed).

And then we visited the lovely mountain region of La Vera in the northerly part of Extremadura and saw firsthand how small-scale growing can be aggregated, scaled, and become ubiquitous and still delicious and fair… through the collective model (which of course the olive growers also utilise). La Vera is the most famous pimentón (Spanish paprika) producing region in Spain (Murcia being the other). Back in 1937 the local growers formed a syndicate, and then in 1938 established a cooperative to reduce competition amongst themselves and to create an entity with a real opportunity for export.

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Drying and smoking sheds for the pimenton

img_0465 A niche artisanal (arguably non-staple) product like pimentón can quickly saturate a solely local market, and given it is sold as a dried powder in a tin, it is readily transportable without refrigeration – the perfect product for the age-old spice trade. And witnessing the relatively small-scale fields growing the crops and the old drying sheds where the pimentón are still taken to be dried and given their irresistible smokiness was heartening – I’m heading home with 3kg for my chorizo making – happy meatsmith!

But of course cooperatives aren’t all fair to everyone just because they’re fair to their members. At the recent launch of the Farm Cooperatives and Collaborations Pilot Program in Australia we heard from a number of very large case studies, including CBH, the huge grain cooperative in WA with an annual revenue of over $3 billion that export more than 90% of the grain produced, largely for livestock feed and fuel. We also heard from TSBE in Queensland, a cooperative with $5 billion in revenue that owns feedlots, intensive pig and poultry sheds, and apparently got its start with CSG revenue (food and agriculture are only 15% of their turnover if I noted that correctly).

We ate quite well in Spain – we had ready access to fresh fruit and veg and a variety of interesting Spanish cheeses (such as the lovely, stinky Torta del Casar and the plentiful queso de oveja – curado is much nicer than semicurado) – and made many of our meals in the Slothvan with beautiful views of the wealth of castles that litter the landscape.

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Foraged figs & grapes from a monastery we camped next to, paired with fried potatoes with smoked piment and white anchovies…

The milk was uniformly awful (we could only find UHT, as is the norm for much of Europe sadly), and aside from rare exceptions the bread was mostly terrible. Truck stop food was inspiring – made fresh and with obvious care – there are carnicerías in the truck stops (!), and vast deli options for local cheeses as well as the meat offerings. Of course the meat is almost entirely factory farmed, but with artisanal touches in the processing… more on all of this later in the jamón post.

Truck stops were the best road trip food!
Truck stops were the best road trip food!

Our time in Spain was too short and research was mostly observational and influenced by combining a learning trip with a family adventure, but driving across its vast, dry landscapes from which water must surely be rung out of stone to produce 50% of the EU’s olive oil was certainly more informative than merely scanning and devouring the menus of its cities as we did in previous lives. While consuming food is a central and critical part of life, focusing purely on taste can too easily get stuck on the aesthetic rather than the ethic, whereas following the chain back to where your food is produced can tell you so much more about the communities who grow it and the quality of what they grow.

Having just been to Slow Food’s Terra Madre and braved the crowds at Salone del Gusto in Torino, I have many more thoughts on the problem of privileging the aesthetic aspects of food over the ethics… as well as on the importance of democracy in the food sovereignty movement to effect real change… but just now the cliffs of Cinque Terre beckon. 😉

The Regulation Diaries (6): Winning the Salami Wars

Just over two years ago, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon before an early flight to France and Italy to research the old traditions of charcuterie and salumi making, inspectors from the Victorian meat industry regulator PrimeSafe rolled up our driveway and destroyed all our personal salamis.

Early this year we received a letter from PrimeSafe with a vaguely threatening instruction not to run our popular Salami Days. At least three others (that we know of) who run similar workshops received nearly the same letter, and I momentarily despaired that the vibrant and delicious skill of salami making was about to come to a sad end in Victoria.

