TFWF#42: The night the arks floated

As many of you will know the night of the 19th June was a very wet one for much of New Zealand. Here in the Manawatu we were hit very hard by the run off from the Tararua Ranges. Our farm is split in two by the Waikawa stream, a normally calm babbling brook that you can wade through in gumboots. On the night of the 19th the water level rose to almost 2.5m, breaking the councils measuring system in the process, and the flow peaked at over 200,000 litres per second (on average it is normally around 500l/s). The noise all over the farm was deafening and, it was scary.

The day started early at 5:30am with preparations for Feilding Farmers Market at 8am. At 6:45 I left for the market and whilst the weather was far from enjoyable I had a great day with lots of new and old customers dropping by. We had been warned about the rainfall but standing in the town square it looked like the forecasters had been a little overly cautious, the showers were interspersed with sun and did not feel like flood levels of water.

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The weather forecast for 19th June, watch for flooding they said…

It wasn’t until I left the markets at about 2pm that I started to see the volume of water that was starting to build up in the paddocks and roadways on the journey home from Feilding through Sanson and into Levin. As I drove through the puddles the tension regarding what I would find back on the farm had started to build. Turning into the driveway I could already see the Waikawa stream was high and loud as the water crashed into the banks.

After any market I am tired and frankly want to sit down and have a beer but as always I have a number of food and farm related jobs that have to be carried out. I counted the remaining meat, loaded the fridges, filled in my paperwork and got changed into my farm gear in order to head out to feed the pigs. I filled up the feed buckets and headed out to check on the grower pigs who live in the paddock closest to the Waikawa stream. By now it was about 3:30pm, the rain was still falling hard and the paddocks were very wet, but the stream was no higher than I had seen it before and the water seemed to be draining freely via the drainage ditches that the previous owners of our farm had, poorly, installed. Feeling a little calmer about the situation I went back home to check the forecast, the councils data for the stream and eat some lunch.

The rain continued, hard. My stress levels continued to build. Every couple of hours I headed out into the farm to look at the stream and check on the paddock with the grower pigs. 5pm, 7pm, 8:30pm, the water was rising but seemed manageable. The drainage ditch was now flowing over the track into paddock and would make moving the pigs to higher ground difficult but not impossible. Night had fallen and it was getting hard to see the real situation, at 9:30 I headed out again to look at the paddock and found that the water had risen further, the pigs were not in danger but if this carried on I was in real trouble of endangering life unless i did something.

At times like this the first thing you need is moral support, with my mind racing at a thousand thoughts per second I was running the risk of becoming too overwhelmed to actually do anything. At 10pm Claire asked me to take her down to the paddock so she could see the situation herself. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised that the river had actually peaked at 10:20 and broken the banks at the end of the paddock, as Claire and I arrived we were faced with total carnage as the river made a horseshoe type flow across the paddock cutting it off from the farm. The paddock track was impassable, the drainage ditch had overflowed and the water running over the track was almost waist deep. We could see the pigs in the first section of the paddock, all huddling in their ark shaped house completely surrounded by water, they had no higher ground to get too. It was a terrible sight and both Claire and I had to take a moment to calm ourselves. We decided to go back up to the house and try and call Russell who used to farm all the land around this neighbourhood, we thought he would surely be able to make some suggestions (we later found out he was in Fiji on holiday). Meanwhile I set out in the dark to the DOC campground which backs onto our paddock to see if I could get to the pigs from the other direction.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this 'river' was actually the farm track into the paddock.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this ‘river’ was actually the farm track into the paddock (thats my car parked on higher ground). And those rope like things are the high tensile fences being swept away, the pigs are in the paddock on the right.

Pulling into the campground the sitting water was everywhere. I got out the car and made my way to the fence line, it looked like I could get through and get to the pigs, my plan was to cut some fences and let the pigs get to slightly higher ground in other sections of the paddock. As I walked towards the paddock a quad bike pulled into the campground, thinking it was Russell and at the same time finding the whole darkness, headlamp and roaring river thing a little creepy I headed back to my car. The quad was being driver by Brad, another neighbour, he offered to take me over to the fence line on the quad, I jumped on. We both climbed over the fence and went to look at the pigs. Water was everywhere, at least 12″ deep, but much of the paddock was above the waterline and most of the pigs were at no risk, we kept walking over to the first section that Claire and I had seen underwater about half an hour ago. It looked like the water had receded a little but you couldn’t tell what was likely to happen. Having spent weeks putting electric fences all over the paddock splitting the land into smaller sections for rotation of the pigs I now knew that the only thing I could do was cut the fences and hope the pigs worked out the best places to be. Soaking wet Brad and I jumped back onto the quad and headed for my car.

