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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
carnicerías are everywhere in the centre with ceilings and walls lined with jamón,
there’s a bottle of Spanish olive oil on nearly every table,
Spanish olives are standard on tapas menus, but the quality is anything but standardised,
the smoky spice of pimentón is as distinctive to Spanish cuisine as jamón.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
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.
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.’
‘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.
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.
‘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.
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
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.
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.
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.’
I’ve been home five days from my three-week Epic Fair Food Tour of America and my mind has only just stopped spinning long enough to let the pieces fall into place. The trip spanned coast-to-coast – eight states in three weeks – and included daily conversations with some of America’s leading thinkers and daily creators of alternative food systems.
So after spending time with that line up, surely I’ve got all the answers now, right? No, but I do have a clearer picture of where the food sovereignty movement is up to in the States, some ideas about how best to focus our efforts together, and what seem to me some of the weaknesses and gaps in the current movement.
What remains clear is that we must support the farmers who are building an alternative food system.
And we must also support the connectors who help them get their produce to market in a way that doesn’t simply build a new system that looks exactly like the old one. But I’ll return to that dilemma in a moment.
As for the farmers building the new system like those listed above and across Australia and the rest of the world – we need these fair food farms to be ready as the old system crumbles.
And so as the Polyfaces, White Oaks, Gunthorps, Jonai, Buena Vistas, and Old Mill farms of the world toil to grow food deeply embedded in our local communities and imbued with their values of respect for people and animals and care for the land, we must support them/us, just as we must find ways to help others get onto the land to grow more food in small-scale agroecological systems.
As we say at Jonai Farms, we don’t need to scale, we need to multiply.
One of the most obvious issues the movement must grapple with is the question of scale. What’s the right size to be viable, and when is big too big? There are no easy answers to these questions, but viability must always be considered holistically – as well as being financially viable, are we maintaining viable soils, viable animals grown in healthy systems resilient to disease without constant application of antibiotics?
On size and sovereignty, I would argue that it’s a question of connectedness. Scale typically decreases the connectedness of the producer to the eater. Polyface challenged my thinking on scale as I saw that Joel has fostered the growth of new farmers in his area by taking them on as sub-contractors while mentoring them on their journey. Ultimately most move onto their own independent farms, which can be a tricky model for the Salatins as they must regularly train up new farmers to maintain their production, but Joel is committed to it. He says he never intended to grow to the size they are now, ‘it just happened’, but he’s unapologetic about it, and I could see why. What I witnessed was a healthy example of a bigger scale, employing dozens of people in a thriving regenerative system.
But if the Salatins, like the Tysons before them, opted to continue to scale and to buy up every feed operation, every hatchery, and every slaughterhouse their profits enabled them to, we’d be back to what we’re trying to end. None of today’s fair food farmers would seek to reproduce the horrendous production model of intensive poultry that Tyson introduced back in the 1930s. But vertical integration is increasingly common in this movement – Polyface, Gunthorp, and we Jonai are all working to control more of the supply chain to ensure our own viability as well as control and connectedness.
And we must be vigilant against our own cultural impulse to grow grow grow simply because we can, and because there’s demand for our product. We must know when to stop and hand over surplus demand to our comrades on the farms multiplying all around us. If we command (and pay our workers) a fair price to start with, we need not continue to grow. We can grow less for more rather than more for less, which will grow more farmers.
So that’s production sorted.
What about the connectors? How do we ensure they do their important work to process and package primary produce and get it to market in the many instances where it still won’t be suitable or possible for the farmers to do that work themselves without re-creating the old system where the middleman takes all (or too much anyway)? And in a way where they are paid fairly as well – think of abattoir workers, food manufacturing workers, and all the other workers in the food chain. (And then think of the companies who own abattoirs, and companies like Kraft or Coles or Woolworths and what their shareholders and executives earn…)
What’s the right organizational structure for these connectors? Surely the many independent butchers I spent time with overseas and that many Australians frequent here are a good example of a fair business model, as are the small, independent grocers (who are pretty rare these days as the supermarkets drive them out), though many struggle to remain viable in a world where food’s cheapness is valued well above its fairness. And those sorts of businesses that have direct relationships with their producers are clearly going to be better for the eaters as they serve as a kind of conduit between the two, rather than a brick wall like the current system (I’m looking at you, ColesWorths).
