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The Farmer & the Butcher

The Seven Year Itch...

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The Seven Year Itch...

Seven years ago today we scraped up Morgantis Road in a low-slung Volvo bursting with the high-pitched voices of our gaggle of excited small children and a brand-new shiny green wheelbarrow strapped to the roof.

A decades-long desire to live on the land was at last being realized. I remember the first year of corporeally re-inhabiting the rural life – striding across paddocks, shifting gears to make it over the crest to the next horizon, wearing whatever crazy mixed ensemble I’d wrapped pragmatically around my form that morning on a quick run to town, lucky I remembered to change out of my slippers and into elastic-sided work boots. This was my childhood, renewed and transformed.

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Just 15 months earlier we had listened to Joel Salatin speak at the Lake House in Daylesford and I’d turned to my beloved Stuart, slapped him on the leg, and said, ‘that’s it! We’re going to be farmers!’

The first year was a rose-tinted dream, a rural idyll, in which we climbed the volcano for the views instead of to find a short in the fence, and had such poor priorities that the next year would see us scrambling to fence ahead of a quickly growing herd of beautiful Large Black pigs.

Stuart took to the farm like the Mr Project Man he’d always been, with a brand new giant shed we thought would take years to fill but that in fact was full in a sparrow’s heartbeat. His first project was to build us a bedroom from the shipping container that had carried our mountains of lifestuff up to the farm. It was the first of many such container conversions at Jonai!

After waiting a few months for our first tiny herd of five gilts and a boar, the first litter of tiny little black piglets were born to Keen in June 2012, and Big Mama a fortnight later, and we learned a hard lesson about the importance of colostrum for newborns that confirmed what I’d advocated for human babies in my early years of mothering.

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Nearing Christmas that year we started to approach local butchers to cut our first pig with all the ignorance of newbies to the meat industry. Lesson One: don’t talk to butchers about anything, but especially not ham, in the weeks before Christmas! We had our first pig slaughtered, and after collecting the carcass, Stuart picked me up from the train station at the end of a week working in the city for the federal government (what was I thinking?!). At about 7pm I commenced butchering my first pig with nothing but a couple of books and youtube on my side. A butcher was born.

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After all the local butchers turned us down when we asked about contract butchery for smallholders, we found the wonderful Sal of Salvatore Regional Butchers about half an hour away in Ballan. Sal not only agreed to cut our pigs for us (two per fortnight at that stage), he also was just mad enough to agree to teach me butchery while he did it. By the time he agreed, we’d already decided we would build our own boning room, and that the way to do it was to crowdfund it.

In 2013 we raised $27,500 to build our boning room, and while Stuart built it, I learned pork butchery with Sal. Two pigs a fortnight was all we were doing in those early days, a tough way to learn butchery with so little repetition and two weeks between cutting sessions. And for the life of me I can’t remember why I didn’t do more than one session watching Sal cut our beef… leaving me to work out how to do it. In my first year I had a beautiful elderly local customer bring back a piece of meat to gently say, ‘I think you’ve just cut a bit too far along and got yourself into the round, dear.’  

I ran our first butchery demo workshop during the DMP Harvest Festival out on the back patio, showing some 50 people how to cut up a pig on what was my sixth ever carcass while my helpful father-in-law stood heckling me from the back. I got a quick lesson in catering for large numbers in preparation for that day, and have never done potatoes gratin for 50 since.

While we were crowdfunding the boning room, we also went on ABC Bush Telegraph for a six-month stint following one of our piglets from paddock to plate. With all the naïve wisdom of people who’d been farming five minutes, we agreed to ask the public their views on our management systems, starting with castration. We’d only just begun to think we would start castrating after some unwanted teen pregnancies and a couple of instances of boar taint in the meat, after an initial resistance to the idea as an ‘unnecessary intervention’. The vegan abolitionists castigated us for it, swiftly thickening our skin but also cementing our commitment to radical transparency on the farm.

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In January 2014, just over two years after we arrived in Eganstown and one year selling meat, the boning room was licensed by PrimeSafe and we launched our first CSA shares. That year is a blur to me of cutting, new muscles and sore heels, help from friends, making new friends in the good folks who started turning up to volunteer because they just liked the cut of our jib and wanted to contribute to something exciting (I’m looking especially at you, Jass, my first ever meat grrl, then Head Meat Grrl, and forever meat grrl, friend, and comrade in arms), and hours of Fat Freddy’s Drop, Milky Chance, and country AND western music just like my mama. #meatgrrlsmonday for lyf! That’s the year we also became profitable after just two years (instead of the projected five) and we haven’t looked back.