Back at home Claire had been unable to get hold of Russell and I simply didn’t know if the water was rising or falling, it was now about midnight and we had no option than to call around and get help. Our friends in Otaki couldn’t get through, the highway was cut off just outside Otaki by a stream crossing the road and the Waikawa had actually washed away the highway just north of Manakau meaning that we were also cut off from Levin, isolated in both directions. Our only option was the neighbours and what followed was nothing short of a miracle of logistics by Claire. Whilst the names will mean nothing to you just marvel at the organisation as we rallied the neighbours at midnight

  • Doug was home alone as Julie was stuck in Levin, he couldn’t leave his children who were asleep
  • Claire offered to babysit Doug’s kids but then we needed someone to babysit Fred, also asleep.
  • Denise came around to babysit Fred
  • Brad came back to help, sporting what I think was a wetsuit
  • Chris got our of bed to come and give a hand
  • Doug arrived in his Land Rover

We had a team and we set to work trying to grab as many pigs as possible and get them to higher ground or, thanks to Doug and his amazing trailer towing skills, into the stock trailer. What followed was a torchlit version of a black and white slapstick movie as one by one we dived at black pigs, missed, landed face down in the mud and tried again. We soon got a rhythm and by the time my grip gave out, from the power of grabbing the pigs by their fast kicking legs, we had caught and re-homed about 30 pigs of all shapes and sizes. It was about 2:30am.

As we returned to our respective homes everyone looked drained and ready to sleep, except Brad who I think could have carried on all night wrestling pigs. After a well needed warm shower I sat down at the computer and informed all our Facebook followers that it was looking very unlikely we would be at the Thorndon Farmers Market that day, despite having a trailer full of fresh meat. It was now 3am and I had been awake for 22 hours, tomorrow the clean up had to start and the pigs needed somewhere to live other than the back of a trailer.

From the bottom of my heart I would like to thank all those people that came out to help that night, some of you might be reading this. Apart from simply being a really nice thing to do I suspect that you probably saved a life and definitely saved my business. Thank you so much.

TFWF#41: Part 3 – Money

I started Woody’s Free Range Farm with animal husbandry and welfare as my number one concern but after 18 months the reality of farming, just like any industry, is that money comes a very close second. Just like any startup business, we are very reliant on much bigger businesses who will only give us a fair go if we have a good cashflow position and pay our bills regularly, companies like abattoirs, butchers, feed mills and courrier companies.

For every person that dreams of giving up the corporate world and starting a small farm (or even worse a pig farm) there will be many more who tried it and failed when they realised it was eating away at savings and, rather than providing an outdoor lifestyle, it actually tied them to the farm every single day of the year.

Choosing farming as a new career is not an easy path to take and I believe that the key to making it work for me has been a mixture of stubbornness, competitiveness and being a control freak. However all of those ‘admirable’ qualities aside the main reason the farm is still going and the business improving is because of the savings that I had before we started the farm.

Farming is expensive. Aside from the cash flow issues of feeding animals for eight months before being able to take any produce to market there are also the capital costs of simply running a farm. We are lucky enough to have eighty acres of land but with it comes an obligation to look after the land, and with that comes costs. We have to pay the mortgage, rates, earthworks, farm structures, vehicles and water reticulation. All these expenses need to be paid and with only, at this stage, six pigs to sell a month we simply can’t rely on just that income alone.

Our largest ongoing cost is animal feed. In order to ensure the consistent quality of our meat we buy in a special feed formula for our grower pigs and another specific feed for the breeding herd. We do supplement this with used brewers grain which we collect for free from The Garage Project in Wellington but this is just a ‘filler feed’ and does not replace the professionally designed feed formula that the pigs get fed. Each and every day our pigs get fed at least 1kg of feed per animal per meal, and have two meals a day. On average a kilo of feed costs $0.83 per kg, this soon adds up depending on the number of pigs on the farm. At the moment we have 57 growers, 20 sows and 3 boars all eating 2kg of feed per day – thats a total of 160kg of feed or $132.80 per day.