Shareholders, sales targets, and growth models should probably be eschewed in favour of cooperatives, not-for-profits, and mindfully remaining small and local. And connectedness, one would hope, will help the average eater understand better why they must value food more highly and pay its real cost.
The last pillars of food system reform I’d like to briefly address are regulation, policy, and the role of lobbying and advocacy.
Current regulatory frameworks were developed over time to protect the public from things it cannot see, as well as from visible unscrupulous or negligent practices. They regulate long, industrial supply chains in a world where a frozen pizza product can contain 35 different ingredients that have passed through 60 countries and carry the label ‘country of origin Ireland’, and a packet of mince can contain meat from 17 animals from an unknown number of farms. (See Swallow This for a detailed exploration of the global processed food industry.)
Regulation is therefore in many cases inappropriate to the scale and connectedness of small production systems, and we must seek to redress this if we are to support the growth of small farms with greater control of their supply chains. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund in America is one body doing that, initially through a focus on litigation, but increasingly on support for compliance and lobbying for legal reform. AFSA is working with the Regrarians and others to establish something similar here to support farmers working to build regenerative and fair local food economies.
The Sustainable Economies Law Centre in Oakland, California is another example of an organization committed to supporting producers, consumers and everyone in between in developing sustainable models through independent advice as well as their regular ‘Resilient Communities Legal Café’, freely available to all. As they help their clients develop new templates for innovative models of people trying to build more resilient local economies, they make them available to others to grow this movement. I love these people.
On policy, Michael Pollan collaborated with Ricardo Salvador, Olivier de Schutter, and Mark Bittman recently on a column calling for a National Food Policy in the US. I shared AFSA’s People’s Food Plan that was the genesis of our Alliance with Michael to show what can be done when the people take the lead.
Of course North America has a flourishing movement of Food Policy Councils, but these are predominantly local movements. My passionate and knowledgeable comrade Nick Rose, Secretary and National Coordinator for AFSA, is currently establishing a new body in Australia called Sustain: The Australian Food Network, which aims to do similar work to support and connect local government authorities and other food systems stakeholders across the country. He will provide more detail on Sustain’s aims and progress as it develops, with the strong support of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance.
I can’t write a post about major food systems reform without addressing access to not just fair food, but all food. It’s an essential question for our society to address – how do we ensure the most basic human right of access to (safe, nutritious) food is secured for everyone, everywhere? And when people like me say we need to pay more for food to be fair to producers and chain workers and animals, what about those who can’t even afford the food when it’s not fair to the rest?
The short answer to that is that the food movement alone cannot possibly solve structural and systemic poverty, whether here or in the US or elsewhere. We can apply loads of bandaids – I’m grateful for the work of excellent bodies like Foodbank, Secondbite, Spade & Barrow, and local food rescues everywhere. And little farms like ours can offer discounts to provide better access to our community periodically. But that won’t solve poverty – egalitarian, living wages and strong social support systems will.
In the US this problem is so entrenched it’s hard to fully grasp in Australia. I know of waiters in the US earning $2.50/hour because their tips are expected to bring them up to the minimum wage (which may be as low as $7.50/hour). And in America this is legal. The cities of Los Angeles and Seattle have recently introduced $15/hour minimum wages – a major breakthrough in that country. As Jose Oliva of the Food Chain Workers Alliance told us at the Slow Meat symposium in Denver, the food chain sector is both the largest and the lowest paid sector of the US economy. That is a national disgrace.
And yet we must also acknowledge that systemic poverty is simply much bigger than the food movement. We can be part of the solution, but we cannot solve poverty here or in the US on our own, and we cannot ask farmers to bear the brunt of the cost equation to solve this serious social problem.