But I never despair long, and I soon requested a meeting with PrimeSafe. And so late one morning after an abattoir run in April Stuart and I parked the aromatic stock trailer out front of the South Melbourne offices and went in to meet with two members of PrimeSafe staff. The good news is that The Inspector we’ve dealt with is apparently absent for now, and the staff we now deal with seem much more earnest at fulfilling their duties, and much less interested in standover tactics. Promising days.

I won’t use space here on the initial agenda items regarding rillettes and cryovac-ing smoked hocks except to say it went reasonably well, and as soon as our supply gets back to normal (a story I’ll write up soon…) we’ll be getting those products approved in spite of last year’s difficulties over them.

Here’s how the discussion of salami workshops went (this is of course a paraphrase as best I remembered it when I documented it after the meeting):

***

Me: So can we talk about our salami days now, please?

Officer A: Yes, Tammi, first I have to ask you, are you prepared to become an RTO [a Registered Training Organisation, e.g. a TAFE or similar]?

Me: No, that’s irrelevant. We aren’t trying to give anyone a qualification or certificate, so we don’t need to be an RTO. I was a Senior Risk Analyst for the regulator for higher education and am well aware of the role and requirements for RTOs and universities, and they don’t apply to what we do. We spend one day teaching how to transform a whole pig carcass into cured muscles and salami, we enjoy a long lunch with wine and a band, and it’s a really lovely day…

Officer B: So would you say it’s more of a festival than a workshop? Because that would be regulated by your council.

Me: Not really a festival, but sure, you can call it what you want if that helps. But we can’t be regulated by our council for matters you have an interest in as the regulator, as there’s a double jeopardy rule as you know. But we don’t believe you have jurisdiction over our salami days as we’re not processing meat for sale and none leaves the property…

Officer B: Okay, maybe it’s more of festival…

Officer A: But Tammi we still have concerns over you teaching people to make salami. What if one of them goes home and does it badly and somebody gets sick?

Me: Are you familiar with YouTube and Michael Ruhlman’s books ‘Charcuterie’ and ‘Salumi’? People learn how to make salami any number of ways, just as they do cheese and other cooking skills… surely you’d prefer your licensees to teach these skills as we are knowledgeable about food safety?

Officer A: Well, we still have concerns…

Me: Officer A, I have concerns over whether you had McDonalds for lunch but I have no legislative authority over whether you choose to eat that. So if you have something in the [Meat Industry] Act of which I’m unaware about the legality of our salami days, please let me know, because if there’s nothing there to stop us teaching people to make salami, I’m frankly not interested in your concerns.

Officer A: [crickets]

Officer A: Well, I guess ultimately it’s a matter for our CEO.

Me: Oh, really? Seems to me it’s a matter for the Instrument [aka the Act]. Here’s my plan – I’m going to run our salami days same as I have for the past three years. If you have new information you need to share with us you know where we are.

***

And here we are five months later, three Jonai Salami Days and many #youcantbuywhatieat potluck protests later, one Melbourne Salami Festa approaching, and on the eve of the King Valley Salami Festa

We’re sharing this story to give hope to others who have been harassed out of running workshops that maintain these beautiful old food traditions. We called the regulator’s bluff and found that there was no ace in the hole, nothing in the legislation to stop us hosting Salami Days.

Just don’t let anyone leave with meat processed outside a licensed facility and you’re well within your rights to teach more people the delicious joys of skilful curing of whole carcasses. And make sure you know what you’re doing – that someone with experience and knowledge of safe food handling has taught you best practice. We’ve been fortunate to learn from Australian farmers and butchers, Italian saluministi, and French charcutiers, and we’re about to add the Spanish masters of jamón making to our mentors…

It’s 3 o’clock the day before we fly to Spain and Italy on another research trip to learn more about the very old arts of jamón and salami making… so we’re just going to leave this here.