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We ran our first Salami Days – teaching people the age-old art of meat, salt, & time. We butchered, seasoned, minced, and stuffed many kilos of salami and hung them in the shed to be enjoyed in a few months’ time. And then PrimeSafe came and destroyed them all. Another hard lesson was learned about the state of food safety regulations in this country, galvanizing me to start garnering stories and evidence for a campaign to change things… by this time I was President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), so I not only had the collective to work with, I had a framework to understand clearly what’s at stake, what we’re fighting for, and who we’re up against.

A year on we rounded up another successful crowdfunding campaign and by 2015 I had a commercial kitchen and curing room to play in, thanks to Stuart’s mad skills in converting containers to incredibly useful workspaces. The new space took us from paddock to plate to paddock to paddock, as we utilize every part of the carcasses – heads are paté de tête or guanciale, pork cheeks, and ears are dehydrated for pet treats, as are trotters; and a quarter of the bones become bone broth and three quarters go to the members. After making paté or bone broth, the spent bones go out to Stuart’s retort to be pyrolised into bonechar – a mineral-rich form of activated carbon that does wonders for our tiny commercial garlic crop and the home garden.

As we increased production of more value-added products on the farm, I also stepped up the advocacy with AFSA as we worked towards establishing a Legal Defence Fund to support farmers against the tyranny of rogue regulators, and scale-inappropriate regulation and land use legislation. Speaking truth to power, demanding the same accountability from government that they demand from food producers, AFSA started gaining real ground as representatives of key stakeholders in the food system – small-scale regenerative farmers.

But all this advocacy meant I took my eye off the ball and the farm suffered for it. Stuart was carrying too much of the load on his strapping shoulders, and we sailed into a fertility crisis that would see us lose nearly 40% of our pork production due to small or non-existent litters as our herd aged, the weather heated unseasonably early, and many of the sows simply got a bit too fat. 2016 was a really tough year.

With the generous support of our beautiful CSA members, we scraped through that year. Great disruptions are known to cause innovation, and after careful planning, we renounced all purpose-grown commercial grain from the pigs’ diet by December, cutting nearly $20,000 out of our annual costs. Contrary to industrial ag wisdom, an ecologically-sound improvement to our model was also an excellent financial decision for the farm. Giving up grain grown in monocrops reliant on petrochemical inputs to instead divert hundreds of tonnes of food waste from landfill was a deeply satisfying shift that furthered our efforts to be a truly agroecological farm.

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February 2017 was a major milestone for the Jonai, as Joel Salatin, the very man who inspired us to farm in the first place, joined us on the farm for a fundraising event for the brand new AFSA Legal Defence Fund, raising $35,000 on the day and growing awareness of the challenges small-scale farmers are facing in scale-inappropriate and poorly rationalized legislation.

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One milestone often drives another, and this one brought a team of volunteers who enthusiastically helped Stuart finish the Belvedere, our magnificent events shed built entirely of secondhand materials, largely windows. A feeling of completeness accompanied the rustic chic of the Belvedere, making workshops such a breeze to run with the long table for lunch waiting prettily while we butcher and craft salami in the middle of the space, but it wasn’t long before there was an itch…

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And so Stuart has commenced building a back kitchen and cellar on the back of the Belvedere to make workshops easier to cater and give us a spot for our salami and cheese curing, beer making, and preserve storing… plus a pizza oven is in the works to take centre stage in the Belvedere, and Stuart’s feed shed out back just needs its roof… and of course we’re keen for a bit more short-term accommodation for the flow of beautiful people who grace our patch of dirt through all seasons, and Stuart just registered Wasted Distillers…

And there’s always the entire food and agriculture system to transform to keep me busy. ;-)

Viva la revolución! Viva la via campesina!

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Grow Your Ethics Part Three: The ethically-viable no-growth model

In Part Two of Grow Your Ethics, I wrote about supply chain control and connectedness.

In Part Three, I’ll share:

how and why we avoid a growth and competitive mentality,

how we manage the farm with fair labour,

what radical transparency has meant to us over these past few years, and

how all of these parts of our system come together to nourish us and our community while still respecting the pigness of the pig.

We live in a world that values productivism – the idea that more production is a necessary good. That we should constantly strive to produce more, and that society’s (economic) well-being is based on increasing production.

Sustainable intensification’ is a logical outcome of the productivist mindset, but under what conditions can we intensify production in a way that is in fact sustainable? If it involves putting more animals on less land, many would argue that it is impossible to do so sustainably. Concentration of effluence alone creates an environmental dilemma that requires more energy, infrastructure and externalization of the problem as the effluence is hauled offsite or, in worst-case scenarios, pollutes local waterways.

As long ago as 1975, British economist E.F. Schumacher declared that:

Infinite growth in consumption in a world of finite resources is an impossibility.

40 years later, we are still being told that we must grow the economy, get big or get out, and work to economies of scale to be as efficient as we can be.

At Jonai Farms, we agree with Schumacher’s claim that ‘small is beautiful’, and we are committed to running an ethically-viable no-growth model.

