TFWF#40: What do you call a Farmer’s Market without Farmers?

As many of you will know I have always tried, and enjoyed, being very transparent about the farm and the business. The whole reason for writing the blog was to let my readers follow me on my journey and experience the highs and lows of a start-up business, choosing a niche market and using social media to help modernise the ageing New Zealand Farming community.

We have always had a singular mission to produce high quality pork and to raise happy pigs in an ethical way. Our pigs require more time and care to raise than those in intensive farming practices, such as free farming and those with sow stalls. We raise fewer pigs at a slower rate than intensive farms and this means our pork costs more, but tastes much better. We rely on the discernment, interest in provenance and knowledge of our consumers to create demand for ethically-raised, better tasting pork.

To achieve our goal we had to build our stocks by searching the country for suitable pigs and starting a breeding program. It is not possible to buy an existing herd of pigs from an intensive farm and free range them because they have been ‘genetically modified’ to suit their environment, instead we chose heritage breed black pigs more suited to outdoors. What this means is that we have less meat product and we therefore have to pick where we sell our meat very carefully to ensure our customers understand and appreciate our story. As of today we have 97 pigs on the farm, some are on the breeding herd, some are piglets and some are coming up to slaughter weight. I cannot simply buy in pigs or meat products when I have a shortage of stock and therefore sometimes I simply do not have anything to sell and reluctantly have to let down customers.

These are the challenges of my business and I very much rely on my carefully chosen sales locations to ensure the business can continue. In Wellington I have chosen to sell at and work with, the Hill St Farmers Market (soon to be called the Thorndon Farmers Market), because they are a small community based market with lots of regulars and very focused stall holders.

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

The atmosphere is great on a Saturday morning and regardless of the weather I can always rely on my excellent customers to pop along and say hello. I have been so taken by the Thorndon market that when they asked for stall holders to become trustee’s and help with the running of the market I was keen to join in. One major challenge for The Thorndon Farmers Market is that the location does not easily allow for the market to meet the terms of an Authentic Farmers Market, as governed by the Farmers Market NZ organisation. In respect for this authentication and the organisation the Thorndon market has opted not to become a member, yet.

In contrast my other market of choice, Feilding Farmers Market, is a proud member of the Farmers Market NZ organisation and has, for the last three years, been voted best authentic farmers market, last winning the award in 2014. At Feilding I am surrounded by people who bake, cook, create, squeeze, grow or produce their own food. Its definitely an eclectic bunch of people but full of like minded business owners who strive to produce a better product and impart their knowledge to their customers. In an environment like this both the sellers and the customers know that the stall holders are authentic and the competition is on a level playing field. Or so I thought.

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On the 13th February I, like most regular stall holders, arrived early at the market. The normal hours are 9am till 2:30pm but I like to arrive at 8am as often my customers want to get their shopping done before the working day starts. At 9am a large mobile butchery van arrived from Waikanae Butchery, a retailer based on the Kapiti Coast. Given that a butcher is by no means a farmer and that they are able to sell wholesale meat products everyday of the week in their retail store I was sure that this was a mistake and approached the market manager. I was initially told that they had not seen the paperwork and therefore had not been approved but, as they had arrived, they would be allowed to trade for the day.

To make my point very clear, I am not opposed to competition. I have spent most of my life working in Consumer Electronics which is one of the most competitive industries in the world. Competition is healthy, creates a better products and is good for the producer and the consumer. However, unfair competition is not healthy, it does not care about the customer or the product and often destroys the person or producer who was striving to improve the product in the first place.

