Scott Graham with some of his pigs at Mirrabooka Pork farm near Tullymorgan. Photo: Adam Hourigan
Scott Graham with some of his pigs at Mirrabooka Pork farm near Tullymorgan. Photo: Adam Hourigan

A real pig of a drought for pork farmer

SCOTT GRAHAM has travelled more than 5000km this past week trying to spread his version of Christmas cheer.

He's trying to bring home the bacon while selling his own ethically farmed Christmas hams.

Mr Graham, along with his family-run Mirrabooka Pork, a small-scale free-range pig farm at Tullymorgan, and like many other producers, the drought has hit them hard.

"It's all about input costs," he said. "More than 70 per cent of our costs are in feed, and 70 per cent of that feed is wheat and barley."

"When they've had to import the wheat from Western Australia because the eastern seaboard is just... well dead, the costs just keep rising."

Mr Graham, who runs mines in central Queensland as his primary income source - "that's the off-farm income we make to lose it here", he said - started the farm three years ago after researching the market, and buying the property which was already a pig farm.

"We got approval for 75 sows, which we've never reached," he said. "We got as high as 53, and since then we've kept on reducing.

"Now we're at 28, and probably will lose another ten if not more.

With the farm facing the usual pressures many are under, Mr Graham said recent discounting by large chains is almost the final straw for the business.

"Yesterday they had a massive sale on leg hams where they're down to nine dollars per kilo," he said.

"We're selling free-range to locals at $17 per kilo, which is a thing we do, and that's well unders.

"I know they're selling for double that in Sydney for free-range hams, but here against the conglomerates, we just can't compete with that intensive farming."

Running the operation as free-range has its challenges, with a sow's recent birth of 18 piglets reduced down to 10 because the mother had crushed them.

"She's a great mum, but that's what happens with free-range, and doesn't happen when they are separate indoors, it's just another reason why we can't compete."

Facing the challenge of moving their stock, they began taking their pigs to an abattoir at Booyong, past Lismore, who not only kill the pigs but bone them and cryovac whatever is needed.

"I can say to them I want chops, and I want cutlets, and they give it to me market-ready," Mr Graham said.

"We take the pigs up on a Friday, pick up the cut pieces on a Tuesday and are at the markets on a Wednesday."

With the new retail side of the business comes travelling thousands of kilometres selling the product, hiring a van and driving as far as central Queensland, Brisbane and Sydney to sell.

With the free-range meat in competition with intensive indoor product, Mr Graham said different demographics were more interested in what they offered.

"Not everyone cares about the ethical treatment of the animals, and you can go to some markets, and they don't give a s---, where you go to inner-city like Milton, and they do care, and they'll pay the price," he said.

"We have to pay the costs to hire the van which isn't cheap, but it's also about getting our name out there."

"Still, it's a break-even game at best."

When asked what the solution is, Mr Graham's answer is twofold.

"Rain," came the obvious first answer, firstly for the wheat crops to drop the food price, and also to give a better environment for the pigs.

"When we had grass here, it came up to your knees, and you couldn't see the piglets, though you knew they were there," Mr Graham said.

"Even the sows are great nesters, and they'd gather the grass and really get in there.

"Now they get sticks or anything to rest against, but it's just bone dry."

More importantly, Mr Graham believes a change in our buying and eating habits would help not just him, but all the small producers.

"I speak to so many producers at the markets, and they aren't doing it to be capitalists, they're doing it because it's part of what they want to be," he said.

"And there's been struggles for everyone, from drought, fires, and all sorts of things, but it comes down to people not valuing food.

"We see it where cattle don't have lives, pigs don't have lives, chooks don't have lives. People need to eat less of the better stuff that's ethically ranged, and all the small producers could feed the world.

"But people see us and say 'Oh we'd love to buy some next year', and I'm saying to them now there might not be a next year."

Of the 160 hams Mr Graham has produced this year, he has around 40 left, and he said he'd love to see locals come down the Yamba markets on Tuesday to grab one of them.

"We'll deliver if we got enough around of the local areas, even right up to Christmas Eve night, just before I have my first beer," he laughed.

"I'd rather sell them here than offload them to Sydney just to get some cash back for them."

And despite his entire spare time revolving around pork, Mr Graham said there was no doubt what he was looking forward to on Christmas Day.

"We'll have the pork rack still all intact and roasted," he said. "It's my absolute favourite."