"This place and this farm is now part of our identity as a family. We've worked incredibly hard to build our herd and our business. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to think of it being gone overnight, and the farm falling silent."
It's been a turbulent week. On Tuesday we heard that JBS, the conglomerate that runs the abattoir we use at Devonport, would close on 15th November.
Just use another abattoir, you might think? Well, no. There is only one abattoir in the north of Tasmania which handles pigs. There is an abattoir at Cressy, which is a suitable distance away from our farm and well placed for the sector just south of Launceston, but it has Halal certification which is important part of its business, so it doesn't slaughter pigs.
This leaves us high and dry. There is really no viable alternative that we could use. To our knowledge there are a couple of small abattoirs in the south of the state, but that is far too great a distance to transport pigs. We could not afford the travel time it would take to get there and back once a fortnight. It would add a time and financial cost to our business that lessened its already parlous viability. And it would be a completely unacceptable practice to us - we choose to farm and keep our livestock as kindly and ethically as we can and we do not want to transport them long distances before slaughter.
For this reason we would not go for the alternative that some larger farms might, of shipping our pigs across the Bass Strait to be slaughtered on the mainland. What an appalling thought.
We have known for some time that we have put all our eggs in one basket in our business, by specialising in pigs and pork. And it had occurred to us that if ever JBS at Devonport decided not to handle pigs any more, or not to accept small lots for smallholders like us, or to close altogether, we would be stuffed.
In short it means the end of our business as we know it. We will no longer be able to keep pigs, because we will have no means of slaughtering them. To clarify, slaughter has to be done at a licensed abattoir to be legally compliant and for us to be permitted to sell our meat. After slaughter, the carcass is trucked to the butcher of our choice, and then collected by us.
One thing we will have to decide upon in the coming two weeks is what to do with the stock on our farm currently - one boar, six sows, and about forty growers of varying ages from two weeks to seven months. From a very personal point of view, we are used to sending two or three pigs per fortnight to slaughter. This is hard enough! It's possible we may have to send multiple pigs or our entire stock in one fell swoop. To see our pigs disappear from the farm overnight is going to be very, very tough. Pigs are genial creatures and we love keeping them. This place and this farm is now part of our identity as a family. We've worked incredibly hard to build our herd and our business. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to think of it being gone overnight, and the farm falling silent.
That said, we have to be realistic. It is a very labour intensive business. We are present at every stage of the supply chain - we raise the stock, manufacture the product, and retail it ourselves in person. Any business minded person will tell you, this is a little crazy. You only do that because you love it. We have loved it, but we have talked about changing it, and one of the change we thought of making was moving out of farming the pigs ourselves. We had planned on doing this gradually. The abattoir closing may force our hand.
If it does close, we will be looking to make the best of the assets we have. Last year Oliver built a dedicated processing room on the farm. This we hope to use for other products. We have experience and contacts which will be invaluable. We are, however, still looking at conceiving of a whole new business and building it up, and that can't be understated.
At this point there seems to be no further news about the outcome of any discussions between the government and parties who might be interested in taking over the running of the Devonport abattoir. Government intervention is important here. Abattoirs are expensive to build, run and maintain, and they are covered by very strict legislation. This one is old and a bit knackered apparently. Understandable then, if finding an operator was tricky. And yet it is an essential service in the agriculture sector.
In 2016 the State Government agreed a deal with JBS which offered $800k support in running the abattoir, and about half this has been spent. Presumably the government is presently trying to sweeten the deal for other potential operators to encourage them to step in.
In our dealings with abattoirs and butchers since starting this business, we were once told it would cost roughly $250k to build and set up a small, new abattoir. Perhaps better use of that $800k in 2016 might have been to build two new facilities in different spots across northern Tasmania, which would have given us all a couple of different options, serviced the sector, and been more enticing for operators.
We have stock in hand for the events we're booked into in the spring calendar. We don't make hams, and the television reporting has made much of the fact that Christmas hams may not now be available. That's the least of our concerns. If Devonport closes in mid-November, we may be able to service events we're booked into using frozen stock, but we will no longer be able to process any pigs fortnightly and take stock to market at Harvest Launceston. We may have had our last stall there.
One of the effects of this, if it does go ahead, is the possible loss of the rare breed herds in Tasmania, which Guy Robertson of Mount Gnomon Farm, ourselves, and a number of others across the state, have worked incredibly hard to build up. This is something Tasmanians should be proud of. Rare breed pigs such as ours, Saddlebacks and Berkshires, are a foodstuff to be prized. There is an integrity about the meat, it is different from that of more commercial breeds, more succulent, flavoursome, slow growing, and singled out by the Slow Movement for its Ark of Taste, foodstuffs that link to traditions and cultures and should be preserved. All that work, and those herds, could go in an instant.
We wait to hear what will happen, whether a third party can be found to operate the Devonport facility, whether there might be even an interim solution or a long-term one, and ultimately whether we will have a business in two weeks' time.
Thank you to everyone who has left message of support on our Facebook page. It has been heartening.