That is, we are led by our ethics, which we understand must be financially viable for us to survive and thrive. And our ethics include a rejection of productivism that we believe is the root of the current problems inherent in the industrial food system.

I’ve written previously on the need for an ‘ethics of scale’ rather than economies of scale. We’re currently living proof that it works, with a healthy profit margin that ensures we can pay all our bills, look after our animals properly, and still manage to travel each year to expand horizons and strengthen the family bonds.

We don’t compete with the other wonderful growers around us, we collaborate, support, and promote each others’ efforts.

We don’t need to scale, we need to multiply.

More small farms means more people on the land, which means thriving rural communities, which drives better resourcing of regional and rural towns. It means buses full of healthy children streaming into dynamic and diverse schools, and access to food grown locally by people you know personally.

There is no disadvantage in having more farms growing more food, whereas there are uncountable negative consequences of scaling farms. Scale decreases the number of people working the land, and increases automation typically through higher petroleum consumption. Bigger farms are demonstrably less diverse, and monocultures are riskier systems, which require higher chemical inputs to manage.

Small-scale agroecological farms like ours are more labour intensive, which we value as it means more people learning and earning an income, and a richer community on the farm. But one of the wicked problems of the emerging fair food farming movement is how to treat farm workers as well as farm owners fairly.  

We have a diverse approach to solving this problem at Jonai.

In terms of paid labour, we have a school-based farm apprentice, the wonderful Will, who works with Stuart 2.5 days/week. As the daily farming operation is technically manageable by one person, having Will here is of most benefit to progress further works – new building projects, more fencing, and soon, introducing egg chickens into our system behind the cattle on the paddocks.

We also have my head meat grrl Jass, who is paid to work with me in the boning room for the two major pork-cutting days (out of five processing days) each fortnight.

Next we have our volunteer residency program, a three-month opportunity to learn our system back to front. Our residents live on the farm with us in purpose-built accommodation (a converted 20-foot container with lovely views over home dam), and/or in the solar-powered hut next door on our lovely neighbours’ property, which we barter for with meat. J

Residents work five days per week with us, and are welcome to spend weekends here or away as suits them. They assist out on the paddocks through to the boning room and kitchen – wherever the need is greatest on any given day. We all sit down to three cooked meals each day and discuss farm logistics, new projects, and food politics ‘til the cows come home.

Finally, I run a meatsmith roster as we’ve had so much interest from people wanting to learn to butcher from me (especially women – Meat Grrl Mondays are legendary!). So on any given butchery day we’ll have one or two other volunteers lending a hand, learning to cut, and playing Captain Cryovac. They never leave without a thank you in the form of some Jonai uncommonly delicious ethical meats.

In regular conversations with the stream of helpers paid and voluntary, we ensure that our system is fair for all involved. While confident that we’re offering appropriate value to our volunteers, we’re very conscious of the need to seek feedback that everyone feels they are being treated fairly.

Short-term internships and voluntary residencies, it seems to me, are a great way to balance the problem of the need for extra hands on the farm with insufficient cash flow to employ a lot of people. But anything longer than about three months on a farm like ours would run the risk of exploiting that labour as by then people have mastered the systems to the point where they are a very useful and indeed autonomous part of the farm.

We semi-regularly take a few weeks or a month off from having residents to test that the farm is manageable without them – if it wasn’t, we believe we should pay for the labour in addition to the room, board and tuition we already provide. Each time we find that we can still run the farm on our own with our two paid employees, but it’s not nearly as fun and is a very demanding schedule!

This level of detail and honest accounting for our system brings me to the importance of radical transparency at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths.

Over these past four years we have shared our successes (crowdfunding & butchery, hurray!) and failures (the regulator destroyed our salami, boo!), and the minutiae of our decision-making processes. Sometimes it has been hard to be so open – we copped a lot of criticism (mostly from vegan abolitionists, but also from other quarters) when we told you on Radio National of our decision to castrate, for example. And we’ve also been given a huge amount of positive feedback and support for our sharing.

We share to keep ourselves accountable to all of you, to our animals, and to the land. We share so that others don’t have to reinvent the wheel or make the same mistakes we have. We share because for too long food has been grown invisibly, and people have a right and need to know just how your food is produced. We share because we’re in this for the movement, and we want to help grow more farmers, not push them aside in order to pursue endless growth ourselves.

Ultimately what we’re really about at Jonai Farms is connectedness. Our connections keep us honest and ethical. A strong connection to the pigs and cattle carries a responsibility to ensure they only have that ‘one bad day’. And the daily feeding, wallow checking and litter admiring means feet on the ground and eyes on the paddocks, which ensures we’re accountable to our soils. If an area has been hit hard by too many pigs, it’s immediately apparent – we reject moonscaping the paddocks as unsustainable land management.

