Alarmed by the disconnection between his food and its source, Simon Day visits the home of his bacon.
I‘ve eaten a lot of bacon. And roast pork shoulder with crispy crackling. I’ve used cured pig’s cheek to make carbonara. Glazed ham at every Christmas. And barbecued so many sausages. But I’d never recognised how disconnected I was from my food until I visited a pig farm. I realised I’d no idea where the pig that provided me this meat came from, what it looked like, how it was raised, or who raised it.
I discovered the pigs are smaller than I expected. They’re light pink with dark speckling, some have floppy ears which cover their eyes. Piglets are fast and very cute. The sows are muscular breeding machines. The farm is a fine-tuned operation devoted to efficiency and innovation. And the farmers who own it are compassionate and committed to their animals. And I learned that for the animals to be happy, for the environmental effects of the farming to be well managed, and the cost of the final product to be reasonable, it’s a very fine balancing act.
Helen and Mark Andrews’ pig farm sits beneath the Southern Alps in South Canterbury, just past the tiny town of Pleasant Point, just north of Timaru. You can see the pig huts from the road, and tourists stop to take photos of the giant sows and their piglets.
It’s a perfect crisp autumn Canterbury day when I visit the farm. I change my Nike sneakers for a pair of Red Bands and we head out into the paddock with the couple and their two daughters. The field is full of waddling sows and piglets charging around the grass.
As Helen Andrews approaches her sows, she starts to talk to them. “You’re all right girl, you’re all right,” she says in her comforting Yorkshire accent, assuring the new mothers there’s nothing to worry about as we approach. She’s devoted to the animals’ well-being, aware that she’s brought a couple of strangers into the pigs territory, and letting them know with the sound of her familiar voice that everything is OK.
We are in the middle of what Helen calls the maternity ward of her farm. The first sows we meet have just given birth, and some are still waiting to “farrow”, plump and pregnant. The new piglets are snuggled in their huts. Some of the mothers are basking in the sun, rolling in the dirt outside, others are more protective and sit in the doorway of their shelter and let out a “bark” to show us we shouldn’t mess with Mum. Each of the sow’s teats belongs to an individual piglet and you can hear the squeal as they fight over it while they feed in the hut.
“At this stage you still want to be really cautious. You listen for their signs. You can tell she’s happy. If she’s barking and grunting around you know she’s not and you need to keep your distance,” says Helen.
Each sow owns a small piece of real estate and will stay attached to the hut they claim when they’re first brought into the maternity paddock. Once they’ve given birth, they come out and poo in front of their hut and that’s how the piglets know which one belongs to them. This will be their home for four weeks.
“We try to get them in a week to 10 days before they give birth so they get comfortable with their surroundings. Let them settle into it, and it’s up to them where they go,” says Helen.
After the sows give birth they’ve got two important jobs – putting back on all the weight they lost during pregnancy, and nourishing their piglets. They get a sophisticated performance-enhancing diet of barley, wheat, maize, and protein in the form of fish meal. They need to grow these piglets, and grow themselves so they’re ready for the next round.
“We hand-feed all these girls; they’re the girls who need the most attention. You need to make sure they’re well and feeding. You can’t just chuck them a few cabbages or something. These girls aren’t going to perform on a cabbage, are they?”
In the opposite field there are older piglets, chasing each other around in sudden gallops. Tomorrow they’re getting weaned, removed from their mother, and moved into the row of deep straw shelters, where for the next 12 to 14 weeks they will be grown to slaughter weight. The piglets are weaned on a Thursday, and then the sows come on heat four to five days later and are impregnated again.
The Andrews have 400 sows divided into seven batches in a rotational cycle. Every three weeks one batch is giving birth, while another’s piglets are being weaned, and another group is inseminated. The process is refined, scientific, and involves careful management of the animals.
“They’re a high-performance athlete, in many ways, and if you’re going to get the best out of them you need to look after them in every respect,” says Helen.
Helen grew up on a dairy farm in Yorkshire. Her father taught her stockmanship and respect for animals. At 21 she travelled to New Zealand and worked on dairy farms in Waikato, Canterbury and Southland. Six weeks before she was due to return home, she met Mark (after quite a few beers at the pub).
“Everyone had talked to me about this hot boy that played rugby. The hot Andrews boy who played for the Hurricanes. Then I met Mark and I was like is that it? Is that him? Then I found out [the rugby player] was his brother,” Helen says.
The southern romance moved fast.
“He let me pick him up from duck shooting, which was obviously the sign of true Southland love.”
Helen returned to Yorkshire, and Mark followed her a couple of months later. They worked together on dairy farms in the UK. After a year they came back to New Zealand, and managed a dairy farm in Southland. But they were desperate for something of their own – something they could run their way. So in 2004 they brought their own farm – a pig farm.
“We made the decision – if I was going to stay here we needed to own something. It’s hard to settle in a new country. We had a little look in the bank account to see what we could afford. We couldn’t afford to go sharemilking. So we came up with a brain wave – what about pigs?,” says Helen.
The couple have raised a good, hearty Canterbury family on the farm. Their two daughters, Honour (10) and Eve (8), are polite, grounded and earthy, rolling around on the tray of the Navara ute, climbing trees and wrestling in the grass. One day while the family were watching Mark’s Hurricane brother Luke play their Crusaders, Uncle Luke had the audacity to ruck Richie McCaw. The girls jumped out of their seats. “He can’t do that to Richie!” they shouted at their uncle on the television. Eve wants to take over the farm, Honour wants to become a vet.
