Saving Babe – Bottle Tree Hill Organic’s Story…
I have mentioned before how passionate I am about free range pork and chicken as opposed to battery – many people don’t realise that pigs for meat are often reared in the same inhumane conditions that battery chickens are; little if any room to move, filth, poor diet solely for the purpose of putting on bulk rather than for their best nutritional needs, tails and teeth clipped – the cruelty is beyond description. While it is not the case with all battery operations, it is largely the case. If you need further confirmation of these terrible practices visit www.savebabe.com and you can do some additional reading and make up your own mind.
Now I grew up on a farm when we had a pet pig called Freda. I gave it as a piglet to my father for Father’s Day and Freda became a much loved member of the family from there on in. I came to realise that pigs are highly intelligent creatures, and while people often think of pigs as dirty, the truth is that they are fastidiously clean. Our Freda rivalled the dog in the way of interaction, she would go for walks with us, respond to commands and very much had her own personality which is why I am so passionate about the “Save Babe” initiative. Our Freda was very much like Babe!
For this reason I would like you to read the below story. I asked Megan Seiler from Bottle Tree Hill Organics to tell her story because I believe it is an important one that needs telling.
Megan and Wil used to run a piggery in a way I believe every piggery should be run, with love and compassion for their animals ensuring that while they are part of the food chain, through the duration of their short lives they are treated humanely with love and respect and without fear or cruelty.
Having said that they have had to face almost insurmountable obstacles to keep their operation a viable business, due to regulations and the dozens of other hurdles that small producers face. This is something that I find incredibly hard to understand. On one hand we can have a battery operation where due to the scale of operation, as long as they can fall in with regulation and standard practices it doesn’t seem to matter how inhumane they might be, while other smaller scale producers such as Bottle Tree Hill Organics are essentially closed down because they cannot either keep up with regulation or operate viably within that regulatory framework.
So here is Bottle Tree Hill’s story, the obstacles that they have faced in order to try and offer an alternative to the market and please make comments, send emails, and voice your opinions as if you don’t there is a very real danger that we may end up losing the option to chose; and we will be left supporting farming practices that are incredibly sad that they even exist in the first place.
Bottle Tree Hill Organics – The Pig Journey
My husband Wil and I first started raising pigs as a means of making use of the surplus and unsaleable vegies we were producing on our certified organic farm. My only contact with pigs up until that point had been at a farm machinery auction held on a farm with a piggery. That day I happened to be standing in the shade of a building and looked over the wall to see a sow lying in a sow stall birthing crate, with some very pink piglets milling around amongst the manure and flies, and some of their dead brothers and sisters. I was appalled on many levels. The building was so dark. The smell was putrid. The mother, I later learned, possibly doesn’t actually come out of the crate until she is ready to be mated again, after the babies are weaned at three weeks. She can never nuzzle nor interact with her offspring: she is merely a feeding vessel. She gets four months off and then back in for four weeks. Four weeks of lying in your own excrement and being hosed with cold water morning and night. We were later told that this piggery was actually one of the better ones in the district…
Anyway, as a reaction to that experience we followed our instincts. No one could seem to tell us the best way to do it. We learned a lot from Internet and contact from farmers in the US and Canada who were also feeling their way. We took advice from older farmers who once run pigs outdoors and learnt why they got sick of the problems, and how the Danish style indoor piggeries were able to give them the ‘easy’ way out.
We were given a pair of little wild piglets who would run with our house cows for a few hours a day, and bring them up for us at night. But after one rainy afternoon, when they strayed too far and upset a neighbour, they had to be confined. It was interesting to learn behaviour from them and they gave us many stories, until their porky demise. We then purchased a Tamworth sow piglet and not long after a pair of pure Saddleback breed sisters and then a little boar who had Saddleback grandparents but a Landrace mother. We soon discovered you get to a point where you have too much pork for yourselves with over 10 piglets per litter twice a year from each sow, and had to make a decision to either get into this commercially or send at least one of our girls away.