Connection to our workers holds us accountable to a fair day’s work for everyone. You can’t sit down to three meals a day together and look your workers in the eyes if you’re treating them unfairly. We have been blessed with so many intelligent, hard working, passionate, and fun people over these past few years, and we’re ever grateful for all of their contributions.

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Connection to our community here in the central highlands of Victoria involves a lot of bartering, sharing, helping and being helped.

And connection to our eaters is what makes us most accountable of all. Our food must not only be delicious, it must be as fair as we say it is, and critically, it must also be safe. If something goes wrong, we know every person we have sold our food to – there’s no hiding behind a long supply chain and the capacity to be faceless behind a slew of distributors and retailers. If Jonai pork makes you sick, you’re going to ring the Jonai.

Connectedness is knowledge, pleasure, and accountability.

Small is beautiful.

Ethics are delicious.

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Grow Your Ethics Part Two: Supply chain control and connectedness

Welcome to the second instalment of Grow Your Ethics – supply chain control and connectedness. In Part One I shared what led us to grow our ethics and detailed our farming system out on the paddocks. In this post I’ll outline the rationale for a short supply chain and direct sales and then show you what a typical fortnight looks like when you grow, butcher and deliver all your own meat.

In modern conventional livestock farming, you raise the animals (pigs and poultry typically in sheds), and then take or ship them to the saleyards and hope for a decent price. That price is subject to market fluctuations based on whether there’s an over or under supply of animals and feed, and what processors and retailers are willing to pay to maintain their own share of the profit.

In Australia, pig carcasses are selling for between $3 and $4 per kilo at the saleyards. Let me take you through our input costs to see what that would mean for a farm like ours…

We’ve managed to get our feed costs down to below $125 per grower (from $200 when they were on a diet entirely of custom-made commercial pig). That $125 includes the small ration of commercial grain and the motor vehicle costs of collecting the spent brewers’ grain and milk from other food waste streams.

Based on saleyard prices, on a 55kg carcass, we might get $200. By the time you’ve accounted for labour, transport and general farm costs on top of feed, it’s really hard to make a living in that system. Of course you then understand the pathway into intensive industrial agriculture to achieve ‘economies of scale’ at the expense of animal welfare.

So the obvious thing to do for a small farm like ours is to sell directly to eaters, but of course there’s still processing that must happen first. Abattoir costs in our region are cheap – just $37 per pig at ours. But butchering costs are not cheap – we were paying an average of $200 per carcass before we built our boning room on the farm.

These financial realities, along with issues of reliability and the desire to work closely with our produce all the way to the eater are what led us to take on the butchering of all our meat. And what it’s meant to us goes far beyond control and profitability – it has deepened our knowledge of the animals out on the paddock because we understand what those working muscles end up like in the boning room. That in turn has extended my knowledge of the best ways to cut and cook different muscles. The butchery has also strengthened our relationships with our community of eaters as we discuss everything about the pork and beef they buy from us quite literally from paddock to plate, right down to the herbs I pluck out of the garden and use in our single-estate sausages.

Last year we introduced our community-supported agriculture (CSA) model as well, which now has over 50 members. The CSA reduces my admin and logistics load and provides us with a known base income for the year, and develops even stronger relationships with our regular community of members. We love the feedback we get from our community – positive and critical – and they help spread the word about respecting the pigness of the pig.

When we took over the butchery side of the business, I gained a much greater understanding of the actual labour input to the further processing, which has meant some changes to our pricing. I often say I’m basically a Marxist when it comes to pricing – I charge on the use value and actual input costs rather than what the market will bear.

For example, belly from us costs $26/kg and a bone-in shoulder is $25/kg as the butchering is quick and simple for those cuts. A boned-out coppa roast (aka neck or scotch) is $30/kg, and bacon is $32/kg for a slab or $36/kg for sliced – slicing is very labour intensive!

If you’re a chef, you’ll pay the same as everyone else. Our prices are based on what we need to charge to make a living, and dropping those prices would render us unviable. But we recommend that chefs buy whole or half beasts at $16/kg, or whole primals (shoulder/barrel) at $20/kg. See how it works? The less work we do, the less you pay.

I’ve added a Cook Your Ethics workshop to our repertoire to teach chefs how to butcher whole carcasses, which is intended to help chefs choose free range by buying half or whole pigs as per the pricing above. We hope this enables more restaurants to choose genuine free-range pork. (And in case you’ve missed the confusion around ‘bred free range’ v. genuine free range, I’ve written about it over on my food ethics blog.)

Logistically, what happens when the carcasses come back to us from the abattoir is this…

6 pig carcasses
6 pig carcasses

Eight pigs per fortnight are sent off and one steer per month. The pigs typically go to the abattoir on a Thursday and are back into our chiller on Friday. I pull the bellies off that afternoon and get them into salt for bacon.