…but this time we’re leaving a resident lawyer at the farm while we’re away. 😉

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Food Sovereignty asserts the right of peoples to nourishing and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ecologically sound and ethical ways and their right to collectively determine their own food and agriculture systems.

This year the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is fundraising to establish a Legal Defence Fund to support small-scale farmers and makers in their efforts to grow, process, and distribute food grown in ethically- and ecologically-sound ways, and eaters’ right to access this food.

We’ve currently raised over $22,000 and are looking forward to distributing some of the funds to the farmers most in need when we reach $25,000 (with an ambitious goal of $100,000 by the end of Fair Food Week 23 October!).  

If you want to protect your right to grow and eat nutritious and delicious food as you and your community see fit, join us today!

Big Pharma, Big Food… who really controls the pig industry?

25 years ago I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and became a vegetarian.

5 years ago we commenced farming free-range pigs and cattle at Jonai Farms.

3 years ago I became a butcher.

Last week we went to the Pan Pacific Pork Expo (PPPE).

This is not a story of slippery slides and selling out. Or is it?

This is a look at the lure of productivism, and seduction by technocrats, a story bounded by corporate greed and hegemony. I’m not going to bore you with lots of academic terms, but I will quickly define a couple and then move on to our time at the PPPE last week. Apologies for over simplifying what are complex and intersecting concerns.

Productivism is, simply put, the pursuit of more productivity. It is ‘growthism’ – the notion that more production is necessarily good. Applied to growing pigs, it means that more piglets per litter, bigger pigs in a shorter time, bigger hams, and more kilos yielded from each carcass are all indisputably desirable.

Technocrats are scientists and technical experts who have a lot of power in politics or industry due to a culture of valuing technological solutions. Applied to growing pigs, it means pharmaceutical companies who are quick to provide technical solutions to problems created by the industry’s unsustainable production methods. Air quality’s an issue? We have a vaccine for that.

Corporate greed is generally faceless. Many if not most of the humans inside corporations are individually decent people and mostly harmless, but collectively they wield disproportionate power and have a fiduciary duty to work for the benefit of the corporation aka its shareholders. Shareholders’ dividends are valued above all else, and are often served best by technocrats’ solutions. Corporate greed is not interested in system reform to create a fair world for everyday people and the animals they raise.

Hegemony as I am using it here is understood in terms of the ways that the elite or governing powers coerce consent from the very people they subjugate. Applied to intensive livestock industries, it is through a complex web of economic and cultural controls that big companies convince family farmers that confining their animals is morally just and ‘the only way’ to ‘feed the world’ (and their families). When the shed needs upgrading because half the pigs have pneumonia and your kids need new shoes, you’re hardly likely to embark on a philosophical journey through the ethics of confining animals, you’re going to buy another bottle of Ingelvac MycoFLEX and continue to complain about activists breaking into your sheds.

So what happens when a couple of small-scale free-range pig farmers go to the country’s largest gathering of intensive pork producers? We found ourselves so far outside the echo chamber I couldn’t even hear it anymore, but it transformed my thinking on strategies for reform.

The PPPE is the pork industry’s bi-annual conference that brings together pork producers, veterinarians, drug companies, feed suppliers, and manufacturers of equipment (mostly for intensive pig sheds such as farrowing crates). Very few small-scale growers attend as it’s perceived to be pitched at large, intensive production systems (and I can affirm that this is the reality, but an issue APL have stated they are keen to address).

As members of Australian Pork Ltd (APL), we are entitled to a flight and accommodation for one of us to attend, so this year we decided we would go and learn more about the concerns of the intensive industry to help in our work to get more pigs back out onto paddocks. We knew it would be challenging and frustrating at times, but I was really keen to put a face to the people who run intensive farms by spending a few days amongst them. I’m still processing my complicated emotions about it all, but one thing is very clear to me – farmers are not the problem.