Getting organic grain was hard, as we were growing through a small, ‘not knowing where we were going,’ phase. We were getting certified feed sent from Toowoomba in 40 kg bags, to arrive on a truck 50 bags at a time. We loaded by hand on to our truck, then back to our farm to unload and store. But just as we had got used to the hard toil, the grain was no longer available, with drought taking its toll. The next lot of grain for the company was brought in from Turkey, and then Canada, and we wondered if this made sense?
The other problem we faced was that our nearest organically certified abattoir was 4 hours away. Not really feasible, especially in the summer heat; and far from ideal for the beautifully fattened, trusting babies we had reared. Not to mention the ever-expanding food miles these pigs were clocking up on their way to becoming food.
We decided to just market as free range, and teamed up with another couple who seemed to have the same idea; locals, but, as we discovered to our cost, not trustworthy. For a while we floundered, starting to hate the idea of keeping pigs. Then we were contacted to supply our porkers to a Brisbane butcher, who paid good money and seemed at first to understand the importance of a supportive relationship.
We also started selling our surplus pigs as bacon, ham and sausages, in farmers markets first, and then via our website: delivering to Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast. This was a relatively easy step, gaining food licenses, and making the right connections with butchers who were very good to us. However with the panic of needing more pigs for the demand, we became like a machine, and, dare I say, factory farm. Trying to pump out up to 12 porkers plus per week, mostly having to be around 50kgs in carcass, with no more than 10mm of fat on the back – quite a challenge! Pigs for the butcher in Brisbane had to travel 1 ½ hours north and for the private market 2 hours east. Getting transport was problematic, so we took them ourselves on our 1972 Ford Transit truck. We found early on that courier services were filled with gaps and it frequently proved impossible to get things from one courier to another, sometimes with them not willing to travel the extra distance; cold couriers especially. Often they did not tell us they couldn’t do the job until the 11th hour! So we then took that on ourselves also, picking up from the butcher and delivering, with most customers not realising that we were the farmers too. This was however a great process for getting feedback on our product, and very enjoyable.
We tried to employ people but it was not really viable at this stage of our business, it was only a part time job and nobody could commit. We then thought, as the opportunity came up, to start selling to a wholesaler. It seemed logical, however he seemed to think his wholesaling meant for us to organise everything still, and he’d call us at 5.00am to tell us what to do. Far from reducing the load on our plate, we just had another job, and more pressure to find more pigs to sell. If we bought in from other farms our product was compromised, as we soon discovered. We were and still are perfectionists about how the pigs should be treated and grown and presented.
Various restaurants sang the virtues of our pork along with many local and national food writers and made us feel good about our product, but at the end of the day it just created more and more pressure, but not the commensurate means to increase production. Also restaurants were fickle and would change menu, and of course only wanted special cuts like bellies or racks. Some also had a habit of leaving bills for months on end.
On the butcher side we learnt the hard way that some people like to treat their business relationships like their interior décor, and after 4 years our 10 pigs plus per week carcass trade was gone over night, with no reason given. We felt as though we had been shot. For years we had worn the cost and gone out of our way to make that business happy for the sake of our business relationship and now they could drop us with one phone call and no warning. Logic should dictate that we could pick up our customer market in a big way, but at 10 pigs a week that equates to about 600kgs of pork to distribute each week, starting from week one! However with a reduction in numbers we did build up our customer run, with gusto. Later we took on another shop that was great to us, but unfortunately the owner was struck by serious illness and had to close.
I think during this time we just coped with whatever the day week or month threw at us: ‘fighting fires.’ Needless to say, after 5 years of no break, working every day of the week, all year, we were weakening. By the end we were having to cope with very high fuel costs, vehicle repairs, and the price of good quality pig feed had risen 10 fold from when we started. Our final straw in 2007 was a major cold room break down. We needed time out.
We had to gain distance and take a new look at it all. We are Permaculturalists at heart and in practise, and during this time we had to forego growing of vegetables and fruit, concentrating on the pork side only. Before we knew it, the intentions and first practises of growing vegies and feeding surplus to the pigs, had gone out the window. We only had the time and energy to be factory farmers. During the pig years we realised we had compromised the soul of our farm and ourselves.
So, Wil, with my encouragement, decided to do some post graduate study in sustainability science, and I set about balancing a part time job (on a factory farm ironically) and coping the best way we could selling off pigs to anyone and everyone, in order to make loan repayments. We started growing food again and although money was chronically short at times, we survived.