An important thing I learned during my time in America is that although the movement there gained momentum earlier than it did here, we are not behind. Our smallness is a strength, and provides a capacity for more rapid meaningful change that the monolith of America can only dream of. And the movement there seems to have already progressed to levels of cooption and greenwashing that we are just beginning to get glimmers of, and once again, our smallness will serve us well in combating those who would deceive the ever-awakening public who want a fair food system.
Three weeks of bearing witness to America’s movement gave me hope, and strengthened AFSA’s links to those really making a difference for food sovereignty, the growers, connectors, eaters, teachers, and amplifiers. Together with our comrades in the US and across the globe I believe we can stand and demand our right to collectively determine our own food and agriculture systems, because you only have to look around you to see that we are legion.
While at Slow Meat in Denver I picked up a copy of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. This critical book details the history and current oligarchical state of the meat industry in America in no uncertain terms – an industry built entirely on unfairness to animals, land, and people. I’m planning to write more about the book and what I saw in America’s heartland in a later post, but I’d like to here foreground my account of Slow Meat with some key issues raised by author Christopher Leonard.
Leonard has this to say about Tyson Foods, one of the biggest multinational food corporations in the world:
…the company has swallowed up all the businesses that used to make up a small-town economy. It owns the feed mill, the slaughterhouse, and the hatchery. It owns the trucking line and the food-processing plant where raw meat is packaged and cooked into ready-to-eat meals. While Tyson doesn’t directly own most of the farms that supply it with animals, it controls them through the use of restrictive contracts. It’s as if the broad-based network of small businesses that were once the backbone of rural America had been sucked into a single, towering silo called Tyson Foods. The company owns everything that happens inside it. There is no competition among the various entities, no free market to determine the price at which baby chicks are sold to farmers or at what price grown chickens are sold back to a slaughterhouse. It all happens within the walls of Tyson’s corporate structure. (p.5)
There are just four meatpacking companies that control 85% of the meat industry in the US. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 and exposed the seedy, dangerous underworld of meatpacking, the uproar led to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the precursor to the current Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Workers’ unions were formed, farmers flocked to foreclosure auctions with guns and ‘ensured that the original owner of the farm could buy it back for a bid of one dollar’ (p.57). The dollar auctions became a part of American history.
And yet now this wonderful country that once stood up against tyranny and fought for the rights of the oppressed is one of the most brainwashed and worst fed in the industrialised world. These are hard truths, evident in every Walmart aisle and on every fast food menu across the nation.
With this background, and as a long time advocate for fair food, and fair meat especially, you can imagine my excitement when I learned of the second Slow Meat symposium to be held in Denver, hosted by Slow Food USA. Described as a gathering of global thought leaders on the need for radical food systems change, focused particularly around meat, Slow Meat sounded like something I simply could not miss.
It was pitched as a competitive application process – I don’t know whether it was in truth competitive selection, but the 217 delegates were most definitely changemakers in their respective communities and many on the broader stage. The diversity and depth of the people I met over the three days I spent with them was stimulating, inspiring, and challenging. These are people who understand the food system, are well aware of its worst failings, and are working hard to both fix the old system and in many cases, to build new, alternative food economies.
And then the conference started.
A strong opening from the admirable Edie Mukiibi, Vice-president of Slow Food International and one of the leaders of 10,000 Gardens in Africa put me on the edge of my seat. Edie is a vocal and passionate advocate for ‘good, clean, fair food,’ asserting that ‘Africans can feed Africa, not a single multinational company.’ He offered insights into the negative impacts of aid on African communities, and spoke at some length on the flooding of African agriculture with exotic species, such as the Friesian cattle brought in for high milk production. Edie told us that every animal given to a family comes with a payout and a long list of chemicals because they can’t cope with the environment. The list of chemical suppliers follows. The new breeds are burdened with inhumane practices as well. For example, in Uganda a male calf was once celebrated, and raised to a bull or beef steer. Now Friesian bull calves are killed on birth because Friesians are milk machines. Edie finished by reminding us that Slow Meat is a fight for fairness and responsibility, and a fight against industrial agriculture, which he calls ‘careless production’.