As expected, people are mostly lovely. The producers we met are families with children young and old, more often than not multi-generational pig farmers who’ve been through the intensification of the industry and are now copping the community opprobrium of being considered ‘factory farms’ while trying to make a living in a commodity food system that is increasingly in crisis (just look at dairy).

Most speakers were vets, animal scientists, and sponsors – very few producers actually spoke in the sessions we attended.

The conference opened with a futurist who dazzled the audience with the promise of more shiny technology looming just over the horizon, but it was such snake oil I’ll be brief. He told us what we could do with Big Data on Google Trends, to sign up now for Skymuster (which we did, heh, but he also told us his plans to steal a Skymuster satellite from rural Australia because it will be so much quicker than his broadband in Sydney – great guy). He dangled the promise of ear tags for pigs that will be able to ‘smell disease’ and compute feed conversion ratios in real time. Have a look at Spider goats, and suffice to say that he was a true technophile and Productivism Personified. This set the scene for a more hopeful, technologically-enabled future for the pork industry.

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Throughout the conference, there were a few defensive mentions of the broader community calling what they do ‘factory farming’. In fact, Robert van Barneveld, the CEO for Sunpork Farms (one of the largest pork producers in Australia with approximately 40,000 sows) made the rather telling comment, ‘we’re accused of being factory farms – if only! Life would be a dream!’ He went on to expound on how in factories everything is uniform and so production is seamless and efficient, and that this was apparently a goal for the pork industry to work towards by improving genetics and refining nutrition at all life stages of pigs.

Air quality only got one mention that we heard, when American swine scientist Mark Wilson was discussing recent advances in seasonal infertility and heat stress. He made a sort of parenthetical comment that there was sometimes over 50ppm ammonia in some pig sheds. For the record, anything over 10ppm reduces the respiratory defences and increases the risk of infection (in both pigs and workers in intensive sheds). Zinpro, the company Wilson works for, produces ‘performance minerals’ to ‘improve performance’/counter the ill effects of intensive systems.

The Zinpro website has this to say about lameness:

‘When a sow is lame, it leads to lower feed intake (especially during lactation), decreased reproductive performance and ultimately early exit from the herd.’

Not,

‘When a sow is lame, she’s probably suffering, and this should be avoided at all costs.’

The second statement requires non-hegemonic thinking – that is, one would have to question the system that is causing the lameness, but when one’s income and identity are entirely tied up in those sheds, this question is very difficult to ask, and performance minerals must seem genuinely helpful.

Air quality was flagged by the final speaker we heard (who runs 2000 sows in Victoria), who called for improvements in temperature, hygiene, and air quality, but did not discuss the latter two in his talk at all – they simply appeared in the concluding slide.

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Sponsors introduced each session of the conference – Zoetis, Primegro, Elanco, Biomin, and Boehringer Ingelheim just to name a few of the pharmaceutical sponsors. They have a solution for everything, and at no point did we hear these sponsors or ag scientists entertain the question of why so many pigs have pneumonia, pleurisy, lameness, and post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS) in the first place. (For comparison, none of these ailments are common in small-scale free-range pig farming except occasional lameness in sows from joining injuries.)

The very first session we attended was on biosecurity, a paramount concern to the intensive livestock industry. Biosecurity is important we were told because the advantages of lower infection include: increased animal welfare; increased production; decreased antibiotic use; and increased food safety. Infection in sheds can be catastrophic as disease moves through an immune-compromised herd of closely confined animals – imagine someone hops onto the Frankston line at peak hour with anthrax.

To manage biosecurity, the crowd of producers was told to eradicate wild poultry such as ducks so they don’t infect your herd; manage the inevitable rat infestations; and require visitors to shower and change into orange prison suits before entering the property so you can identify the risky stranger on your property. A question from the floor was ‘so how are the free-range farms managing their biosecurity?’ to general consternation at the risk farms like ours must be presenting to theirs.

