Interest in alternative production systems for pork is running high in Australia so the combination of ‘historic breeds’ and ‘free range’ surely attracts attention. What does pig farming look like when growing and marketing outdoor Wessex Saddleback pigs?
Fiona Chambers and her husband Nicholas run the Fernleigh Free Range pork farming operation from their Daylesford property in Victoria, Australia, situated 60 km north west of Melbourne. The business was established in 1995 when Fiona Chambers began raising the endangered Wessex Saddleback breed. Fernleigh’s certified organic pork was the first to be recognised as such in Victoria.
Owner Fiona Chambers is also the managing director of the ‘Rare Breeds Trust of Australia’ (RBTA) as well as a director on the Rare Breeds International (RBI) world board. In addition, she is a lecturer at Marcus Oldham Agricultural College in Geelong and holds a diploma of Applied Science specialising in animal health, genetics and nutrition. She is currently working on a Master of Animal Breeding Management at Sydney University. Chambers has delivered papers on the subject of sustainable farming and the conservation of farm animal genetic diversity at conferences in various continents.
In 2010 Fernleigh and Fiona Chambers won the Melbourne Age newspaper’s ‘Best Bacon’ category of The Foodies Guide to Melbourne, and in 2011 the Delicious Food Heritage Award in Australia. These are just two of the most recent awards for her efforts to re-establish rare farm animal breeds in the Australian diet. Currently the farm is being relocated, and pig stocks are being built up again. At the moment there are only 70 sows but this amount will increase.Apart from established free range principles, “we also strongly believe in the need to conserve farm animal genetic diversity and so we choose to breed a rare and endangered animal, the Wessex Saddleback,” Chambers said.
The Wessex Saddleback (also known as the Wessex Pig) is a domestic UK breed that was once common in Wiltshire and the New Forest area of Hampshire. In the UK it was crossbred with the Essex Pig to produce the British Saddleback and is now extinct as a separate breed in the UK but survives in Australia and New Zealand. The Wessex Saddleback is described as being ideally adapted for foraging in woodland areas.
As pig farming became more intensive after the Second World War in the UK, the extensive systems to which the Wessex Pig was suited to declined and with it the breed itself. In 2008, there were less than 100 breeding sows and as such were considered critically endangered by the Rare Breeds of Australia Trust.
In it’s country of origin, the Wessex was always considered to be an ideal bacon producer and today that suitability is put to good use by Fernleigh Free Range whose award winning bacon is sold as either a short loin or streaky product. Other popular products from Fernleigh are sliced leg ham, prosciutto, chorizo and capocollo (made from pork neck and dry cured whole).
Chambers explained, “We started with only 50 purebred Wessex Saddleback sows so inbreeding was a potential problem with such a small gene pool, but over the years we have reduced the inbreeding co-efficient from 33% to below 8%. This improvement is reflected in litter size which has risen from 8 to 10 born alive to 12 to 14 today.”
“The breed is slow growing compared to modern commercial genetics. We wean at six weeks and the pigs typically take five to six months to reach a carcass weight of 80 kg. The sows farrow outdoors in movable ark type shelters and we rotate paddocks over two years to maintain pasture growth. We use electric fencing to manage the pigs and keep a careful eye on nutrient load. Stocking density is kept well below the recently established national standard of 25 pigs per ha.
“The sows display great individuality and this is one of their charms. They are great nest builders – where one sow will prefer to construct her nest using bark another will take a more conventional approach with straw.”
Small scale farmers
There are three important strands to the Fernleigh Free Range operation and they are breeding and maintaining the pigs themselves, creating and marketing the products made from their meat and now, teaching other would-be endangered species free range farmers how to own and breed pigs. “Fernleigh Free Range is regularly inundated with calls from small scale farmers, would be pig keepers and pig lovers who are keen to know more about the best way of handling and managing free range pigs,” Chambers explained. “As a result of this growing interest we started running one day pig handling workshops in 2008 to provide a way for people to find out about owning pigs, learn some skills and ask all the questions that occur to them.
“We call our seminars ‘A Pig Day Out’ and they give would-be growers the opportunity to benefit from the 16 years of experience accumulated at Fernleigh Free Range in breeding rare breed pigs. Since we introduced A Pig Day Out, more than 150 participants have attended our on-farm pig handling workshops with some coming back a second time to build on their skills,” she revealed.
“Registered stud animals are available for sale by arrangement but we generally have a three to six month waiting list so it pays to put your name down well in advance,” she warned
The initiative of combining a rare breed pig with a free range rearing regime certainly ticks all the boxes for both food and animal welfare conscious consumers. However Chambers warns that micro-production piggeries involve all sorts of challenges not limited to just rearing pigs.
“Developing a brand, a marketing strategy and client base takes time, effort and resources,” she said. “For those who just want to enjoy rearing pigs and rare breeds in particular, a viable strategy may be to sell piglets to established grow out enterprises that have already developed a brand and supply chain. This approach also ensures that having created a growing market for rare breeds raised in a free range environment, we can ensure continuity of supply as the market grows – which it will.”
Chambers’ next challenge is to rebuild the number of Large Black (also known as the British Black) pigs which were the original breed kept at the Nehill Brothers Farm Living History Reserve, also in Victoria. With less than 100 sows still surviving this will be a long-term project but one that she considers worthwhile.
“One of the key aims of our rare breeds programmes is to involve the public with the enterprise and we are constructing a breeding centre where consumers, hobby farmers and even farmers operating larger commercial enterprises can look and learn,” Chambers explained.
Interest in alternative production systems for pork is running high in Australia but the added attraction of restoring historic breeds to commercial production is sure to attract the attention of food fanatics and the ever increasing numbers of celebrity chefs looking to introduce a ‘point of difference’ to their menus or cooking repertoires. Now that can only be a good thing for the Australian pig industry.