With that global perspective at the commencement, things were looking great. Edie offered us global insights, authentic experience, and challenging ideas.
While I have a strong regard for most of the speakers on the panels that ran over the rest of the day, I feel like they were given the wrong brief. They were preaching to the converted (not to mention knowledgeable), and the promised collective brainstorming and challenging of each other’s assumptions was largely absent from the sessions.
The opening panel had a number of members on it who confessed they don’t agree with Slow Meat’s mantra, ‘eat better meat, less,’ and the floor was given no opportunity to respond. In fact, at no stage was the floor opened up for comment after the received wisdom from those on the stage (though one session took questions via Twitter). Even most of the breakout sessions posited as the smaller for a for discussion and debate ran essentially as lectures.
The first panel, Beef, included Nicolette Hahn-Niman (author of Defending Beef & Righteous Pork Chop), Will Harris (White Oak Pastures), Caroline McCann (Braeside Meat Market, South Africa), Gary Nabhan (author of Stitching the West Back Together). On the question of ‘eat better meat, less’ – the panelists expressed concern that this message might hurt the small farmer who needs people to buy their produce. Others were concerned that it lumps pastured livestock farmers with the intensives, suggesting that eating less meat across the board is what’s needed, when really people just need to stop eating factory-farmed meat. None that I heard defended the position to eat better, less.
Well, I’m a small farmer and we say clearly on our website that we want people to eat less meat – just because you found meat that’s raised properly doesn’t mean you should eat it with abandon. We cannot export America & Australia’s (or indeed the global north’s) meat consumption without utterly destroying the planet and ruining our children’s hope for a future. Meat raised responsibly is a delicious and nutritious part of any diet, but too much will still over tax the planet’s metabolism.
I will share the highlights of the event:
The farm to table tour of Black Cat Farm near Boulder, Colorado, a vibrant, vertically integrated mixed livestock and vegetable farm practicing what they preach. Eric and Jill Skokan have developed a thriving agroecological system that supplies their two restaurants and multiple farmers’ markets in their region. As Eric took us through the polenta he’d ground from their corn crop for the corn bread using his grandmother’s recipe, served alongside a lovely roast pork leg from one of his rare breed Mulefoot pigs and an array of other dishes grown and cooked within 20 metres of the table, his passion and satisfaction were visceral. This is Slow Meat.
On the Beef panel, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures shared with us that in his system, beef adds 30% to costs over industrial beef, whereas poultry adds 300%. He pointed out that the smaller animals too easily lend themselves to more industrialised systems. He left us with a little bon mot over the biggest meat company in the world, Brazilian JBS’ recent acquisition of a grassfed company– ‘I hope they don’t fuck that up’, said Will. Right.
Another highlight was the presence of Craig Watts, Perdue whistleblower, on the Chicken panel. Craig shared his experience as a contract grower for the huge intensive chicken company with a frank fearlessness to be much admired. He told us how the company lures people in to grow for them, telling them, ‘you’re going to be out of debt in 10 years and you’ll always have a market.’ And then he asked, ‘is the food coming out of these huge operations: sub-standard, making people sick, and causing superbugs?’
Craig told us that in rural communities Perdue (and others like them) have a monopoly – Craig can only sell to them, & Craig gets all his inputs from them. Remember that description of Tyson with which I opened? Craig finished by reminding us that just days before we gathered North Carolina (where he lives) passed an ag-gag law, making his important whistleblowing activity potentially illegal.
Craig’s honesty and earnest engagement with the delegation was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. And again delivered the authentic voice we were gathered to hear and address, I thought.
