When we started farming in 2011, we knew we would be a no-growth model. But we didn’t expect to feel the need to scale down after just eight years… and yet that is where our rapidly changing climate has led us.
We built our model on 12 sows and one boar, increasing to two boars and between 13 and 14 sows to recover from the 2016 fertility crisis. The changeover in the breeding herd and slight increase in their numbers led to an excess of fecundity just as we approached the driest autumn on the farm in 2018, which repeated and worsened in 2019 – leaving us with too many pigs on hungry ground.
Parallel to this we increased our cattle herd by taking on 10 bobby calves from our dairying neighbor, again at a time when the grass simply wasn’t growing and our regenerative efforts were not enough…
While this has not left us with a farm of bare earth, it has damaged our groundcover more than we believe is responsible care for the land, and if you had asked us a mere two months ago we would have also told you our worries about whether next year there would even be enough water for the stock as dam levels were still receding in April…
The drought in our region broke in the first week of May and we’ve recorded 384mm of rain in just two months. Our dams are overflowing and water is cascading down the volcano like lava flows of old. And yet all this rain came too late for much to grow… the grasses have had their thirst quenched, but the opportunity for growth vanished with the first frost shortly before the first rains. While green, they remain recalcitrant to stretch their roots into cold soils or blades into the wintery air.
And so like most farmers in the eastern states of Australia (and many elsewheres), we started discussing our business model and how to climate proof it before it’s too late. We are at least in the fortunate position not to be suffering record grain prices as we don’t buy any commodity grain, but the flip side is that with a slightly bigger herd, the already huge workload of sourcing, collecting, shifting, mixing, and feeding out waste-stream feed has become an even bigger chore for Stuart.
Behind this year’s deliberations have been years-long discussions of plans to shift to more education and less physical labour when we grow too old to keep up the sheer amount of lifting and carrying we both do. However, at not-yet-50 years old, neither of us feels we can’t do the work we currently do. Our continued physical strength coupled with my bloody-minded commitment to demonstrate that viable farming models are possible without major reliance on agri-tourism means we simply aren’t ready to go down that path yet.
So here’s the plan – we will slightly decrease our herd sizes and sell slightly less meat at slightly higher prices, while also adding another two workshops per annum.
We haven’t raised prices in over three years – a conscious choice as we have reduced many of our direct costs over that period (e.g. $20,000 in grain bills). But effectively what that has meant is that Stuart has worked harder for less pay as it’s his side of the system that took on the extra labour of wholly waste-stream feed.
The only way farmers will be able to keep farming without destroying their land in increasing drought conditions is if people pay slightly more for farmers to grow less. The earlier we prepare for these realities and support farmers in efforts to downsize in keeping with the changed carrying capacity of their land, the better we’ll all manage to adjust.
In practice, this means Jonai Farms is scaling down from 12 sows and two boars to 10 sows and one boar, and instead of processing two beef carcasses per month we will process two per six weeks – spreading the carcasses over three butchery/delivery cycles rather than two. We’ve been letting our CSA member numbers decline in readiness – so from a high of 90 members at the start of 2016 to a stable 85 over the past year and a half, we’re down to 80 members now and we’ll stay here. We’ve already dropped from 14 pigs per month to 12 (from the 2015 high of 16), and that’s where we’ll stay for now.
We will increase prices by 5% to account for the increased labour of an entirely waste-stream feed system. Members who have paid for the year up front won’t experience the price increase until renewal, those in their first year with us will also have until their second year commences, and longer-term members will have the option to pay more anytime in the next six months – they get to decide.
In addition to the herd reductions, we’re keen to clear the paddocks a bit to reduce the impact of the animals on the ground now and in readiness for making the most of what we hope will be a good spring for growing grass. So in August, we plan to offer 5 and 10kg packs of mixed cuts (or half or whole pig carcasses) to our long waiting list in hopes of removing about 18 pigs while giving a heap of very patient people some uncommonly delicious pork. Once those on the waiting list have placed their orders we’ll open them up to our newsletter subscribers and Facebook followers. (If you’re not on the waiting list, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Facebook to see when the offer comes out!)
The August offering has a side bonus in an extra butchery week for Buck, our current delightful volunteer resident, who is here to learn farming and the art of butchery to compliment her chef skills in hopes of one day running her own paddock to plate enterprise, possibly back on family land in Tennessee.
The land wins, eaters win, and team Jonai win in this decision to scale down to a lower risk herd size here on the farm. I would add to our mate and mentor Joel Salatin’s phrase about farming within one’s ‘ecological umbilical’ and say we need to stay within and nourish the womb of our community as well.
We’re not just farming for a living, we’re farming for life.
5 July 2019