When a room full of people unquestioningly accepts advice to force visitors to wear orange prison suits onto the farm you know we have a long way to go to get back to the reasonable person test. No wonder Joel Salatin wrote a book called ‘Folks, this ain’t normal’.

The planning requirements around intensive piggeries for buffer zones to protect the amenity of other humans, animals, waterways and soils should force a major re-evaluation of the systems we need buffering from, not constant revisions to just how far sheds need to be from us. If it’s not fit to be near to, it’s probably not fit to exist.

Technocrats cannot solve the problem of air quality in confinement systems. Vaccinations for pneumonia, pleurisy, and porcine circovirus (PCV2) are bandaids on an increasingly antimicrobial resistant wound. Vaccinations aren’t the solution, they’re just another problem. Same goes for more or better fans and air conditioning.

The solution for air quality is to have less pigs per farm and to keep them outdoors.

The solution for the risk of infection is to have less pigs per farm and to keep them outdoors.

I will mention one more speaker, an industry shill who did the conference no favours with her hyperbolic rant and defensive defence of intensive livestock systems. Jude Capper is a self-described ‘livestock sustainability consultant’ whose bio says she is ‘Defending beef daily! Passionate about livestock production, dedicated to giving producers the tools and messages to explain why we do what we do, every single day.’ She managed to misquote Michael Pollan while telling the audience they need to control their message so that ‘self-appointed food experts’ like him don’t, and encouraged the industry to recruit ‘mommy bloggers’ to their cause as people can relate to mothers.

Bovidiva, as Capper calls herself on her blog and social media, has posts in defence of routine antibiotic use, and even one objecting to concerns about industry-funded scientists like herself. The shame of her inclusion in the program is that we did hear discussions of the need to reduce antibiotic use and signs that industry is ready to start talking about some of the hard topics, and Capper’s performance belied the fact that the industry has made headway on a number of things such as the voluntary phase out of gestation stalls (though not farrowing stalls as yet).

People who set themselves up to ‘defend the industry’ are not helpful to society’s project of constant improvement – and it’s particularly shameful when these are allegedly academics who should be trained in the cool eye of objectivity and vigilance against bias. This conference would benefit from open discussions of the problems of air quality and its impact on animals and workers, management of effluent, overuse of antibiotics, and financial pressures inherent in the commodity food system amongst other concerns facing the industry. So long as the conference is funded by the pharmaceutical industry and others who profit from pig producers, this seems unlikely to happen, to the detriment of the farmers and communities they feed.

In March, the CEO of APL Andrew Spencer made a strong call for the freedom true transparency could offer the industry in his regular piece in the Australian Pork Newspaper. Spencer writes,

 ‘We at APL do have some initiatives under way to better show what happens on a pig farm, but disappointingly getting our producers to cooperate in using their facilities to host media or community groups has been very unsuccessful. This is a significant risk to our industry. […] Being profitable isn’t the same as being sustainable if the community doesn’t believe in what you’re doing. One of the communication principles I’ve previously written about states “we are not afraid of others seeing what we do.” Today, I don’t believe this is true.’

It is encouraging to see an industry leader calling for transparency, and pointing out that if you’re not willing to let people see what you do, then there might be something wrong…

The task before those of us working towards an ethical and ecologically-sound agricultural future is enormous, and we must work with farmers in intensive systems if there is any hope for reform. We have to listen to their financial and social constraints, and offer alternative financially-viable models.

In working with intensive livestock producers, we have to understand who holds the real power – the corporations who supply them with medications that make those systems function, and the processors and retailers like Coles and Woolies who set prices and leave farmers vulnerable to fluctuations on the global market.

Until farmers of all produce are able to control the price they charge for their food based on what it costs them to grow it, we cannot have a fair food system. The dairy crisis has sharply reminded us of how broken the system really is – let’s all work together before it’s too late for everyone.