The final major highlight was easily Temple Grandin, who spoke at the Slow Meat Fair the day after the symposium. Temple held the floor rapt with her long, deep knowledge of the meat industry and focused efforts to improve animal welfare pre and during slaughter. She stated without hesitation that ‘you cannot overwork and understaff’ and expect good outcomes. She said she now sees more problems coming into slaughter such as leg confirmation and lice than she used to as systems have intensified, and single traits have been overselected with their attendant undesirable traits (eg a large loin on a pig may be linked to higher aggression). On overly burdensome regulation, she asserted ‘don’t dictate stun box floor area, measure outcomes’. Amen.
With the day structured by three species – Cow, Chicken, Pig – I thought we would methodically canvass the major issues facing the production, processing and consumption of each. On beef, I wanted to debate the role of supplementary feed, be it hay, sileage or grain, and what is a truly regenerative practice. On chickens, I wanted to hear others’ thoughts on what a truly regenerative pastured chicken operation looks like – including a debate about breeds – and grapple with the question of how much chicken is possible if it’s only grown in truly regenerative systems? On pigs, I wanted to talk about soil – it’s great that we all have our pigs out on the paddocks now, but are we moonscaping it? Does it matter if we are?
And while we ate plenty of food cooked by great chefs with care, I must have a word on the catering. Seafood in Denver is not Slow Meat. It might be tasty, it might be excusable as a ‘sometimes food’, it might be that most of you really don’t care, but it is not Slow Meat. And frankly, nor is pork from New York… in Denver.
Will I go back to Slow Meat in 2017? Probably. Do I hope they get the programming right and deliver on the promise to bring us together to work collectively for radical food system change next time? Definitely. Do I feel enriched by the people who did attend, and am I grateful to Slow Meat for bringing us together? Absolutely.
I often shock people when I say ‘don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin‘. My rationale is that if all chooks were raised properly on the paddocks, we actually wouldn’t eat very many of them – our grandparents typically ate chicken once a year – and most chooks are not raised this way in Australia. And even those that are are typically breeds of chicken that struggle to walk with their over-sized breasts, and are more susceptible to heart attacks. I don’t personally believe that respects the ‘chickenness of the chicken’, hence the only chicken we eat are surplus roosters and spent hens from our own small house flock.
So imagine my delight by the introduction in Australia of the Sommerlad breed of chicken, a heritage hybrid that is vigorous and healthy and able to display all its natural behaviours out on the paddocks. We have the inspiring couple Bruce and Roz Burton of Milking Yard Farm growing them outside Trentham near us, and my friend and Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) vice-president Jeff Pow and his wife Michelle McManus of Southampton Homestead in WA also include Sommerlads in their system.
And then equally delightfully, the wonderful Laura Dalrymple of ethical meatsmiths Feather & Bone up in Sydney wrote in detail about the meat chicken industry in Australia, and has graciously allowed me to re-post her excellent description here for your edification.
So read on – hopefully this will help you in your own journey to eat better meat, less.
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THE TRIBULATIONS OF SUSTAINABLE FARMING: SOMMERLAD HERITAGE CHOOKS ARE BACK! Last time we wrote to you we featured Buena Vista Farm in a sad tale about the trials of sustainable farming. Mr not-at-all-fantastic Fox got in and slaughtered 100 chooks and caused great distress all round. Today, you’ll be pleased to hear, we’re doing the tribulation story.
We’ve carried on in an embarrassingly demonstrative way about these chooks before so we’ll try to keep it a bit more cool and collected this time round. Essentially, the Sommerlad Heritage chook represents a revolution in the meat chicken industry in Australia. Here’s a brief explanation of why we’re so excited.
This is how most meat chickens in Australia are raised.
Pictures of broiler chooks from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site
All meat chickens available in Australia are white feathered ‘broiler’ chooks from two main strains, Ross and Cobb. Over the last 60 years, these birds have been selected and bred for specific traits – disproportionately large breasts and the capacity to grow inside sheds at exponential rates so they’re ‘market ready’ by five weeks.
