TFWF#43: The great sales conundrum.

Its been busy on the farm since the flood. Not only has there been lots on fencing to be done we have also changed our structure for feeding, sorting and weaning the grower pigs, in addition to this we have also had eight litters in two months and increased the breeding herd to 22 sows.

Whilst we have been busy many of you might have also noticed that we have been absent from the markets, the cafes and the restaurants. Our disappearance from the outside world is due to, what I shall now call, the great sales conundrum (or GSC), brought about by a lack of good free range pork producers and a plethora of supportive customers.

The GSC is basically an over demand of product and whilst I know I am lucky to be in that situation I really don’t like letting people down, turning down opportunities or being sporadic in supply. In order to explain my conundrum in more detail I thought I might outline all the potential sales channels that we have, each with their own pros and cons and then I thought it might be nice for you all to give me some advice and feedback, via a comment on here or on Facebook.

Farmers Markets.

When we started the business we always planned to attend farmers markets, we chose Fielding and Thorndon because they appeared to be authentic grower markets. Unfortunately as time went on we found ourselves competing with a butcher from Wellington in Fielding and a general retailer selling meat from the store in Hawkes Bay at the Thorndon market. Despite this I really enjoy the markets, I get to meet a great deal of lovely customers and characters, I get direct feedback and its a great opportunity to grow business opportunities. I have also been able to try lots of different cuts of meat to see what sells best and showcase the quality of the meat. On the downside the markets take three days of valuable time on the farm, a day to prepare and two days at the markets, and the success of the day is very dependant on the weather. Financially the markets work for us because we sell direct to our customers and the only extra costs are the market fees and the fuel.

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Online Sales.

We had always planned to sell product via the website but we never had enough stock to attend the markets and sell online. The flood changed all that when we were unable to get to the markets and had a trailer full of meat to sell. We thought it best to trial online sales and managed to sell out in 49 mins. After that first trial we continued attending the markets and also selling small quantities of meat packs online. In August we took a break from sales to focus on the farm and came back in September with a greater focus on the online side of the business. The packs have been selling very well, I have enjoyed the customer feedback from all over the country and without any middle men we make a full margin (less the costs of sales). Obviously it takes a day to prepare and pack and we worry about the delivery arriving fresh but so far all has gone well and we have successfully delivered over 800 packets of bacon and sausages. I do miss getting to meet my customers face to face but the gain in time on the farm is, at this point, much needed.

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Restaurants and Cafes.

I love working with the owners and chefs of restaurant and cafes. These are the people that challenge the preparation of food and have the experience to truly grade the quality of our meat against others, it is their feedback that helps me to provide better quality product to everyone. I have been lucky to work with some excellent restaurants who have respected the way we grow our meat and promoted Woody’s to their customers. But, with only limited stocks at the moment, we have to manage our profitability and therefore we focus on our direct sales via the markets or online. This means that we are not able to supply the chefs on a regular enough basis, or large enough quality, and will often loose out on opportunities.  My goal is to be able to work regularly with a small number of restaurants around the country as soon as our stock levels rise.

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Speciality retailers.

Without a doubt the best way to promote your product and your brand is to have product in front of customers all the time. Unfortunately markets are only once a week and selling online relies on customers to find you, not the other way around. Putting product on the shelves in speciality stores who promote quality, niche products associates our brand with theirs and  encourages sales on a daily basis. The downside is again that retailers also need to make money, to pay their associated costs, and with limited stock we simply cannot afford to be on too many of those shelves. Additionally, whilst speciality retailers are very good at explaining to their customers about the provenance of the food they sell we, as the grower, do not get to talk direct to our customers, something that I think is very important.

Supermarkets.

In my previous life as a consumer electronics executive I spent a lot of time selling to supermarkets. Unfortunately supermarkets have all of the bad elements of speciality retailers with none of the good elements. They are not willing to take the time to talk about provenance, they do not fairly share profitability and over time they gradually reduce the value of your product in the consumers eyes, normally by heavy and unwarranted discounting. Any farmer who works with the supermarkets knows that the vanity of a high turnover of stock is not a replacement for the low profitability. Of course nationwide exposure and a single point of delivery is attractive to some, but not us.

Having broken down the pros and cons of all our potential retail outlets I am keen to hear what you think we should do, and who we should focus on. At the moment our limited stocks means that we can only afford to concentrate on the markets and online store but we hope to be able to continue supporting the restaurants, cafes and small speciality stores that we currently sell too. Moreover the chiller trailer is currently out of action so we have to concentrate on online sales until some work has been carried out on the trailer, when that is fixed we intend to attend one market a months and sell online twice a month. Maybe one day we will have greater exposure across the country.

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#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#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?