Community-supported agriculture at Jonai Farms

[This was originally posted over on our farm blog – The Farmer & the Butcher]

My interest in community-supported agriculture started in early 2000 as an eater in search of local, organic vegetables for my dear little family of three, soon to be pregnant with the fourth of ultimately five Jonai. We were living in Santa Cruz, California, pursuing the granola, earth-mama lifestyle so prevalent in that part of the world in spite of the exorbitant cost of living. Living on just $35,000 per annum with a rent of $1600 per month, we didn’t have cash to spare.

I was a vegetarian at the time, which helped keep food costs down, but I was also determined to feed the little people I had grown inside my own body organic produce only. And so after many months of joyful shopping at Santa Cruz’s excellent twice-weekly farmer’s markets, we stumbled across the CSA farm run by the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Even now, the UCSC CSA vegie box is a mere $25/week, payable as $560 in advance of the 22-week season. It was a struggle to find the money up front, but UCSC offers low-income households a few options to improve access, and we were able to pay in two instalments instead of one.

The bounty was incredible – a box of seasonal fruit and veg plucked from the farm each morning before collection time. Interacting with the student farmers and hearing about the harvest – successes & failures – was a highlight of the week, often helping us understand better what was and wasn’t working in our own little garden a mile away from campus.

A decade later we found ourselves setting up our own farm in the central highlands of Victoria, Australia. From the beginning we were keen to run the farm as a CSA, but until we tested our supply of ethically-raised rare-breed pork and beef, we didn’t feel confident asking people to commit. It seemed wrong to ask the community to share our risk when we weren’t even sure what the risks were, and had no production data to know what our average litter sizes or carcass yields would be.

The first year of meat sales (second year on the farm) affirmed our caution in waiting to start the CSA. We had a lot to learn about farming and butchering, and were pleased with the way demand for our produce grew rather organically as supply grew, without placing undue pressure on us to produce more.

Halfway through that first year of selling meat, we crowdfunded a $30,000 boning room and I trained as a butcher while Stuart built it, and we see the crowdfunding as our first foray into community-supported agriculture, because that’s just what it was. People pledged an up-front payment for a reward of fresh pork we delivered once we had a licensed boning room. And that’s how it works – people take a risk with you and you deliver, and so we did.

The same month we got our licence for the boning room was also the month we launched our CSA. It was also just a few months before we reached peak production – an average of eight pigs and a side of beef per fortnight. We’d watched our land carefully over the previous two years as we went from our original single boar and five breeding sows until we reached two boars and 12 sows on our 69 acres in addition to an average of 18 cattle.

We have sufficient demand to grow more animals for meat, but our land would suffer, so we reached the limit set by our soil and climate. We’d set out to be an ethically-viable no-growth model, and two years in, we found the limit of our start-up growth. It also just happens to be a very full and fulfilling schedule, and the workload, while sometimes quite intense, is sustainable for a small family farm.

So with those three variables – taking over our supply chain with the boning room, reaching peak production, and launching the CSA – in January 2014 we went from running a small loss to making our first profit, and we’ve been profitable since.

The first month, we had eight subscribers, which gave us an assured income of just over $12,000 for the year. Six months into the CSA, we had 25 members, and by the start of the second year our community had grown to 40, with about two-thirds based in Melbourne and one-third spread around our region. As we enter the third year, we have 74 members and a waiting list for Melbourne, with room for about 15 more members in the region.

In exchange for 6 or 12 months payment up front, or a monthly payment, subscribers get 3, 5, 6 or 10kg bags of pork only or mixed pork and beef cuts, including our range of smallgoods. The bags now may also contain pet treats, bone broths, air-dried muscles such as coppa, lonza and pancetta, and charcuterie such as our popular pâté de tête made from the heads.

The CSA currently guarantees us an income of just under $100,000 out of a total revenue of approximately $170,000 projected for 2015-16. The remainder is about $50,000 in ad hoc sales in the region and through farm gate, and approximately $20,000 from our monthly workshops. Our profit margin is around 30%, giving us an income of just over $50,000 after all farm expenses are covered.

