Getting access to pasture-raised pork is far harder than it ought to be, but there are two young Victorians working hard to make a living out of ethical farming.
Will and Emma’s work is really important for humans and animals alike. If you were a pig you would go to extraordinary lengths to live on their land, for they raise pigs on pasture as opposed to dark concrete sheds. Will butchers the meat they grow and it’s sold it through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model.
They both have off-farm jobs; Emma works full-time as an environmental campaigner and Will works at a nursery. Their Pig & Earth Farm is located on Dja Dja Wurrung country, just outside of Kingston in Victoria. They are young, passionate and committed to farming that cares for land, pigs and people.
On a walking journey across South Australia where the pair first met, while campaigning for solar thermal technology, Emma recalls letting out a loud and accidental laugh when Will told her he worked with pigs.
‘It was so far from my own lived experience as an inner-city university student,’ Emma said. ‘But then the first time I visited the free-range farm Will was working at, I was instantly taken. I loved everything about it.’
Emma had completed a degree in international studies and feminist security. She had no experience raising pigs and knew very little about them. Will, on the other hand, had been devouring books on everything from land management and conservation to farming memoirs and how-to guides dating back to the 1800s. But it was through their coming together as a couple when the real learning began.
Will started working part-time on a free-range pig farm during his land management studies and within a few months had fallen in love.
‘The idea to farm pigs over other animals or crops was never a conscious one,’ Will says. ‘I knew pigs and I knew how to look after them, so whenever I thought about farming, I knew there would be pigs involved.’
He began dreaming of the possibility of himself and Emma one day owning their own farm and so when the farmer Will worked for announced his retirement, the pair offered to purchase his drove of Large English Blacks and started their search for their own piece of land.
‘We were super nervous, it was a massive step for us,’ explains Emma. ‘It took us from experimenting with farming to it becoming a real thing. Will was sure he wanted to do it, I was still unsure. But within a year I decided I loved it.’
Starting And Selling
Like many young farming dreams, Pig & Earth Farm could not have happened without financial assistance. Will and Emma believe Australia needs a better system to help young and first-generation farmers access land, regardless of their financial background.
‘Access to land was definitely the biggest barrier for us,’ Emma reveals. ‘We lived on multiple working farms at first, as a way of accessing land and learning from more experienced farmers, but we felt we really needed our own place to kick off the CSA model. We’ve only been able to purchase land with financial support from our families.
‘Only a minority of people have access to that kind of support and we’re really privileged to have that.’
The CSA model empowers farmers by allowing them to sell directly to the public. Members commit to purchasing an annual subscription and make a monthly payment directly to the farmer. It maximises the yield for the grower by cutting out the middle man and gives the farmer reassurance that after all the work and care given, the meat produced will find a buyer. Pig & Earth CSA members pick up meat from one of four drop-off points; three within metropolitan Melbourne and one in Ballarat.
The difference in living conditions between pigs raised on pasture and pigs raised in sheds is massive. The indoor systems are within an industry which has prioritised efficiency and profit, often to the detriment of animal welfare. In large sheds which are indescribably noisy and reeking of ammonia, pregnant sows are kept in metal enclosures so small they can’t turn around.
In the lead-up to giving birth, they’re then moved to an even narrower enclosure called a farrowing crate, where a sow stays until her piglets are three or four weeks old. Pigs are intelligent and social creatures and, while there’s advocacy and intention for the system to change its ways, cruelty is unfortunately still inherent.
‘The animals have a horrible life that is as far away as possible from their natural instincts,’ explains Will. ‘I’ve read lots of books about industrial factory farming, but it’s hard to comprehend what an intensive piggery is like until you visit one. The first time I walked through a shed I was stunned at the conditions of the animals, because I had been working with free-range pigs and knew their temperaments, I could feel how depressed they were, it was a confronting experience.’
In comparison, Pig & Earth Farm raises pigs on pasture where they can run, bathe in the sun, roll in large muddy wallows and take shelter in mobile structures. In order to protect the land from the mud-loving hoofed animals, Will and Emma’s 60 pigs are rotationally grazed across their 40-acre property. Among other things, this ensures bacterial loads from waste are not concentrated, which eliminates the need for invasive antibiotics.
‘In five years we have only had to use antibiotics twice when a sow was unwell,’ reveals Will, who said he never uses antibiotics on an animal that will be sold for meat. Compare this to the intensive farming system where the confined conditions make the ongoing and regular use of antibiotics a must.
As consumers, one of the ways we can be sure the pork we’re buying is produced by a farmer who cares about pigs, is to take part in a CSA model which gives you access directly from the farmer. The way the CSA model works means that farmers are more than happy to show subscribers the conditions their animals are kept in. CSA prides itself on open-gate policies and member open days.
‘It’s impossible to pick one challenge, they’re all so intertwined and all impact on each other,’ concedes Emma when pushed on the toughest part of ethical farming. ‘The biggest one is the constant problem-solving and stress caused by having to always triage and prioritise our many challenges. There’s small challenges every day, like pigs escaping paddocks, fencing which needs repairing, pipes bursting, always needing new paddocks and more feed.
‘And then there’s the bigger things. We’re under pretty consistent financial stress, having to regularly juggle our cash flow, paying off debts and deciding when to invest in farm improvements. Only in the last few months has the farm gone beyond breaking even. Will works 13-hour days by himself, so dealing with that level of isolation has also been really hard.
‘As much as we love our farm, it’s also a massive strain on our relationship at times, so we try to maintain balance by doing things like making sure we’re regularly going off-farm together and spending time talking about anything other than the farm.’
Will is the head farmer and, while Emma played a big role in getting the farm off the ground, she has a fulltime career which she loves. And her income has been essential in supporting the project.
‘Usually Will works full-time on the farm but he has picked up a day at the Lambley Nursery to increase our income and to increase his human interaction. My work involves a four-hour commute. At times it’s a bit of a punishing schedule, but we make it work,’ smiles Emma.
Patience Is Key
Like many people embarking on a new business, Will and Emma wanted Pig & Earth Farm to get established quickly, but they soon realised that opened them up to potential problems.
‘There is so much to learn and so much to work out,’ says Emma, who admitted that while social media played an important role in the early days in terms of visibility and connecting with other farmers, it also clouded their vision of what they were trying to achieve when they first embarked on this journey.
‘It’s great to be able to share what’s happening and connect with other small-scale farmers who are doing similar things and we’ve made some great relationships, but of course we’ve also often fallen into the trap of comparing ourselves to others or feeling like we need to make things appear better than they actually are.
‘It became pretty obvious that social media is one source of pressure we could happily do without.’
Will and Emma’s personalities and approaches towards farming are very different. According to Emma, Will is ‘a romantic with lots of optimism bias, he always thinks things will work out for the best.’ Emma, on the other hand, is more reserved and wants to discuss the risks and financial challenges.
‘And that’s probably why we’ve managed quite well,’ she concedes. ‘We’ve had to force ourselves to have very honest conversations about what kind of life we want and what will make each of us happy. We always say neither of us would have a farm if we hadn’t met, it’s our collaborative efforts that have made this possible.
‘Life on a farm isn’t about quick results,’ she says. ‘The joy is in the doing.’