On Monday following, we (my Head Meat Grrl Jass, and our wonderful residents – currently Andrew and Theresa, and I) break down the shoulders and barrels into a set repertoire of cuts plus any custom orders.

ham boning
ham boning

Tuesday morning we bone out the back legs for schnitzel, porko buco and our single-muscle hams (I do a brined & smoked noix de jambon), and the rest goes to sausage. Tuesday afternoon we make 40-60 kg of sausages, flavour dependent on the season (Mexican chorizo, Toulouse, sage & pepper, apple & sage, bratwurst…).

Wednesday morning we slice and pack bacon, wrap hams, then sanitise the benches and pack sausages. That afternoon we pack orders – somewhere between 200 and 350kg of meat depending on whether it’s a regional or metropolitan fortnight. I send invoices that night after recording all the weights during packing.

Thursday morning I load up the coolbox on the back of the ute and head off on deliveries – nine hubs around Melbourne one fortnight and five in the region the other.

Friday I catch up on farm accounts and admin, and the following week I call my ‘non-cutting week’ even though we break down a side of beef on Thursday and pull those bellies off the next lot of pigs on the Friday… repeat ad infinitum. But the fortnightly schedule is amazing – it gives me the freedom for the writing and fair food advocacy work I do, now in my role as President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA).

So for those who’ve emailed me during a cutting week, I hope this explains my silence. And for those who’ve emailed me in a ‘non-cutting week’, I hope this explains my slowness. J

Stuart has completed construction on the commercial kitchen and curing room and we’re looking forward to having the facility inspected by Primesafe in a week’s time. My fortnight will get a bit fuller with that addition as we transform every bit of the beasts into delicious nose-to-tail offerings such as bone stocks, pate de tete, lard, fricandeaux, and a range of single-muscle cures such as jamon, coppa, and guanciale. We’ll be submitting our process to the regulator to make farmstead salami within the next couple months as well, so watch this space!

Supply chain control and direct sales make us viable, deeply, viscerally happy, and connected to our land, our animals, and our community. We are fully accountable for every step except slaughter, and we’re working with others in the region to hopefully solve that problem.

In the next instalment of Grow Your Ethics, I’ll share how and why we avoid a growth and competitive mentality, how we manage the farm with fair labour, what radical transparency has meant to us over these past few years, and how all of these parts of our system come together to nourish us and our community while still respecting the pigness of the pig.

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Grow Your Ethics: Part One - The Production Model

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TJ & Joel
TJ & Joel

Nearly five years to the day after Joel Salatin of Polyface inspired us to be farmers just down the road at the Lake House in Daylesford, that wonderful man rolled up our driveway to see what we’ve done and gave us a huge thumbs up. Over three evenings hosted in collaboration with Ben Falloon of Taranaki Farm, we held agrarian salons where we shared our journey and our ethically-viable no-growth model as Joel listened and then offered his feedback and trademark heretical take on the industrial food system. Is there anything more gratifying than affirmation from our most respected teachers? 

I couldn’t stop smiling for a week, and now I have the privilege of visiting Joel again at Polyface after going to the Slow Meat symposium in Denver next month, a trip of research and advocacy that culminates with lunch with another advocate I hold in great esteem, Michael Pollan.

After sharing our story repeatedly while Joel was here and at our many workshops, I thought I’d get it onto the page for everyone to read, whether you can visit us or not. We hope that sharing our story helps to inspire more people to make that leap and join the fair food farming revolution.

So here’s Part One of our version of how to Grow Your Ethics, which will come in three instalments:

  • The Production Model,
  • Supply Chain Control & Connectedness, and
  • The Ethically-Viable No-Growth Model.

The Journey

As I’ve written elsewhere, we grew tired of choosing between savouring and saving the world, so came to the land to be regenerative, ethical farmers of pastured pigs.

I was formerly an academic in cultural studies, chronically ‘nearing completion’ of a PhD, and taught at the University of Melbourne and Southern Cross University. My focus specifically was culinary cosmopolitanism. I am also a former vegetarian of seven years. I loved my work and study, but I needed to produce something more tangible than words for a select few.

Stuart was a business development manager for a venture capitalist firm out of Singapore. With a background in building, he’d found himself in a series of coordinator and management positions that left him desperate for fresh air and handyman projects every time he cycled home to our many farm-like suburban backyards.

In 2010, Joel inspired us to take our obsessive DIY-ism, our love of horizons, and our deep desire to produce and contribute meaningfully to a fairer food system to a life of farming.

So in 2011, we packed up our suburban lives, took a four-month detour to eat and learn our way across America, and landed on 69 acres of volcanic soils of Eganstown, just outside the popular gastronomic destination of Daylesford, Victoria.

The Production Model

We now run a small herd of Large Black rare breed pigs entirely on the paddocks – just 12 sows and 2 boars, which means a total herd of around 110 at any time. We also have a small herd of cattle – a mixture usually of Lowlines and Murray Greys, though I think we’ll stick with Murray Greys in future as we need the bigger carcass to meet demand without running more cattle. In production terms, that means we process 16 pigs and 1 steer per month. But more on that in Part 2 of this Grow Your Ethics series.