Let me explain, my daily routine is to feed the pigs, I ensure they are healthy, have water, wallows and plenty of space. On a thursday I personally load the pigs and drive to Wanganui to the abattoir. Because of the rules dictated by the Ministry of Primary Industries I have to employ a butcher to cut the meat and produce the sausages, we work together and I manage him to ensure my product is treated well and no fillers are used. I pick up the finished product, label it and take it to the market. I am involved in every aspect of the production of my products, including the finance, marketing, social media and legislation. A retailer like Waikanae Butchery does not have to worry about the animals, their welfare or any part of the farming. Instead they are able to focus on on-selling meat products each and every day. When they run out of meat they buy more, they are not constrained by breeding cycles because they rely on wholesalers. They are not involved in the upbringing of the animals and therefore are not able to vouch for their quality of life, even if they can tell you the farm it came from. (In the case of pork, they buy from Murrellen Pork in Canterbury and the farm is actually Free Farmed, not Free Range (click here to read about the difference) and there are no rules to govern the number of grower pigs kept indoors.)

Feilding Farmers Market is run by a management company. To ensure our thoughts were clear another stallholder called Venison Bouche and Woody’s decided to make formal complaints about the arrival of Waikanae Butchery based on the 3 Golden Rules for Farmers’ Markets and their stallholders:

(1)    A Farmers’ Market is a food market (e.g. no arts, craft, bric-a-brac) with some exceptions for plants and flowers.
(2)    This food is produced within a defined local area (each market can define their local region)
(3)    The vendor must be directly involved in the growing or production process of the food (e.g. no middle men, on-sellers, wholesalers, retailers, etc… )

However it quickly became apparent that I had not initially been told the truth and actually “(FFM) have received and pre-approved the application from Waikanae ButcheryI” There explanation on how they met the criteria and had been approved was that “stallholders must produce or add value to locally grown primary produce. ‘Adding value’ could be as simple as roasting, preparing, cutting and packing produce. Local is a grey area and we have discretion by a case by case basis to go outside the set geographical boundary.” In simple terms the product can be deemed local even if it is from Canterbury and the stall holder would be deemed to be adding value if they simply pack the product. Under these terms any supermarket in the area would be able to sell most products if they can list on the packaging where the produce came from and prove that they have packed the product.

Wishing to take the matter to the committee for the Farmers Market, who had a meeting on Friday 20th, I asked the manager to provide the details of the stall holders on the committee but was told that this information was confidential and that my concerns would be passed to the Chair. The following Venison Bouche and I were sent an email to say that Waikanae Butchery presented to the committee and that their promises to work with the management team were accepted and they had been approved. Unfortunately I was not invited to present my opinion and with a one sided argument is was clear that they would be allowed to attend the market. As part of their application Waikanae Butchery offered to not sell Venison and ‘work with’ Woody’s Farm on the pork products that they sell, however as I said at the start of this blog my issue was not about competition but about the morals of a farmers market. As a result of the decision Venison Bouche have already pulled out of the market (you can buy online from them by clicking here) and I am hoping they will join us at Thorndon Market one day.

So what will Woody’s Farm do? Personally I enjoying attending the farmers market and Feilding market is about 40% of our income. As we build the business we need this income to keep paying for the pig feed, which currently costs about $2000 per month. It is indeed sad that Feilding is no longer an authentic farmers market and given that I was threatened “that the Market rules [state] Stallholders must channel all concerns thru the Market Management Team…”. perhaps the decision will be out of my hands. However I will be talking to my customers to see their point of view and I hope that you will help to support me. We have also started to sell through The Daly Larder on Fergusson Street so consumers will be able to get Woody’s Farm product almost any day of the week.

It is a very difficult path I have taken in setting up a free range pig farm and somedays it can seem fruitless, with unexpected challenges, but we are nere to stay and I look forward to working with all my customers in the future, where ever you are.

TFWF#39: a look back at 2014

We dont always have the time to look back at our lives, and even if we do have the time we often don’t have the inclination. However as its the end of our first year farming I thought I should look back and see what, if anything, I have achieved.

Of course its easy to say that in a year when achievements have been coming from every direction, a new country, a career change, a marriage, a baby and so on (not all of that happened in 2014 but most of it did). The problem is that it has been a frantic whirlwind of events and activity and I am running the risk of not appreciating the memories and learnings.

Its been just over a year since we moved to the farm and after a short time as bare land owners we received our first livestock on the 11th December 2014. The nine piglets from Wanganui did us well and got us through the first few farmers markets and indeed one lucky Sow (now named Ruth, after Ruth Pretty the chef) became the first pig to be mated and have a litter on the farm.

Me inspecting the herd on day one.

Me inspecting the herd on day one.

When I look back at the pictures of me surrounded by those motley coloured pigs, pink buckets in hand and a small pile of feed bags I am amazed by the growth that has happened. If we just look at the numbers on the 11th December 2013 we had a total of nine piglets on the farm, as of today, 11th January 2015, we now have a herd consisting of:

  • 3 Boars
  • 8 Sows
  • 7 Gilts (young sows)
  • 40 Growers
  • 34 Piglets

The infrastructure in December 2014 was basically two large fields with perimeter fencing only and one small transit paddock. A year on and we have 18 four line electric fenced paddocks with detailed maps of the farm in order to ensure the pigs are tracked and accounted for, the water pipes are easy to find and the electric fence on/off switches are everywhere. Not only has it been a great deal of hard work and time it has also cost a great deal of money, the steel fence posts are $7 each and I would estimate we have used at least 200 posts alone, not to mention the gates, the gate posts, the wire (thousands of meters), the insulators and the tools required to do all this work.

The breeding herd paddock after 1 year of farming

A panoramic photo of the breeding herd paddock after 1 year of farming. At roughly 12 acres the herd have about 1 acre per paddock and normally house two Sows per paddock

After a few months of breeding herd preparations and feeding the ‘bought in’ growers we were greeted by a barrage of piglets in May, starting with Paula on the 1st May, then Marigold, then Jennifer and finally Clarissa squeezing into the month on the 31st May. The following month the month important of our litters was born, our first son, Fred. The numbers on the farm were building quickly.

That same month was our first time at the Farmers Markets. My fear of meeting customers and selling on the street was eclipsed by my fear of driving, parking and reversing with a chiller trailer attached. I had never towed a trailer before and had never been to either of the markets to scope out the trailer driving skills needed. It seems like such a funny thing to have been worried so about now that I look back, but at the time it kept me awake at night.

Our first market day. Both Claire and I manning the stand

Our first market day. Both Claire and I manning the stand

The markets went well. I enjoyed them on that first day and I still enjoy them just as much after neary a year. I like meeting the people that eat and enjoy our meat and I also like to be able to talk about our farm and why we do what we do. The markets were also our greatest marketing venues, we met restaurant owners, chefs, foodies, blog writers and eventually in the middle of the year a producer from the iconic TVNZ Country Calendar.

As the year went on I scoured the country looking for breeding stock. We had pigs arrive on the farm from Gore, Masterton, Featherston, Feilding, Levin and the Hawkes Bay. By the time the Country Calendar cameras arrived we had become a fully fledged (but still small scale) pig farm. The show explored our reasons for the farm, our plans for the future and ourselves. It was a most enjoyable experience.

Feeding pigs brewers grain whilst standing on the back of a ute with a camera crew.

Feeding pigs brewers grain whilst standing on the back of a ute with a camera crew, just another day…

As the year came to a close the focus switched entirely to the production and supply of the Christmas hams. With such a large amount of produce being sold in one month it very quickly became apparent that the Christmas hams are actually the make or break of a pig farmer and no mistakes could be made. Not wanting to let anyone down we launched the sale of hams on our website, pay a deposit and secure your ham. Within just two days 80% of our hams were sold. What followed was a frantic plethora of spreadsheets with names and collection points, final prices and preferences for sizes. It was our first year and we had a lot to organise and learn. We bought boxes, labels, sticker and bags and I spent a great deal of time trying to get it 100%. Of course I didn’t manage to achieve 100% satisfaction but we were pretty close and we learnt from our mistakes, bring on next year.

Twenty Fourteen was a year of arrivals, markets, deaths, piglets, births, trips to the abattoir, fencing, water reticulation, weddings, family, Woody catching his first rat, Fred eating his first meal, damaging cars, fixing cars, floods, cameras, building houses, meeting customers and much, much more.

I wonder what Twenty Fifteen will bring?