Our cost of living here is so low as we grow and barter for the majority of our food and live a low-consumption lifestyle that we find this income meets all our needs, and will actually increase slightly as we improve certain processes and eventually stop building new structures!

Aside from a secure income, there are too many benefits to the farmers and the eaters in community-supported agriculture to possibly quantify, but I’ll mention a few. For us, getting to know our members, their preferences, and their appreciation for our efforts and the uncommonly delicious results is invaluable. The emails, texts, and photos on social media sharing how people have cooked our meat, or how their children will no longer eat any sausages but ours are salve to knuckle-weary farmers at the end of a day of what must otherwise be thankless toil for those working in a disconnected, windowless industrial boning room or cavernous sheds full of shrieking, stinking, miserable pigs.

Since joining your csa our monthly spend on meat has reduced by heaps. Also the meat you provide is so nourishing that we often have some left over by the time the new bag arrives (usually bacon so i freeze it). We get the small pack and it is enough for three full size women who eat well! (One is 12 but she is the middle size person). AND of course the taste is sensational. All three of us were unable to stomach pork prior to trying yours! You are awesome!  Thank you. (CSA member Tani Jakins, 2015)

Even the critical feedback – not enough meat on the ribs, too much fat on the bacon, uncertainty about the grey colour of our nitrite-free bacon – is so much easier to hear from people with whom we have an ongoing and genuine relationship. This feedback has helped me improve my butchering skills as members have guided me with their desires, just as it has taught many of them that fat is delicious and nitrites are the only reason most bacon is lurid pink.

Logistically, running a CSA with bags of mixed cuts enables me to ensure every carcass is fully utilised, and makes packing day a much simpler exercise than when I was cutting and filling bags to custom requirements. And the standard CSA set box model teaches eaters to be better, more resourceful cooks attached to seasons and the reality of just 28 ribs and two tenderloins per pig. It also means automated repeating invoices, instead of endless documentation of weights after packing followed by 100 tailored invoices into the night before delivering 400kg of meat.

Having attended the Urgenci: International Network for Community-Supported Agriculture conference in China in November, we’ve come back full of ideas from our CSA farming comrades around the globe, including plans to share our budget with members (starting with sharing the financial data here right now!), and preparation to host a members-only Open Day on the farm, with butchery & cooking demos, music, and of course a long lunch of Jonai Farms pork and beef surrounded with organic bounty from other growers in our beautiful region.

At Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths, we say we don’t need to scale, we need to multiply. In our region and across Australia we see this happening rapidly, and we’re delighted to be amongst at least half a dozen small-scale free-range pig farms within 100km of us. There’s room for many more if our waiting list is anything to go by, and imagine a land re-populated with families caring for the land, sending our kids to the local schools, and re-creating vibrant rural communities. You won’t get that with scale – quite the opposite in fact.

Community-supported agriculture comes from an ethics of connectedness, care, and solidarity. It ensures accountability at both the farmer and the eater end of the equation, provides a viable living for farmers, and helps everyone learn more about the hows and whys of food production. As we enter our third year of running our farm as a CSA, we’d like to thank our members – those who’ve been with us since the beginning and those recently arrived – we couldn’t do this without you.

If you’re interested in reading further about CSAs around the world, have a look at the Urgenci website, and especially the Principles of Teikei, developed in Japan, the birthplace of CSAs in the 1970s.

Viva la revolución!

 

Principles of Teikei

Principle of mutual assistance

Principle of accepting the produce

Principle of mutual concession in the price decision

Principle of deepening friendly relationships

Principle of self-distribution

Principle of democratic management

Principle of learning among each group

Principle of maintaining the appropriate group scale

Principle of steady development

The Regulation Diaries (5): ‘Folks, This Ain’t Normal’ – the fight for free-range farming

I met a beautiful farmer yesterday whose story I’ve been following with dismay for the last couple months. We walked around her paddocks admiring groups of healthy, happy pigs as she described her system for breeding, weaning, and feeding.