We chose Large Blacks for a few reasons. There are eight breeds of pigs in Australia, and Large Blacks are among the rarest. They’re a very slow-growing breed, renowned for farrowing big litters and being excellent mothers, as well as for being quite docile, probably due to their beautiful long ears that mostly obscure their vision! We wanted to contribute to the rare breeds movement to save these old breeds from extinction by growing them commercially, and as new farmers with three young children we loved the sound of a docile pig.

black pigs
black pigs

The cattle production model is pretty conventional set stocking, but very different to most Australian beef production as we grow mature animals and dry age the carcasses. We don’t over-stock, which means we don’t have to bring in feed. We buy in steers between 18 and 30 months old then grow them on for another six to 12 months so that we’re slaughtering between three and four years old. By that stage the meat has developed a rich, deep flavour and colour, and dry ageing tenderises and deepens the flavour even further. We credit our decision to grow mature animals and dry age them to Warialda Beef – their Belted Galloways are out of this world and we’re grateful for their openness about their own system that enabled us to do something similar.

cattle skylove
cattle skylove

Our pigs are fed a diet mostly of beer porridge – spent brewers’ grain from the local Holgate Brewhouse mixed with milk from Jonesy’s Dairy. That’s supplemented by what they eat from the paddocks, which we’re working to diversify to include not just the rye paddocks we inherited, but also brassicas, turnips, sweetbeets, sunflowers, barley, lupins, and millet. They also still receive a small ration of pelletised grains – wheat, barley & lupins. Ours is a custom mix we had to work with our feed supplier to obtain as most commercial pig feed contains soy, which is 80% likely to be GM, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and post-industrial food waste - basically smarties off the factory floor. We’re seeking to eradicate the need to bring any purpose-grown animal feed onto the property.

S feeding
S feeding

The sows are kept in pairs at all times. This means they don’t have to sort out their social dynamics by changing who they’re with, and it also means they’re never alone as pigs are very social creatures. Further, it provides an auntie for nursing if one litter is bigger than the other. They go in with the boar together, farrow within 24 hours of each other usually, and then we wean their litters together at 6-8 weeks.

They farrow (give birth) out in the paddocks – we put deep litter into their houses, which encourages the sows to nest inside the shelter. That serves to keep the piglets warm in the colder months, but also protects them from foxes. The deep litter also provides a measure of protection from squashing – we lose 10-15% of piglets to squashing, which is similar to the intensive pig industry’s stats even in systems where the sows are confined in crates through and after farrowing.

sow housing
sow housing

We castrate our male piglets before 21 days. You can see the whole discussion of that decision here. To be brief, we had issues with boar taint and unwanted teen pregnancies before we started castrating. Castration enables us to leave the pigs in family groups right up until slaughtering age between 6 and 8 months for market-sized pigs, and 12-18 months for salami pigs.

We also made the decision to vaccinate after an initial period where we didn’t. This decision was also chronicled during our six months on Bush Tele following a piglet (Wilbur 101) from paddock to plate. In short, we decided that although the risk of disease in our tiny herd is very low, the consequences could be too high. So the breeding herd are all routinely vaccinated, and the growers are immunized through the sows’ colostrum.

As for paddock management, we’re basically running a set stocking system and pushing pigs off higher use areas with single-line electric as they expose the soil. This means we can leave the pigs in bigger paddocks (1-3 acres) that gradually get smaller as we push them away from the fence line, until such time as they return to the start after some six months or so. We reckon we still have a lot to learn about best practice rotations, but we’re proud that we never have bare paddocks – we work hard to ensure we have cover year round.

When it’s time for slaughter, we load the pigs onto a large stock trailer with a rubber mat and loose hay and give them access to water until the hour-long drive to the abattoir. Our pigs are offloaded and go straight through to the kill floor – they’re not held amongst the large groups of industrially-raised pigs that are also slaughtered at our abattoir. They enter a gondola three at a time, which is then lowered into a carbon dioxide chamber where they are rendered unconscious in less than 30 seconds. Once fully unconscious, the pigs are stuck and bled out before continuing down the line for de-hairing, evisceration, etc.

Our abattoir has always been very open and transparent about their practices, so although we would prefer on-farm slaughter or even a small, regional abattoir that only dealt with smaller batches of animals, we are happy with what we have access to right now. We regularly tour the abattoir and witness the professionalism and careful handling of the animals pre-slaughter.

The carcasses are transported back to our on-farm meatsmith the day after slaughter, where I, my meat grrls, and assorted other volunteers transform them into a range of uncommonly delicious cuts.