On the other side of the coin our income has, up till now, almost exclusively come from the sale of meat at farmers markets and through restaurants and cafe’s. We are small and can’t meet demand but since the beginning of this year we have taken 32 pigs to the abattoir and sold 2403 packets of meat, this equates to 1239kg of pork including 5425 sausages and 233kg of bacon and ham. We have been lucky in that we have had no problems selling our products but our sales methods are also very time consuming and mean that I get to spend less time on the farm when I need to be at the markets or collecting the meat from the butchers.

Our prices are closely matched to retail prices. We are obviously more expensive that intensively reared meat but I have always tried to keep the prices at a level that most people can afford, if only for a special event. Our bacon is often cheaper that the Free Farmed versions for sale in the supermarket and always cheaper than the products available in high end stores such as Moore Wilson and Commonsence Organics, this is because we are the producer and there are no middle men or retail margins to be paid. Our goal is to be able to supply you with excellent meat products are reasonable prices, and by making a purchase you are 100% supporting us the growers.

Despite all this the reality is that we are currently not growing enough pigs to make enough money to run the business in the black. We simply need to breed more pigs and with this will bring the economies of scale that will make the farm a viable business. I write this blog not to complain or to plead poverty but rather to ensure that anyone with an interest in a similar lifestyle understands that it will take time and during that time you will need savings, a great deal of will power and probably most important…a very supportive partner.

TFWF#41: Part 2 – Sex

In the second part of this farm update I focus on sex. Not the type of sex that gets the heart beating and the mind racing but the type of sex that makes the running of a farm completely dependant upon spreadsheets and calendars.

I have mentioned the maths before but to reiterate a pig comes into heat every 21 days. Once pregnant the gestation is 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. After the farrowing occurs the piglets spend 8 weeks with their mother, suckling from her milk and eventually some creep feeding of the grains that the sows eat. Finally, after the 8 weeks, they are collected up and transferred to the grower paddocks where they will live for another five to six months.

Well thats the theory, what about the practice, and more specifically how do we get them pregnant and how do we know they are pregnant. Here on the farm we use natural methods for getting the sows pregnant, better known as Hugh and Gordon. On larger farms they prefer to use artificial insemination as this ensure the sows don’t get hurt by the boar and they can be more certain of the date of impregnation, however we have the space and the time to focus on natural breeding. The sows are put to the boar for a period of 25 days, this ensures the sows will be on heat at least once and normally twice. After this we cycle the sows and move them out to be replaced by the next lot. Sometimes we don’t have another sow to put in with the boars so to ensure the boars don’t get lonely the sows are left in the paddocks for a longer time.

Gordon and his girls

Gordon (at the back getting a scratch) with his girls.

Despite giving the sows at least 25 days with the boars it is still important to be able to tell when the pig comes on heat. There are normally physical signs to help to identify this and most pig farmers will also tell you that if you push the sow from behind and she refuses to move then she is very likely to be on heat. The problem with both of these methods is that they are open to interpretation and can sometimes be unreliable. Unfortunately the cost of an ultrasound machine is simply too much for us to buy so we have to use the old methods of checking for signs of heat and being patient. In most cases I have been lucky and the pigs have all been pregnant first time but as we get busier its more difficult to leave the sows with the boars for longer and not all sows come on heat in the same way, making it difficult to know if they are pregnant or not.

Recently we have had a few failed attempts and this can have a real effect on business plans because we are suddenly ten pigs down on expectations. The first sow to let us down was Martha. Martha is a very Large Black who came as a package deal with two registered rare breed Berkshires, unfortunately, after living with a boar for months, she simply did not come on heat and could not get pregnant. I had two options but given the complications of slaughtering a 250kg sow, the abattoir will not take pigs over 80kg and I cannot sell the meat if we home kill her, she has escaped culling and has become our companion sow who will keep any lonely boar company whilst they are not in service.

Martha, the Large Black  companion pig.

