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bush telegraph


On transparency...

In response to last week's spot on Radio National Bush Telegraph, we had a lot of negative reaction online from people who don't agree with eating meat. So a friend of mine and I wrote a response, which was posted on the RN site just before I went on air again to discuss the reaction and our decision to castrate in spite of a very close poll that voted against it. Unfortunately, RN edited out Nathan's part, which really is a shame because he's wickedly smart and reflexive, and also happens to be a vegan.
Here's the full text, unedited (you can see the RN version here):


Showing a vegan a photo of an adorable piglet and then asking them to help decide whether to castrate is undoubtedly a red flag to a bull. But it wasn’t vegans we were asking, it was omnivores. What some will call ill-considered (I did briefly), I will here defend as a serious exercise in transparency by farmers who want to educate the public about the realities of food production, and especially the raising of animals for meat. And my vegan friend Nathan and I will argue that vitriolic attacks on those of us committed to transparency create a perverse incentive to retreat to secrecy and obfuscation of regular food production management practices.

We’ve been farming free-range rare breed Large Black pigs for a year and a half now. We came from Melbourne with a clear vision to contribute to what we consider ethical farming - raising pigs on the paddocks who are free to root and wallow at will, and basically express what Joel Salatin calls ‘the pigness of the pig’ until they have ‘one bad day’, which they don’t even know is coming. We believe it’s morally right to eat meat, but not from animals who have suffered or been raised in close confinement their entire lives up until slaughter. Our views and farming practices are not especially controversial, and generally our efforts to raise animals for food humanely and with care and kindness are met with appreciation - both for our practices and for our openness.

So it seemed a great idea when Cameron Wilson of Radio National Bush Telegraph asked whether we were willing for them to do a series tracking one of our animals from piglet to Christmas ham. Too many people don’t know where their food comes from or how it’s raised, though the tide is hopefully turning as information is now more readily accessible and people are realising there’s a lot that happens from paddock to plate.

The idea is a monthly radio interview where we update listeners on what’s been happening with the pig, who we’ve called Wilbur 101 (we call all the boys Wilbur and all the girls Charlotte unless they’re our breeding stock, in which case they have individual names, such as Borg, Big Mama, Keen, Pink and Prudence…). Many people believe you shouldn’t name your food, but we take the view that we’d rather know the animal on our plate well than not at all.

Supplementary to each month’s interview, we agreed to allow a poll to be held to seek the public’s view on management decisions. It gives an opportunity to inform people of the multitude of issues and decisions farmers face daily, and we hoped that using a poll in addition to the podcast and information on the website would lead to more buy in from the public, and in turn more care about the type of system animals are raised in. The first question we posited (as it’s the first management decision we face with newborn boars) was whether or not to castrate.

Unfortunately, while the omnivorous public might have wanted to discuss the practicalities and ethics of castrating boars, a significant number of those opposed to eating meat joined the discussion and turned it into a rant against us, the ABC, farmers generally, and meat eaters specifically. We were called ‘sick freaks’, ‘Neanderthals’, and ‘animal abusers’, to name some of the milder insults.


There are a number of things worth considering here: namely, the ad hominem attacks, the issue of transparency, and the illusion that either veganism or vegetarianism are without their own set of complications, also linked to transparency.

The issue of ad hominem attacks, whether against Tammi and Stuart, the ABC, or meat eaters more generally, brings into question the motives of those willing to utter such comments as to what they are trying to achieve. Considered, respectful discussion is never going to be the effect, nor is any type of conversion from eating meat tenable if the basis of an antithetical argument is vitriolic abuse. Moreover, it lacks all credibility and illustrates a lack of knowledge and understanding not only of farming processes and practices, which is seemingly what this project is attempting to bring to light, but also appears to lack an understanding and knowledge of why people become vegans or vegetarians in the first place, or why people may 'de-convert' — a phenomenon equally present to the phenomenon of people becoming vegan or vegetarian.

All these considerations are not only deeply philosophical, but are also sociological, religious and political. If the conversion to veganism or vegtarianism is well considered, it would be charitable enough to expect that an argument against eating meat is equally considered; calling someone a 'sick freak' or 'Neanderthal' does not range in the category of a rationally considered argument.

Of course, the idea behind this project is transparency. While I as a vegan may disagree with the killing and exploitation of animals for various reasons, the kind of practices brought to light through this program are refreshing to see. In the wake of footage and articles that surround the practice of live export and animal abuse in abattoirs, the program undertaken here ought to be a welcome relief to vegans and vegetarians as we have farmers not only willing to transparently show how animals are treated, but also have public involvement. The outcome of transparency and public involvement is the basis of a descriptive set of guidelines and practices that can be adopted by all farmers. In effect, this program has the potential to become a national standard whereby consumers have the confidence to purchase animal products that have been treated in an ethical manner; whereby the ethical treatment of animals has been considered.

The issue of transparency and the ethical treatment of animals is also a problem for vegan and vegetarian foodways. The ethical treatment of animals is not just to be considered for the animals we can see, but also for the ones we don't.  What consideration is there of the countless rodents and small marsupials that are killed through the processes of producing a loaf of bread? Are the numerous animals killed in the process of pest control of wheat crops, the storage of wheat and flour worthy of our moral consideration? What about the fish whose parts are used in the mass production of beer? Or what of the environmental cost of the global shipping of processed vegan and vegetarian food items? Is the environment also worthy of moral consideration to vegans and vegetarians?

Often the mistreatment and exploitation of animals and the environment is a symptom of a much larger problem. With the spread of global capitalism, the need to feed the starving, unemployed, underemployed and low waged is met with with cheap meat, dairy and eggs at the expense of animal well being. How does veganism approach the problem of starvation, unemployment, underemployment and low wage employment with highly priced soy products? While veganism can betray the maltreatment of animals through analytic critique, the sense in which veganism is able to confront issues of starvation, low wage, under and unemployment betrays itself as being unable to satisfactorily confront environmental and everyday living conditions; veganism requires a level of wealth and prosperity that isn't afforded to the underprivileged. While it is important to analyse and critique the way animals are treated within the global economic market in which we live, it is equally important to engage with farmers and producers willing to be transparent about foodways and the way in which animals are treated in a respectful and considerate manner, as well as being aware of the issues of transparency within our own vegan and vegetarian foodways.


All issues and concerns around the ethics of food production and consumption are worthy of discussion and open scrutiny, but when one group restricts itself to shouting the loudest abuse, or refuses to engage even marginally with the topic at hand (and makes it very unpleasant for any who do engage), there can be no winners - especially not farm animals.

Surely we can all agree that a farming community unwilling to share its practices with the public due to sustained, personal attacks by so-called ‘animal rights activists’ is a very bad outcome. We here at Jonai Farms won’t be frightened away from the challenge of transparency - we understand why people choose veganism or vegetarianism (I was a vegetarian for seven years, and write frequently on my blog about these very questions), and we quite simply disagree with that decision while respecting one’s right to make it. Vegans have every right to disagree with our position, of course, but should think long and hard about what can happen to our food system when they so zealously shout farmers off the stage.

BIOS: Tammi Jonas is a free-range pig farmer with her husband Stuart and three children near Daylesford, Victoria. She is also a cultural theorist nearing completion of a PhD on the role of engagements with multicultural foodways on the development of a cosmopolitan, sustainable society. Tammi blogs atTammi Jonas: Food Ethics and on the farm blog, The Hedonist Life.

Nathan Everson is currently undertaking a Masters of Research degree through Macquarie University, Sydney, focusing on the structural intersections between humans and animals and how these intersections form the basis of our conceptions of politics, ethics, and law. He is a vegan working with his wife and two children on self-sustainable practices within a suburban environment.




To castrate or not...

IMG_2193 It’s been exciting times around the farm as we welcomed 37 new piglets in five days, though three litters were the result of unplanned teenage pregnancies… yes, that can happen on a free-range pig farm, especially when you don’t castrate. Let me tell you more about our decision to castrate after all…

As someone concerned about animal welfare, I took it as a given that we wouldn’t castrate, and that the only management strategy we would require for that decision would be to send boars to the abattoir no later than six months old, before they reached sexual maturity. The primary argument against castration is that it causes unnecessary trauma to the pig. The primary arguments in favour of castration are to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the herd, avoid boar taint in the meat, and control undesirable behaviours commonly manifest in boars (aggression against other boars, and occasionally people, though I think this is uncommon amongst well-treated pigs in free-range systems). To my knowledge, most free-range pig farmers do not, as a rule, castrate.

And so we didn’t castrate. What we observed in the paddocks was boars from tiny little piglets through to 60kg growers appearing to ‘play fight’ a fair bit, and to hassle the gilts regularly from a couple months old, including clumsy mating attempts from a young age. They tend to be dominant in the herd, making the gilts less likely to get their fair share of the feed, and if they come together with another young boar from a different family group in another paddock while we move stock, they fight fairly vigorously from about four or five months old. We’ve not had any seriously injured, but torn ears and skin abrasions are common consequences of such aggressive interactions, which also occur around feeding time (amongst gilts and sows too - not just the boars).