Buena Vista Farm, December 2014: chick transport boxes, newly-arrived chicks.
2. Day-old chicks
The business of raising and distributing commercially viable volumes of day-old chicks for farmers across the country to grow out to market size is dominated by a small number of big, well-resourced poultry businesses. Breeding chickens are kept in large sheds with a standard ration of one male to every ten hens, their eggs are collected and incubated and then the day-old chicks are shipped out to farms to be grown out to market rates.
Picture of a free range farm from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site
3. Free range
While these chicks are mostly raised in sheds, 20% of Australian farmers practice free range and pastured farming. This number is growing as consumer demand increases and this is a good thing because it means that birds have access to open land outside the shed during daylight hours. However, it’s important to understand the difference between ‘Free Range’ and ‘Pasture Raised’.
The majority of commercially available free range chicken brands in Australia, such as Lilydale, Willowton, Mt Barker, Macro and Bannockburn are certified by
the Free Range Egg and Poultry (FREPA) organisation – 100 plus farms. FREPA’s standards stipulate a much lower stocking density than the conventional system and require access to range land outside the shed that provides shade and vegetation.
In all other key respects including
housing, equipment, ventilation, temperature, health practices, age at processing and slaughter practices, the FREPA standard defaults to the standard conventional code. Among other things, this means that FREPA accredited chickens follow the conventional standard which allows for birds to be ‘harvested’ as early as 30-35 days (4-5 weeks). Access to outdoor areas is given to fully feathered birds of approximately 21 days or three weeks of age. Given that they are generally harvested between five and six weeks that’s not a long time.
Pastured broiler chooks at Buena Vista enclosed by mobile electric fencing.
4. Pasture raised
The growers we work with practice ‘pasture raised’ farming. So they receive day-old broiler chooks and raise them exclusively outside on pasture at very low stocking densities and with access to shelter rather than the other way around. The key differences between pasture raised and FREPA free range birds are these.
Smaller groups of birds in lower stocking densities with permanent access to range lands – mostly moved to fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing.
The freedom to graze on fresh green pick, bugs etc providing additional nutrition and protein.
Greater capacity to express instinctive behaviour due to lower stocking densities.
Life spans of eight to nine weeks, almost double the conventional standard.
More muscular, robust, deeply-flavoured product
5. Feather and Bone chooks Buena Vista Farm: groups of about 100 birds with very low stocking densities rotated onto fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing – broiler and Sommerlad flocks.
Inglewood organic: ACO certified – broiler birds kept in sheds at night, the sides of which are raised during the day to provide access to pasture. Fed certified organic feed and processed at eight to nine weeks.
Sommerlad Heritage chooks at Buena Vista, 15/12/14
6. Sommerlad Heritage pasture raised chook The Sommerlad Heritage chook, however, is something altogether new. After many years of research working with different breeds, bird nutritionist and chook experts Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad have developed a new breed of chicken with strong bones and even distribution of meat specifically designed to thrive as a pasture raised bird in Australian conditions. This is a bird that retains many of the behavioural characteristics that have been intentionally bred out of the broiler which is designed to become relatively immobile in order to quickly fatten to market size. Among other behaviours, the Sommerlad birds have well-developed survival instincts and seek appropriate shelter at night so predation from foxes and hunting birds is reduced. They graze enthusiastically, take pleasure from playing and respond vigorously to a life lived literally running around outside on pasture. They look pretty good too, particularly the very bizarre Transylvanian Naked Neck which is included in the programme because of its capacity to deal with hot Australian summers.
The Sommerlads have authorised a handful of farmers with demonstrated expertise in pasture raising chickens to grow these birds and, after we introduced them about a year ago, Adam and Fiona at Buena Vista Farm became part of that group.
About half of the batch we’re receiving on Wednesday are pre-sold so, if you’re interested, please get your orders in quickly. Or don’t, because then there might be one left for us.
Sommerlad Heritage chooks including the Transylvanian Naked neck at Buena Vista, 15/12/14