Stay Tuned

In the next instalment of Grow Your Ethics, I’ll detail our miniscule supply chain and direct sales model. In Part Three, I’ll return to the farm’s philosophy, including our ‘ethically viable no-growth model’ and future plans to ensure we’re doing our utmost to respect the pigness of the pig while regenerating our landscape.

If you want more detail and encouragement to grow your ethics on your own piece of land somewhere (served with some uncommonly delicious produce from us and other lovely local growers like Angelica Organics and Captains Creek), you might like our one-day Grow Your Ethics workshops. Hope to see you on the farm soon!

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Happiness is Hard Work

dam reflection daffodils
dam reflection daffodils

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in three years of farming, it’s that for us happiness is hard work. That is, working hard makes us really really happy.

Happiness doesn’t come in the little indulgences used to tolerate one’s day-to-day life, it comes with rejoicing in daily life. It doesn’t come with so-called leisure time in front of a tv, it comes with making things with bare hands, including dinner made from animals we’ve grown, butchered and prepared for the family meal every night.

What some see as drudgery, we celebrate as small achievements, from weeding the garden (yay more room to grow beautiful food!) to building a fence (yay more paddocks to keep the happy piggehs safe & out of mischief!) to chopping vegetables for an hour (yay more beautiful food!).

Competence is happiness. Relationships are happiness. Kindness and caring for others is happiness. Knowledge is happiness. Food you grow yourself offers a greater quotient of happiness than that bought down the street – though of course thoughtfully-made, fresh, seasonal food brings its own kind of happiness wherever you find it.

I haven’t had a single case of ennui since we rolled up this driveway three years ago today, wheelbarrow on the roof and romantic visions of our new life so bright they made our eyes water. The romance is alive and well, and certainly more mature – there’s happiness in every glorious sunrise, but so there is in the hard-earned strength of this meatsmith’s forearms.

I wasn’t planning to write about happiness today – I was going to write about what we’ve learned in the past three years. But there it is – everything we’ve learned comes back to happiness. Learning new skills and knowledge is joyful. Being competent is gobsmackingly good for one’s self esteem. And focusing on others – be it children, animals in the paddocks, or the many families we help feed with our farming efforts – is utterly more satisfying than focusing overmuch on oneself. Big skies are also really life affirming. :-)

Over a typical Jonai farm brekky of poached eggs & farmstead bacon with Tammindaise this morning I asked Stuart what he’s learned in the past three years, and he offered these nuggets:

  • Community is essential to a farming enterprise – we give thanks for the Ciderhouse Stringband playing at our salami days, for Turk making my butcher’s block and our beautiful dining table, for Morris dragging the farm ute out of the bog with his tractor so many times that first winter, for the stream of hard-working WWOOFers with whom we’ve been blessed, and for the many neighbours, friends and family who have helped us build, fence, garden, and look after animals so we can get away sometimes
  • Relationships are more valuable than economic transactions
  • The quality of life up here cannot be compared with our former urban lives
  • Managing soil and water health and availability across seasons is a tough gig – and critically important to everything
  • Constant work and problem solving is a very creative environment – so many ideas, so little time!
  • Caring for animals is an emotional rollercoaster – such joys and sadnesses in life and death on the farm
  • The best farming texts are all pre-1950s

He also offered some concrete skills he’s learned:

  • Fencing!
  • How to move a shipping container with a 4WD and half a dozen fence posts (TJ - we’re so old school we’re practically Egyptian) ;-)
  • How to fix anything with a pair of pliers, a couple bits of wire, and a knife velcro’d to the back of your iPhone (Stuart calls it his new app)

Then I asked myself what I’ve learned. As well as ticking all the boxes on Stuart’s list (except I leave my knives in the boning room), here’s what I came up with:

  • Practising what I preach is essential for me to offer honest, knowledgeable advocacy for sustainable, ethical agriculture
  • Our rural community has an abundance of smart, kind, creative, hard-working, and helpful people for whom I am deeply grateful – our lives are the richer for all of you
  • WWOOFers are awesome and can teach you as much as you teach them, whether it’s new skills, knowledge or just a brilliant attitude towards life
  • I really really like dogs
  • Big skies and wide horizons are salve for the happiest or the saddest soul
  • Working in a partnership is an excellent way to see each other’s strengths on a daily basis, which helps soften one’s view of the weaknesses – also how to play to each of our strengths & play down the weaknesses
  • Raising kids on the land offers them freedom, responsibility, and daily pleasures that I hope will help them grow up as grounded and appreciative of natural cycles as it did me
  • Farming really is a seven-day-a-week job (though we've introduced Make-a-Day on Sundays...), but the rewards are greater than any 40-hour week I ever worked, and being able to set our own priorities (animals and weather willing…) helps make the workload less onerous
  • Physical work is bone-deep satisfying, and creates an excellent balance for time spent at a computer to run the business and write all the things – everything’s good when there’s not too much of one thing
  • Recipe development out in the boning room for seasonal single-estate and single-region sausages is fun, rewarding, and generally has uncommonly delicious results
  • Giving up a PhD to focus on farming, butchering, and fair food advocacy is one of the best difficult decisions I’ve ever made
  • For some people going for a run is the best way to clear the head – for me it’s putting my hands in soil – weeding, planting, harvesting…
  • Pigs are quite smart, but no, they’re not as smart as a three-year-old child
  • Joel Salatin was right - if you control your supply chain and sell everything directly, you really can run a profitable small farm
  • A lot of things in life are rather daunting – be dauntless!