Canterbury is the perfect place for this type of pig farming. Here the climate is moderate, the rainfall is low, and the soil is free-draining, making outdoor breeding safe and comfortable for the pigs.
They started off with a 40ha bare land block. There was nothing except a boundary fence, and the built everything from scratch themselves – from the sows’ huts to the water troughs. They started with 300 sows, producing piglets and selling them at four weeks old.
“Pigs are really rewarding for a stock person. Because it’s about noticing all those little things: is she eating properly, is she well, is it performing like it should be. And that is the skill of it,” Helen says.
Two years after they started, Helen and Mark began working with Freedom Farms as one of the first farms to sign up to the new brand’s independent standards of animal welfare and environmental sustainability. By selling their products under the Freedom Farms brand, Helen and Mark’s farming is independently audited and certified. The standards were initially designed to protect animal welfare, based on an amalgamation of a number of global guidelines in collaboration with the SPCA. The standards have been constantly reviewed, especially as an understanding of the expectations for environmental management become stronger, and farming practices innovate. And the Andrew’s commitment to those standards is presented for consumers to see on the packets of their Freedom Farm’s pork.
“You do it because it is the right thing to do and it spins your wheels, then someone rocks up and you’ll talk to them, and they’ll say we love what you’re doing down there. But you don’t like to talk it up. That’s not a natural thing for a farmer to do,” says Helen.
“I think we sometimes we underrate what a good job we do.”
Two years ago they expanded their farm and added a pig finishing unit where they grow the animals all the way to slaughter ready. They’ve bought extra land, added a herd of cattle, 100 more sows, and now they raise 8500 pigs for sale every year. The growth has allowed them to take on extra staff and find more time for their family.
“We did it to give ourselves some balance. We only had one full-timer. And it meant as a family you couldn’t go away together. One of us always had to stay behind. We decided to go that much bigger so we could have two full-timers and that meant we could go away,” says Helen.
We jump back in the Navara and take a short trip across the property to the finishing unit. Here, the pigs are moved from the open fields into what are called deep-straw shelters – open-sided covered enclosures with concrete floors covered in layers of straw. The pigs are prescribed a minimum area (both lying down, and total) based on their weight – and the size of the enclosures are increased as they grow. At the back of the shelter there’s feeding and drinking stations. At the front is where the pigs defecate.
“The saying ‘like a pig in shit’ is it true?” I asked Helen.
“It’s true. They love it,” she says.
The shelters are designed to provide the pigs warmth and comfort with straw, while managing the environmental effects of their waste allowing for it to be collected and reused as fertiliser. They provide enough space to range and play, but proximity for the pigs to lie on top of each other. The size is designed to encourage the pigs’ natural social behaviour, but prevent the bullying culture that can develop when larger enclosures allow for groups to form.
“You’ve got a welfare code that gives you a minimum, and we go about 30% more than the minimum welfare code. You could do 600 pigs a batch. But we only do 460,” says Helen.
The conditions in the enclosure are closely monitored. The temperature is set precisely. When they first arrive there’s extra straw to make it warm like they’ve come off Mum. And new straw is added every two weeks. After four weeks in one enclosure together, they’re spread across two pens as they grow. There are four different development stages of pigs spread across the finishing unit in eight different enclosures. Each time they’re moved the old straw and pig excrement is used to create fertiliser to grow winter feed for the cattle. It’s part of a holistic approach to running the farm in the most efficient way possible
Each Friday 160 pigs are weighed and loaded out, and sent to the abattoir just 25 minutes east of the farm on State Highway One (MPI allows up to 12 hours’ travel time for farm to abattoir). The farm is contracted to provide 130 pigs for bacon, and 30 lighter pigs to independent butchers where they’re carved up into different cuts.
This deep-straw shelter pig farming is the sweet spot where Helen and Mark are proud of the their pigs’ welfare, happy with the environmental footprint of their approach, comfortable with the cost of their product, and the farm is financially sustainable too. They’ve been able to scale their farm without making welfare or environmental sacrifices.
But it’s not easy. The price of feed has climbed over the last 12 months, and the price of imported pork has dropped sharply. And while surveys say New Zealanders want to making better purchasing decisions, it appears they love cheap bacon even more.
“We’ve probably come through eight to ten months of very little profit from what we do. And so you are really aware that it doesn’t really matter how hard you work, you can’t do anything about that and the market is what it is,” says Helen.
“You don’t always get the reward that you should for the work you put in. But as a farmer, you know that you still have to do that. And you know another day will come where it won’t be like that. You’re just playing those averages, aren’t you.”
She’s holding on to the idea that consumers will commit to making more ethical purchasing decisions, acknowledging the cost that comes with that.
“You hear it all, but you’re just not seeing it,” she says.
Meeting the Andrews family allowed me to understand the thought and care that goes into the way they farm. Watching the pigs sniff my gumboots made me value the gift this animal has made to us. I felt a connection with the animals, but also comfort eating their meat knowing the way they’re treated and the way they’re raised. Most importantly, it allowed me to understand the power I have every time I buy food to help define what I want the world I live in to look like.
This content was created in paid partnership with Freedom Farms. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.