In 2009 we had the intentions of starting up again having got down to only 5 sows from the original 50 plus. We were looking at ways of putting our school of hard knock lessons together with the golden moments, to have a more perfected system in place. Then we had a visit from a man from the Department of Natural Resources Livestock Regulation Enforcement Unit. A name to immediately make you feel as though you are doing something wrong!
“Was I aware that the rulings for piggeries had changed? Now wherever there are pigs is classed as a piggery, even if it is freerange”
Over 10 years previously when we had decided to venture into commercial production of pigs we had informed the local council, and DPI, who seemed never to have heard of free ranging pigs, and to cut a tedious story short, we were thrown from one department to another over several months until they decided we were not an EPA concern, were not putting up buildings and therefore we were… well in the too hard basket, so go away.
The department official was full of a tone of polite empathy, informing us that we would now have to “comply” to EPA Standards and get council permission; pay over a thousand dollars for the application to DPI, an unknown amount to council, and annual fees thereafter. His conversation was friendly and during the farm tour said he was amazed at the quality of the pasture in our paddocks. I thought, “okay”, outrageous, but maybe we will have to work towards that. However a very short time later we received a curt letter telling us that we were operating an illegal “piggery” and we had one month to comply with xy&z through our local council and DPI, or get rid of our pigs! Or the soft option, a $400.000 fine…
We were appalled, but when they don’t give you much time… with over 60 young pigs in the paddock it seemed we had no options. So we contacted the council, who again said initially that we didn’t need any permission, but then when we pointed out that we did need their permission before we could go any further, told us that if it was all straight forward we could ‘self assess’ and there would be no charge. If it proved more complicated however we would be looking at around $6000 in fees. We found, unsurprisingly, that the paper work to submit to the various departments is designed for confinement/ intensive piggeries, requesting things like the plans for the positioning of our effluent ponds, and results of soil tests where the piggery effluent goes. In our case this is all over the paddock, where within 4 months the native and introduced dung beetles have buried it, for the cycle of nature to occur… We contemplated nappies for our pigs at this stage.
We wrote an alternative 20 page report for both departments, detailing everything we do and why. However this was considered a ‘submission’ not an ‘application’, explaining why for weeks no one from the council was able to tell us how our application was progressing. For the DPI it simply didn’t exist because it was not accompanied with the $1000 cheque (which, as it has turned out, would have been revenue in their hands for over six months). We have now had response from the council stating that we can ‘self assess’, and that is free; but to get that permission officially in the form of a letter, required by the DPI…for that we have to pay council $330.
So that is where we are at, the crossroads. We want to start supplying customers again but are unsure whether to make a moral stand, keeping only a hobby size 21 pig units, (the maximum allowed without any permission, payment etc) but thereby having a less than viable business (for the same amount of work). Or should we bite the bullet, pay the money and continue with a more viable size, but have to charge far more for our pork, risking a return to factory farming, not to mention compromise of lifestyle and jeopardising a diverse ecologically sustainable farm.
All the things we imagined for our business don’t seem possible at the moment. Although we now have the renewed energy and acquired knowledge to commit to the enterprise, scant funds, and a heap of government bureaucracy kicking us in the teeth prevent us. We are here because we enjoy our farm, and our district, and have the chance here to show what people can do to provide good healthy food, without harming the planet at the same time. We have been giving workshops and courses to young and old who want the same, but it is hard telling people how our pigs are not only potentially a great source of income, but also an important tool in the creation of soil fertility and healthy biota ecosystems, except they are virtually illegal. We see all these hurdles as another nail in the coffin for the small food producer and the loss of good food for the consumer. Most people do give in to the bureaucracy out of fear. We don’t want to get rid of them because they complement all aspects of our farm, fitting in so well within our farm systems, and we love them!
Visit Bottle Tree Hill’s website:
For more information about “Save Babe” please visit:
This was posted by Petra Frieser – Local Harvest. Story Supplied by Megan Seiler from Bottle Tree Hill Organics
To find out more about the Sunshine Coast’s regional growers and producers visit: