How 'free' is your free-range?

Posted on May 20, 2016 by Claire Mukhi

More and more people these days are making a conscious decision to eat more ethically and free from nasty chemicals and additives. Just how free-range are the products you are paying extra for? After an incredible trip to country NSW to visit a GENUINELY free range pig farm our views have changed. We explored the real difference in free range farming with Bernice Kelly of Crack Willow Farm who answers some really thought provoking questions below:

What made you decide to get in to pig farming?

It was a completely left-field idea - definitely not a natural progression from our careers in real estate and the media!

My husband Chris and I were looking for a career change and to be our own boss. We also knew about a huge demand for free-range pork from friends in the restaurant industry.

But it wasn’t until we started feeding solids to our first child, Audrey that we started to take a stronger interest in what was in the foods we were eating. More than any other meat, we found it really difficult to buy genuinely free-range pork that was natural and free of nasties. The idea of eating farm-fresh food really resonated with us and we saw a great opportunity to provide that product to families and households just like ours.

What are some of the things you have learned about the meat industry and the kind of produce out there?

We have been amazed by the quality of produce when purchased direct from the farmer. The flavour and tenderness of the meat, and the freshness of seasonal fruits and vegetables is so good, and so far from the quality of what you might get at your local grocer, butcher or, dare I say, the big supermarkets.

We buy as much produce as possible from fellow stall holders at the farmers markets where we sell our pork. I would definitely encourage your readers to get down to their next local farmers market – they will be pleasantly surprised!

There are many farmers like us who sell direct to the public either by home deliveries or at Farmers Markets (we recommend Hereford Red beef from Orange, Ridgeline Beef from Tarana  and Farmer George Lamb from Mudgee to name a few!).

How does the industry depict what’s ‘Free Range” and what’s not?

It appears to me that what the consumer expects of ‘free-range’ produce and how the industry interprets the term ‘free-range’ are worlds apart. 

We promote our pork as being “genuinely” free-range because our pigs spend their entire lives outdoors in large paddocks, where they are free to exhibit their natural behaviours like foraging in dirt, rolling in muddy wallows and building nests.

But less than 5% of pork in Australia is raised this way. Many consumers don’t realise the vast majority of pigs in Australia are raised indoors, never to see the light of day.

When we first started trying to get our pork into butcher shops, we were often turned down in favour of producers who were charging half the price. We couldn’t work out how farmers could produce genuinely free-range pork at such a low price. But when we looked up these so-called ‘free-range’ pork producers online some didn’t have a website – or if they did, they didn’t have a single picture of a pig, let alone a picture of a pig outdoors.

So, I think it really comes down to “buyer-beware”. The Government is doing its best to create a legal definition of what constitutes ‘free-range’ but they are being heavily lobbied by the big (indoor) producers.

If consumers really want to make sure they are buying – and eating- naturally and ethically-raised pork, or any other meat, they should take matters in to their own hands and take the time to find out about who is producing the pork they are buying. They can then decide for themselves if the farmer’s methods meets their own definition of free-range.

What are the benefits of free-range pork?

When we first ate our pork, we thought it was lamb because the colour of the meat was so much darker than what we were used to – that was the first time we realised what a difference it makes to raise pigs free-range.

But the flavour and the tenderness of the meat was so much better than anything other pork we had eaten. In fact, many of our repeat customers are elderly people who say our pork takes them back to their childhood.

We believe that because our pigs live as naturally as possible they simply don’t have the stress on their bodies that pigs who live in cramped, indoor environments. Just like with humans, stress can play havoc on muscles and health of animals, which directly affects the meat they produce.

We also like to have a healthy layer of fat on our pigs, which is where the flavour is - .you won’t find that on pork in the supermarket!

From a health perspective, free-range pork like ours is also generally free of hormones or antibiotics (the potential of disease is much greater in indoor pig environments so those pigs tend to be given antibiotics to prevent this).

What’s your vision for pig farming and your product in years to come?

On a bigger scale, I hope that consumers become as aware of the issues surrounding free-range pork production as they are about free-range chicken and eggs.

For our business, we hope to double our production in the next couple of years so  that we can supply more households and restaurants with our pork. But once we get there, we will look to expand our business in other ways as we have no interest in being a large-scale pork producer.

I’m keen to try growing garlic or perhaps producing grass-fed lamb and beef too!

How can dedicated foodies get their hands on your amazing product?

In Sydney, we are currently featured on the menu at Hotel Centennial at Woollahra. Executive chef Justin North is passionate about the paddock to plate concept and about using local, natural and ethical produce in his restaurant. He’s also a master at nose-to-tail cooking and creates some amazing dishes with our pigs!

We also feature on the menu of Lolli Redini (Orange), Darleys at Lilianfels (Katoomba), Nineteen23 at Silveremere (Wentworth Falls), Ashcroft’s (Blackheath) and Cobblestone Lane, The George Hotel and the newly-opened Two Heads Brewing in Bathurst.

As well as at Farmers Markets, our pork can also be purchased online, with delivery to households between Sydney and Orange every Wednesday. Our website has all the details!

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