When we slaughtered our first pig, I lived in fear of boar taint, as we’d had trouble finding a butcher and had let the pigs grow on to nearly eight months, well past our planned six. The first loin chops had a very mild taint to them, but were still quite delicious. I cooked our Christmas roast for a huge extended family gathering on a bed of aromatics to try to ward it off, and was clearly successful given the reviews that day. The boars we’ve had slaughtered since have been free of taint until the last one, which had a mild case of it, as noted by The Hangry Bitch who came along to Eat Your Ethics during Harvest Week.

Boar taint is a funny thing - not everybody tastes it to the same degree, and allegedly some can’t taste it at all. It can definitely be managed to some extent in the cooking process, or by turning the meat into sausages or salami where lots of other flavours are at play. I am very sensitive to it, which is rather handy as a pig farmer - we taste some of each pig before we sell the meat. I’ve heard stories from other pig farmers of entire carcasses being pulled from sales due to taint - that’s a lot of lost money in expenses to raise and slaughter that pig with no profit in sight, and a very sad outcome to take a life and be unable to serve it at all. (And to confuse matters, it really is a matter of taste, some people like the flavour of boar taint, though few in Australia.)

And then came the pregnant gilts. We keep our pigs in family groups - pigs are very social animals, and have to adjust to new social orders when the groups are mixed. Plus if they’re kept as a litter their feed rations are collectively appropriate for their development stage, and we can easily manage those ready for the abattoir if they’re all in one paddock. Our reading and discussions with other producers had somehow never brought to light the fact that boars can reach sexual maturity as young as four months. The rounding bellies of a few gilts at six months, however, brought it clearly to light.

Not only were they younger than is ideal (younger gilts have smaller litters, and reportedly may not be as good at mothering as if they have their first litter a bit older), we don’t in-breed our pigs - the boar (Borg) and our breeding sows are from different lines. In-breeding is an old practice, and as one of our favourite books (Pig raising in Tasmania, 1966) says, if it’s successful, it’s line breeding, if not, it’s in-breeding! Still we choose to keep our lines separate, except in the case of wayward young boars.

And so we separated out the boars from the gilts, a practice we now do routinely when the pigs are around three months old. At first the boars suddenly fight more, even though they’ve been together. Something about the steadying influence of women, etc. ;-)

Given our experience with boar taint and unplanned pregnancies, we returned to the debate over whether to castrate. This time, of course, we had the benefit of having farmed pigs for over a year, rather than having our inner urban, leftist, idealist glasses on. Okay, I will never take those glasses off except for the inner urban bit, but a year and a half with pigs has taught me that they have an extremely high pain threshold (they’re quite hard on each other when it comes to scrambling for feed, as attested by the number of torn ears in the paddock, no matter how well fed the lovely blighters may be), and that castration would not be any more traumatic than being shoved down the social order by an older sibling when there’s delicious grain to be had.

And that’s the whole story, and why we do now routinely castrate the males. We still don’t vaccinate, and nor do we use sub-therapeutic antibiotics (there’s absolutely no need in a free-range system), and of course we don’t nose ring or dock their gorgeous, curly tails. The sows still farrow in a nice warm, safe stall with fresh straw and a heat lamp to attract the piglets away from cumbersome, dopy new mamas and their lethal squashing accidents, and piglets aren’t weaned until six to eight weeks.



And those barrows (the castrated boars) give a short squeal when they’re cut, antiseptic is applied, and they scamper off as though nothing has happened. I imagine they’re sore, it seems only logical that they would be (as were our cat and dog when they were fixed). But for that period of soreness, they in turn get to have an extra couple of months on the farm, and all within their family groups to the end, as we have been growing our pigs on to seven to eight months with good results.

For us, the trade off is worth it on many levels. Some may disagree with us, and some may think we’re crazy to even tell you the details of management decisions like these, which have real commercial as well as ethical consequences. But we signed up for a transparency model, so that’s what you’ll get, and if you don’t like what we’re doing, please say so, and if we can’t agree, there is surely another system out there that will work for you.


If you’re interested in following one of our pigs through his entire life, from birth to Christmas ham, through decisions like whether to castrate, vaccinate, when to rotate through the paddocks, what’s the right feed ratio, and what to do if he gets sick, you can each month with Radio National Bush Telegraph, as Cameron Wilson visits us and gets to know Wilbur 101. He’ll be putting up polls each month where you get to have a say about our management decisions - though we do reserve the right to make the final decision in line with our knowledge and philosophy of what’s best for the pig and the planet.


Oh, and if you really like what we’re doing and why we do it, you might like to support our Pozible project to do our own butchering right here on the farm! We’re 76% funded on day 14 of 40! Thank you to the wonderful, generous ethical omnivores who’ve already supported us! If we go over our target, we’ll be able to put a smokehouse in straight away - the possibilities are endless!