Jo’s farm smells of nothing but fresh air, sounds of birdsong and the occasional curious grunt from a well-fed pig with nothing to fear, and is in a rolling green valley well covered in lush spring grass.

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In 2014, Jo Stritch of Happy Valley Free Range won Livestock Farmer of the Year.

In 2015, Jo was ordered by her local council to cease farming.

How could this happen? Because the Victorian planning scheme deems her operation ‘intensive’ due to more than 50% of the pigs’ nutritional needs being met by feed Jo imports onto the farm, and the Yarra Ranges has a ban on intensive production.

A ban on intensive agriculture is surely a welcome reflection of community sentiments that are turning against intensive animal agriculture. But when a small pastured pig farm is defined as intensive, something is wrong.

Let me unpack the issues.

‘Intensive animal husbandry’ is defined in the Victorian planning scheme as ‘Land used to keep or breed farm animals, including birds, by importing most food from outside the enclosures.

Clearly this applies to nearly all pig and poultry operations, no matter whether the animals are confined in sheds or out on the pastures. No matter whether the pastured pigs are on bare dirt or well-covered paddocks. It therefore also applies to many equestrian and dairy farms that import a lot of their animals’ feed. Oh, and cattle farms, even just those who feed hay to their cattle in the leanest months of winter and the dry end of summer.

And to what purpose do we want to define these operations as ‘intensive’? In common parlance, most people consider animals that are confined and quite restricted in the extent to which they can move to be raised ‘intensively’. Pigs like Jo grows are not what the public thinks of as ‘intensive’.

What does bringing in feed do in reality? It builds fertility. What happens if you bring in feed for more animals than the land can sustain? It sours. If you concentrate stock numbers, such as in intensive animal agriculture, you can overly nutrify and indeed toxify the soils.

The ‘outdoor bred: raised indoors on straw’ production system for pigs have a practice of moving the ‘eco-sheds’ every two years and then not returning to that same spot for another two years to deal with the issues of souring.

A system like Jo’s, where the pigs are rotated regularly and stocking densities are vastly lower, shouldn’t actually encounter this souring of the soil. The regenerative farming movement is constantly grappling not with letting soured soil recover, but rather how to continually regenerate and build fertility in the soil.

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One thing the neighbours who testified against Happy Valley commented on was ‘the condition of the paddocks’, which had improved since Jo decreased her stock numbers in November 2014. Free-range pig farmers talk a lot amongst ourselves about soil health and good coverage. And yet in the potato-growing region I’m in the paddocks are bare for months at a time, sprayed heavily with herbicide and fungicide so that nothing grows while they lay fallow.

Jo admits that in the first couple years of farming pigs her paddocks had less coverage than they do now. She says, ‘I did have stocking issues last winter with the grower pigs and I did lease extra land to solve that problem. I keep banging my head against the wall in wondering why they don’t see our business just like any other business, that has to bend and manoeuvre and restructure to suit its operating and functioning challenges!’

The so-called expert who gave evidence in the VCAT case against Happy Valley is an expert in intensive agriculture. ‘APL submitted that based on science it is not feasible for pigs to obtain most of their dietary requirements from pasture/forages alone.’ Right. Except for in nature.

Pigs also don’t build houses anywhere except in fairy tales but the intensive industry would have you believe that it is difficult for pigs to survive outdoors.

We’re not on a level playing field. While the government endorses high chemical inputs, barren vegetable-growing paddocks, thousands of animals confined in the stench of industrial sheds, and an increasing focus on exporting Australia’s bounty, Jo Stritch and other small-scale farmers are facing a fight to raise happy animals out on the paddocks to feed our communities. As one of our farming heroes Joel Salatin says, ‘folks, this ain’t normal.’