And my concrete learnings:

  • Pigs build enormous nests like a bird when they’re due to farrow (give birth) – it’s a natural instinct to keep their piglets safe from weather and squashing
  • Raising pigs (or poultry or any animal) intensively, especially indoors, is truly, utterly unnecessary and in my view cruel. We’ve now raised our animals outdoors for three years and have been inside an intensive piggery and cannot under any circumstances agree with the justifications for those systems – the stench alone is almost unbearable for both humans and the pigs. Our pigs are healthy (free of respiratory ailments and infections from chewing each other’s tails common in intensive piggeries), farrow well outdoors year round with constant access to huts, and never show signs of stress or aggression such as tail biting.
  • If you don’t strain a fence properly with well-braced wooden posts it will sag & taunt you with a day’s wasted efforts – as my dad always said, ‘if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’
  • There’s a season for everything, including fencing – once the ground dries up it’s all over rover, so get your fencing done by springtime
  • Insulated gum boots are amazing
  • You can indeed have a wooden butcher’s block in a licensed butcher’s shop
  • I can transform an entire pig carcass into an array of excellent cuts in an hour and a half. A side of beef takes me about five hours now (remember the first steer that took me three days?!)
  • If you do meat workshops in your shed, you cannot legally let anybody take any of the meat home – doesn’t matter whether you’re a licensed butcher or not, if the shed isn’t licensed, it’s illegal. But it’s legal to eat anything you make onsite
  • You cannot cryovac ham (or any other ready-to-eat product) unless you have in place a Listeria Management Plan, which in Victoria involves monthly swab testing and quarterly product testing (after an initial three months of fortnightly testing)
  • The longer you slow cook muscle meat (pork shoulder, beef blade, chuck, brisket…) the better. If the recipe says at least two hours aim for at least four.
  • Curing meat is not in fact a dark art, and once you crack the code, you can cure anything. It’s just meat, salt & time.
  • Patience tastes delicious.

There really are opportunities to live a great life farming, and I encourage anyone considering the move to go for it. We need more farmers, not less – lots of small farmers like us out here on the land maintaining and creating vibrant rural communities and growing food that’s fair from soil to stomach.

I salute my fellow farmers across Australia and the world – you’re amazing, and I’m honoured (and ecstatic!) to be one of you. Here’s to the next three years of hard-working happiness!

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On rhythms & making days

On the 1st of September we’ll celebrate three years at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths. Yep, just three years ago we landed on our own little volcano to both savour and save the world, and we are gobsmacked at just how much has happened in that short time! Remember when I got fed up with being called a farmer’s wife and wrote about being a farmer, and how my husband is too? Little did I know then that I would also become a butcher…

As we dance to new rhythms and settle into our new, more comfortable and weathered skins, we’ve emerged as The Farmer & the Butcher. Stuart is Chief Farmer and I am Chief Butcher, though of course we both work out in the paddocks and in the boning room… (cue smirk).

The patterns are fortnightly, with butchering weeks associated with abs runs and deliveries, and non-butchering weeks that allow for more Jonai power to catch up on fencing jobs, but also the accounts, vehicle maintenance, communicating with our lovely community, the plethora of odd jobs typical around any farm, a bit of writing, and plenty of activism in the fair food movement.

It’s an incredibly full life, and we slipped all too easily into working seven days a week – not that hard to do when you love your work. But it was taking its toll, and on our recent trip overseas we took time to reflect before returning to the hamster wheel… and came up with Make a Day.

We’ve said for years that we just need one more day in the week, so we made one. It’s commonly known as Sunday. We’re not that interested in a day of actual rest, so our Sundays really are Make a Days – each family member works on something creative that day. It might be cooking, sewing, designing a house, brewing beer, writing, drawing, painting… anything that you feel like working on, and wherever possible projects we can work on together.

Introducing Make a Day gave us a new appreciation for rhythms and knowing when to switch off. I look forward to Sundays with the orsmkids, and in turn I also look forward to butchering and delivery weeks without that slight sense of hysteria that we will never keep up with everything to be done.

So this blog that was The Hedonist Life is now The Farmer & the Butcher. The stories and learnings come from the same heartsongs, but we’ve worn in our boots and can take you on some deeper journeys now. Thanks for your part in sharing this wonderful life with us – we couldn’t do it without you. x

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