Martha, the Large Black companion pig.

The second sow to fail to get pregnant was more of a surprise to me, she is a registered Berkshire and had originally arrived on the farm already in litter, she was a good mum with 11 piglets but second time around she failed to come on heat and I suspect it was because of a hip/leg injury making her unsuitable for mating. Jennifer is a typical example of an untypical pig. she is difficult to tell when on heat, there are very little outward signs and she is so stubborn she will refuse, when pushed, to move if on heat or not. I waited with in trepidation and baited breath as the 15th May approached and passed, it was obvious that she was not pregnant but being a big pig I still had some hope that she was simply not showing. However its now 20 days after her litter was due and whilst she has proven to be a great companion to Ruth, who had a litter at the beginning of May, she will soon be put back to the boar and I will be watching very closely this time. Its a sad fact of life on the farm that all the animals on the farm need to provide a return, we simply cannot afford to become a rescue home to old animals which continue to cost us $2 per day in feed. Let us all keep our fingers crossed that Jennifer delivers us a litter soon.

After 18 months on the farm I have learnt a lot about pigs but I still need to become better at recognising the pigs heat cycles, planning the mating and ensuring the pigs are pregnant after being moved out from the boars. Its all part of the learning experience and I have quickly learnt, to my detriment, that planning the breeding is the most important part of the business because when I get it wrong it results in a shortage of stock to sell eight months down the line. This is actually the biggest difference between my old career in Consumer Electronics and my new career as a farmer, whereas I used to be able to quickly increase supply by buying more products I now have to plan eights months in advance to meet my customers demands, and if I get it wrong we have nothing to sell.

TFWF#41: Part 1 – Death

As the farm, and the business, gets busier I have realised that my farm updates are getting further and further apart. This means I have a lot more to say in each update and therefore I have cut out the basic humdrum of everyday life on the farm to focus on the really important matters. This post is in three parts and each details the three most important issues on the farm, the issues of death, sex and money.

As I have mentioned in previous posts death is a big part of farming. A part that I thought I had prepared myself for but it never ceases to amaze me how it still affects me. Luckily our breeding stock and grower pigs have been healthy and we have never lost a single pig after weaning. Its a different story at birth and a pig will almost always have at least one death per litter, the stats are on average 10%. Depending on the pig, some have no deaths and some tend to have more than their fare share, this could be due to still births, too many in a litter or the mother accidentally sitting on the piglets in the farrowing hut.

At times we have periods of frequent farrowing and at the start of this year we had four litters in a row, when this happens you also have the chance of more piglet deaths. Two of the pigs had no deaths, resulting in litters of 13 and 9 respectively. The other two were less lucky and they have a history of losing a few piglets per litter. One pig decided to farrow outside by the fence line rather than in a hut, this resulted in her nest being less suitable for the piglets and she squashed two of them, she actually had less space for the piglets to get away than if she had farrowed in the hut. As soon as I found the piglets at the far end of the field I began the process of moving them (two at a time) into the farrowing hut, the mother followed later and luckily we lost no more from that litter. Collecting the dead piglets it is not a nice job and made worse by the work required to dig holes in which to lay them to rest. I have always insisted on treating them respectfully and when the weather allows I normally dig a hole on a hill overlooking the breeding paddock, from there they are able to look down on the rest of the herd, forever a part of the farm.

Of course the most regular cause of death that I have to deal with is when I take the grower pigs to the abattoir for slaughter. Its a part of the job that I don’t often talk openly about because many people don’t like to think about this part of the lifecycle, or find it too upsetting. However I feel that if you eat meat you should know the process involved and therefore I insist on taking the pigs to the abattoir myself.

Its not a pleasant journey, knowing the final destination, but it is made as stressless as possible for the pigs by starting early in the day and getting them on the trailer straight after a good nights sleep. For a few days before the journey the pigs have been relocated into the transit paddock and are trained to eat on the trailer, come the day of the journey they greet me from the trailer, waiting to get fed, snorting with happiness. Without any hassles or stress I slide the door closed, hitch up the trailer to the car and head out on the road.

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Three Large Black pigs getting ready for their journey to the abattoir. Two of them still unaware they are even on a trailer.

