Survival of the Fattest

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Initially it does appear to be a touch ironic that the survival of rare pure breed animals relies on breeding them for our consumption…but once you rationalise this, it becomes strikingly obvious that if we don’t all do our part by eating these succulent beasts, they may well disappear and then are only options may be the caged, the hybridised, the unethically treated, the imported or just the very dull meats jockeying for space on supermarket shelves.

On hundred years ago there were more than 400 different types of tomatoes and nearly 500 types of lettuce in existence. Just over a decade ago you would have struggled to find more than five different types of either at your local supermarket. Now due to the recent growth in devoted farmers planting heritage and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables we are slowly clawing our way back to having more variety and choice. Sadly two massive supermarkets, which account for over 80% of our buying, dominate the Australian food scene. This duopoly continues to pressure Australian farmers and primary producers to produce only foodstuffs that fit their narrow criteria of requirements – a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. Farmers must conform to a “factory farm” model where only hybridized animals with regular shapes, predictable growth patterns and behaviour are used. Farmers are often being forced to sacrifice their ethos, principles and values in a bid to compete, or even survive. The vast majority of the pork sold in supermarkets is from these large commercial farms, whose animals are specifically designed and bred to reach maturity quicker, be leaner and to have higher meat to fat ratios.

If it weren’t for pure breed farmers we would have the pork equivalent of only Iceberg lettuce available. Most commercial producers/supermarkets also inject their pork with water to maximise the product’s weight. This can be up to about 20% of the entire weight of what you are paying for. Think about that next time your buying “cheap” pork in the supermarket.
Pure breeds are breeds that after their initial development have been in existence for 40 years with no outside influences (e.g. crossbreeding).Many of these breeds date back centuries, and in fact the Berkshire breed is believed to have come to Australia on the first fleet. Currently there are nine pure breeds registered with the Australian Pig Breeders Association including Large White, Landrace, Duroc, Hampshire, Berkshire, Tamworth, Wessex Saddleback, Large Black and Welsh. The breeding of pure livestock is rapidly diminishing as the demand for faster growing animals with hybrid vigour, larger litters and who reach optimum weight quicker is intensifying due to the corporate need for supermarket’s continually escalating profits.

For quite some time now we have been using some stunning cuts of free-range pure breed pork in the restaurant. Knowing the pork comes from a couple of small farms just a few miles away strengthens our devotion to both the product and the producer. A few weeks ago I took my staff and young daughters to visit Glen Eyrie Rare Breeds Farm, one of Katy Brown’s free-range pig farms in Corop, 40 minutes drive outside Bendigo, (Katy has another pig farm in Huntly just 15 minutes drive from our kitchen!). Katy is one of the few dedicated Victorian farmers doing their best to maintain, revive and develop the intrinsic beauty and lifeblood of pure breed pigs in Australia. The eight different types of pure breed pigs she farms graze pastures freely and live happy engaging lives.

They are at one with nature all day long and are far from the standardized product that supermarkets are after. Each one is unique and a delight to watch in their natural surrounds – as I hope these photos should help to highlight.

Katy stared farming pigs 15 years ago and is now considered one of the countries leaders in pure breed conservation. She is warm, humble, engaging and highly articulate, yet at heart she is a very hard working farmer who just loves animals and cares for the future conservation of them.

Katy tells the story of how she started with 13 pigs, as a bit of a hobby and within six weeks she had 120 – as unbeknownst to her, most of the sows were pregnant – she giggles with a child-like enthusiasm as she tells the story. Much to my children’s delight her farm is filled with all sorts of animals, from Scottish Highland Ponies, lambs, dogs, goats and even ferrets.

The majority of the pigs Katy breeds are slower to mature, have smaller litters and have a higher fat-to-meat ratio than the commercial farms. She cannot compete on price with the monster farms set up to get maximum growth in minimum time. What she does have, however, is a rare and unique product that is farmed ethically with both the land and the animal in mind; and one that is bred for flavour, not profit. Personally I think it’s worth a few dollars more than the often insipid grey/white uninspiring meat that the big boys pump out.

Katy told me the astonishing tale of how commercial hybrid sows can produce 26 piglets a year. Gestation is three months, three weeks and thre days with weaning time of 21 days. This allows 2.2 litters per year…She reeled off these statistics so methodically it was quite chilling. If the idea of caged battery chickens isn’t enough to make you feel saddened, then the concept of accelerated pork production certainly does.

When Katy started farming pigs she told me there were only four Hampshire pigs left in the whole country. Thanks to a very few dedicated farmers like Katy there are now over 100 and whilst the breed is still highly endangered and at grave risk of disappearing, its in a much safer place due to Katy’s efforts (and the discerning pork lover’s eating habits).

When my six year old daughter was playing with one of the friendly Hampshire pigs, Katy leaned into her ear and whispered that these pigs are even rarer than tigers, to which my now wild-eyed daughter turned immediately and blurted out incredulously “you’ve got tigers? Where are they?” Poor Katy had no idea the high regard my daughter had for tigers. Its fair to say we were lucky that Katy didn’t say “pandas” instead of “tigers” or the search would have been well and truly on. Once over the disappointment of not being able to play with a tiger my daughter was absolutely thrilled to hold a one-day-old piglet yelling out to her big sister “look this piglet is only one day old and still has its cord attached”…and indeed it did, still have its umbilical cord still attached.

It was a great experience taking my staff to Katy’s farm. It increased our understanding, awareness and respect for the pigs we serve and eat. It is terribly shocking to learn that three breeds of domestic livestock disappear every month but it reminds us why we need to support ethical farmers like Katy.

Tim Baxter

With over 25 years experience in the food and drinks industry, Tim is the owner of one of central Victoria’s most celebrated restaurants, The Dispensary Enoteca, located in Bendigo. Despite having grown up wanting to play cricket for Australia, Tim is now celebrated as one of the countries finest authorities on food and drinks. “If Tim Baxter has not created the best all-round drinks list in Australia, he must be close”. The Age Epicure, 2012