 

They have plenty of straw for the journey and after a few mins they settle down for the journey. We never travel if the weather is too bad and I don’t stop on the way, preferring to get to the abattoir as quick as possible. It takes about one and a half hours to get the the abattoir, its a journey that would not be necessary if we were allowed to kill on the farm but under MPI rules the pigs must be slaughtered at a registered works and in the lower north island our closest is in Wanganui.

On arrival at the abattoir the pigs happily alight the trailer, happy to be back on solid ground. I walk them down into a metal holding pen where they are able to drink and are kept cool by a fine water mist (when its hot). On the days that we drop off there are normally a few pens of intensively grown white pigs close by, these pigs are happy to see the light of day and are making happy snorting noises. Within a few hours they have all been stunned and killed. The death is efficient, quick and as humane as possible.

Despite the fact that I know the process is designed to limit any stress and fear I never forget to spend a few minutes on the drive home to think about the pigs, its my way of saying goodbye and to remind myself that they had a good life.

TFWF#38: shooting on the farm and Christmas (ham) is coming

Another month or so has passed and once again, it’s been a busy one. Ruth’s piglets, the newly titled Berkshire Blacks, have now been weaned and they are in their new home on the other side of the farm in the grower paddock. At just over eight weeks old they are already showing signs of great muscle (meat) structure and are proving to be very fast growing. They are also the first of the growers to be fed from birth on the high protein new grain diet (in addition to their mothers milk).

The weaning was pretty straight forward as I use a crate to feed them in for a few days before weaning and once they are all comfortable in there I close the door and lift them from the crate to my trailer for transportation across the river to the new paddock and home. Ruth seemed initially quite please to see them go and was happy to engorge herself on the piglet food left behind.

Meanwhile in the grower paddock the purebred Berkshires have, at last, reached weight and yesterday I took the last four to the works. These pigs took a month longer than we expected to get to weight, they should take six months but the winter extended this to seven. Apart from the added feed cost that this incurs it also means that the meat can be a little fattier as the animals build fat to stay warm. This is the primary reason why most pig farms are indoors in order to regulate the temperature and climate, of course the problem with this is that the animals do not get to forage (which makes the meat far higher in nutrients), build good muscle structure and most importantly they don’t get to live naturally, as a pig should.

Now that all the Berkshires have been taken to the abattoir our butcher has been busy making our usual bacon, sausages and cuts but he has also begun the process of curing, cooking and smoking the Xmas hams. This year we had a very limited stock of hams so it is most definitely a first come, first served process. To ensure that we didn’t double up and that everyone had a fair chance to place an order we set up our online shop so that customers could place a deposit on a ham and pick a time and place to collect. I sent my first email to those that had asked about the Xmas hams at the markets and followed it up with a more general newsletter. The response has been excellent and as I write this we only have a few left online, click on this LINK if you want to see if we have any available and if we are sold out please sign up to our newsletter in order to get a pre-notice next year, you can do that by clicking HERE

While 8 week olds were being weaned and 7 month olds were taking a trip to the works our cutest Berkshire, Delia, who came from Gore many months ago on the livestock road-train, was nearing her first litter. On the 25th November Delia went into labour and with a short dinner break in between farrowing she managed to give birth to a very healthy litter of six piglets. Whilst we always hope for ten piglets per litter it was her first farrowing and six healthy piglets is a great result. Pigs will often lose a piglet or two during the process (it is estimated to be about 10% of the litter will not make it) and Gilts (first time mothers) are more likely than Sows to have problems so for Delia to have managed so well without any help or intervention is a great sign that she will have a life on the farm as part of the breeding herd for many years to come.

Our big news over the last two months is even more exciting that our growing herd of cute little piglets. A number of months ago I was approached at the Hill St Farmers Market by a tall stranger who was purporting to be a producer from the TVNZ show Country Calendar and that he would like to do a show on our farm. Naturally I was suspicious and being so new to farming I was convinced that we didn’t have enough to talk about or that I would end up looking like the novice that I am.

A few months passed and whilst Claire and I hoped the show might happen we kept a healthy scepticism as to whether or not it would truly eventuate. Suddenly I received an email and before we knew it dates had been planned, forms had been signed and we received an outline of what the show would include.

On the 21st September a film crew of three turned up at the farm and a completely new experience was thrust upon us. What was very interesting to me was the way life on camera is no longer linear, things do not happen in true time order and answers are given before questions are asked. In order to make the most of each location on the farm (or off the farm, more of that to come) we would film sections which would later be placed in chronological order. We also had to film the answers from different points of view and camera angles so I found myself trying to repeat what I had just said having completely forgot what it was in the first place. All the time we continued with our lives as best we could. Claire has a business to run, I have pigs to feed and Fred simply wants to eat, sleep and make loud noises.

The filming was surprisingly tiring but a lot of fun, the crew were very professional, courteous and really helped to put us at ease. The programme is not just about pig farming the free range way, it is also about how we came from the city, started the farm, started a new life and the trials and tribulations along the way. I am hoping that it doesn’t make me look too inexperienced. After a few days on the farm we headed into Wellington to complete the story with some cameo’s from the people we work with and who have helped us along the way.  Our first stop was at The Garage Project, I have mentioned these guys before because they supply us with spent barley from the brewing process to give to the pigs. This was my first experience of being filmed in public and the embarrassment factor was high, we filmed the drive in, the drive out and the bit in between. Following this was a trip to Big Bad Wolf who are making some new products for us including pork scratchings and Pancetta. Gabriel proved to be a natural on the camera and we breezed through the same conversation about the process of making Pancetta from four different angles, Adam the chef also proving to be excellent at walking, four or five times, from the kitchen to the table with a plate of Pancetta.

After the excitement had died down and the crew had left the farm I had just enough time to relax and catch a terrible case of tonsillitis. Its only when you get ill that you realise how hands on my chosen career is. As a farmer I can’t just stay in bed because i’m sick, the animals still need food and water. After a few days of shivering with fever as I wandered around the farm with buckets of feed I sent a desperate message to Reuben…”can you please feed the pigs..,’ as always he was quick to help and I spent the next four days in bed whilst he kept the livestock happy.

The sickness came and went, much like the film crew. On the 13th November at 6:30am they were back and this time we were travelling together up to Wanganui and the abattoir. Taking pigs to the abattoir is never a nice experience, the stress of loading them, the journey and the arrival at the place with all the animal noises. I made it clear to the team that we would not be taking hours of footage of the pigs being loaded and offloaded, the trip was to be as stress free as possible for the pigs. Arriving at the abattoir we had to wait for two big trucks of steroid filled pigs and fear filled sheep to be offloaded and then we backed up the trailer and gently coaxed our five off the trailer and into the abattoir. Its was a simple process and painless to all involved. The crew fully understood the emotion of the moment and we respectfully said goodbye to those five Berkshires.

Having taken the crew to meet Shane our butcher at Otaki Meats and watch him skillfully tie sausages like a long forgotten skill, the only filming left to do was at the markets, and the date and venue were set for 22nd November at Hill Street Market in Wellington. Customers had been warned about the presence of the crew and a fair few turned up late in the day hoping not to be caught on camera. However a fair few also got their fifteen minutes of fame as the camera and sound boom floated above our heads on what was an extremely wet and windy day.

I will end this exciting chapter with a big thankyou to everyone that appeared, willingly or not, in the filming of our episode of Country Calendar. Afterall, it is because of all of you that I can do what I do. Thank you so much and I hope that you enjoy the programme when it airs in March/April next year (2015)

 

TFWF#37: keeping the Wolf at the door

The last few weeks have been a blur to me. It is only when I look back at the photos on my phone, or the notes I have made,  that I remember what I have been up too. Like most people I sometimes get home at night and wonder what I did that day and was it useful and did I enjoy it?  Luckily even though I don’t get chance to write that often I do make little notes about what is going on and that helps me when I come to properly write it down.

THE FARM

Spring has brought with it two things, grass and wind. The grass is great and when we come to bail it and graze it I am sure it will bring in some welcome capital. The wind is not so welcome. In the last month we have had (in the same day) severe gales from the SW and the NE. On one occasion, as I was feeding the pigs in the breeding paddock, a plume of smoke appeared from nowhere. Thinking that somehow a farrowing hut had caught fire I rushed to the paddock only to find that the source of the smoke was not fire but dust and the dust had come from the hut as it was picked up by the wind and flung upside down. With the rain and the wind so unrelenting the prospect of leaving the pigs (in this case Delia and Hugh) without a hut was impossible so I opened the gate backed up the Land Rover and started the long process of turning the hut over the right way.

Isn't that door supposed to be the other way up?

Isn’t that door supposed to be the other way up?

In the extreme weather the task of tying a strap to the skids and using the car to put the 500kg hut up the right way is frustrating to say the least, but as I started to right the hut another plume of smoke arose from the dusty ground in the distance. That morning I watched three half tonne houses being flipped by the unusual SW wind and as the rains poured down I battled the inquisitive 200kg sows as I righted them. Farming is a complicated career, a career that really needs you to be prepared for anything, a jack of all trades. You may think that today you will just feed the pigs and undertake some general tasks but the weather, the electrics, the water or maybe the animals will have different ideas.

THE PRODUCTS

With the weather battering the farm I took the opportunity to investigate some new products. Ever since I started my journey to farming I wanted to produce specialist meats like long cured hams, prosciutto and pancetta but with the MPI rules I am not able to do this myself so I had been looking for a like minded producer who could do it for me. After just a few conversations with Gabriel at Big Bad Wolf I knew I had found the right partner. Big Bad Wolf is a gourmet charcuterie based in Wellington and they were excited to work on some projects with Woody’s meat. Our first project was the ultimate in paleo, tasty and efficient snacks – the pork scratchings (or crackling to those who don’t know). Pork crackling is simple to make, just take pork skin (with a little bit of fat) and slow cook it under the expert supervision of Big Bad Wolf, the results are these bags of salty goodness (nicely displayed in a case created from the off-cuts of a pig ark):

Pork, pork scratchings, woody's free range farm, bacon, crackling

‘Woody’s by the Wolf, paleo pork scratchings’

Our second ‘Woody’s by the Wolf’ project will be dry cured pancetta. This slow dried cut of Berkshire belly has been marinating for over a month in a mixture of fresh herbs including juniper and bay and is sliced extra thin. It can be eaten raw but we recommend you either gently fry (without extra oil) and simply serve as a crunchy snack or use as an ingredient in any meal from a pasta dish to an wrapped chicken breast. More on this delicacy in a few weeks when we have sliced and packaged it.

Collaborations with other like minded companies are not only enjoyable they also help to make the most of our limited stock by producing extra special artisan products and also help with cash flow as our meat stocks fluctuate month by month. In addition to working with Big Bad Wolf we have also started working with a local boutique company to produce a range of Woody’s marinades made from organically grown NZ fresh fruit specifically to enhance the flavour of our meats and create instant meals. Pork is a diverse meat and it works well with fruit, we have all experienced pork chops with apple sauce but what about belly slices in plum marinade or adding a citrus glaze to a scotch pork roast. If you have any fruity ideas why not drop me a line and in the meantime I hope to be able to share with you our product range in a month.

THE SUPPORTERS

I realise that I spend most of my time apologising for not having enough stock and I am also aware that unless we grow the farm quickly we will not be able to run a sustainable business. Its one thing to sell out but another to let good customers down. However I have been very pleased by the support and interest that we have received from our customers at the markets and various restaurants/cafes and butchers. One such restaurant that has chosen to help support us is La Boca Loca. Lucas is ‘el jefe’ at La Boca Loca and has a stall next to me at Hill St Farmers Market every other Saturday and was on the hunt for some pigs heads for cooking up some genuine pozole. Its great to be able to sell parts of the pig that people don’t normally eat so we were able to supply him with two heads and a whole bunch of trotters for the feast. I never got to try the pozole but I’m told it was excellent

Another restaurant that we welcomed to take advantage of our open door policy was The Whitehouse who are opening up a new restaurant soon and wanted true free range on the menu. We had a great tour of the farm and I showed them the whole process so they could get a feel for the lives of the pigs. It was really good to have them here and hopefully one day you will be able to taste some of Woody’s meat in one of their restaurants.

THE PRESS

I can’t finish this blog without mentioning our latest bit of fame in the Manawatu Farming Lifestyle paper. It came out last month so you have probably missed out on a hard copy but the web version is still available here: http://issuu.com/nsmm/docs/mfl_sep_2014. Not only did we get a double page spread but also the front page, exciting times and much more to come from our marketing department (me).

Do you like my cover page pose?

Do you like my cover page pose?

TFWF#36: In which we eat bacon.

The goal of Woody’s Free Range farm is to be transparent. I am not a believer of false promises nor do I trust a business that does not use its own products. Because of this I have always been integral in preparing and tasting every product you eat with the Woody’s brand on it.

However I have never specifically tested our products again the others in the market, until now. Obviously I have been eating bacon from different suppliers and brands all my life (except for the short, obligatory, vegetarian stint when I was a student). I have eaten bacon all around the world (tip: don’t eat bacon in China) and as such I would not say I am an expert but I do think I know a little about the meat.

Over the last few months, since we started to sell our product, I have had a number of comments from customers about our meat. Overwhelmingly the comments about our bacon have been excellent, most say its like bacon used to be (more meaty), but some have said it was a little salty or a little fatty and so I decided to find out how we stack up against the competition.

A week ago we bought two lots of bacon from Countdown to compare to our own, one is a top of the range Free Farmed bacon and the other a top of the range Supermarket, intensively farmed, own brand bacon:

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Brand Product Price ($) Pack size (g) Price per kg Notes
Freedom Farms Eye Bacon, Smoked Rindless $9.50 250 $38.00 Free Farmed
Countdown Signature Middle Bacon $5.99 400 $14.98 Intensive Farmed
Woody’s Free Range Farm Middle Bacon (Berkshire) $9.66 284 $34.01 100% Free Range

Note: The Freedom Farms bacon was on special at $9.50 with normal price $11.29 ($45.16per kg)

The plan of the test was not to grade the bacon from best to worst (afterall you could hardly expect me to be unbiased could you) but it is rather to simply show you our findings in photos and a few descriptive words.

The first thing we did was take a slice of each bacon and lay it on a grill pan;

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We immediately noticed a few things that are apparent in the photo. Firstly our slice (left) had more fat, this is for a number of reasons, firstly free range pigs will have more fat and this was a winter pig that puts on fat and grows slowly but was also dryer and much more meaty and non see-through. The middle slice (Free Farmed) had the fat trimmed off and was wet and much thinner (you can see through it). Finally the intensive bacon (right) was again very wet (even had some odd jelly on it) and was again very see through.

We cooked all the bacon in two different ways, on the grill and in the pan so that we could cook them all at the same time and also measure the fat that came out.

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During pan cooking the Woodys bacon had the most fat but this allowed the bacon to gain crispiness during the cooking. The free farmed and intensively farmed bacon both had a brown liquid seep out during cooking and burn on the pan, this hindered the bacon from crisping up and started to burn instead. They both also had white foam appear on top of the meat, this solidified after cooking had finished and is due to the high water content of the meat. Next we grilled the bacon, which helps to separate the fat from the meat and I took close up pictures:

I am hoping that the above pictures allow you to see the clear differences between the different type of meats before and after cooking, look at the colour, the crispiness and even the size difference after cooking. The thickness of the bacon was a major contributor to the texture after cooking. The thinner meats were chewy and like cardboard whereas the Woody’s bacon was meaty and softer to chew.

Once again I realise that this is not a scientific experiment nor is it objective but I do hope that the photos let you get a bit of a feeling for the differences between the meats. I have deliberately not spoken about the taste because this would be too subjective.

The experiment also helped me to understand more about the fat in our meat, and whilst it helps with the cooking and tastes great I will be focused on trying to reduce the fat in our pigs as the farm continues to grow. The bacon we used was from a smaller breed, the Berkshire, and would therefore have more fat than our other breed, the Large Black. It was also a winter growing pig which is a slower grower and puts on more fat. Of course we could trim the fat off our bacon but it affects the flavour so I have decided to poll our customers to see if they want trimmed bacon or full fat?

Hopefully this is of interest to some of you and we will be back to normal farming talk in the next Tales from Woody’s Farm. If you do buy some of our bacon and you have some feedback (good or bad) please feel free to review us at Woodysfreerangefarm on facebook, comment on this blog or send us an email at info@woodysfarm.co.nz.