Lauren Mathers adores her pigs. She posts pictures of them on Instagram. She gives them an acre each to wallow in chocolate clay mud, loll under gums and feed on premium antibiotic-free food.
Having provided them a sweet life, she wants nothing more than to give them a swift death.
But after a spate of abattoir closures in north-west Victoria, Mathers is now having to make weekly six-hour roundtrips to reach the closest abattoir. It runs on an industrial scale, and her consignment of 10 to 15 pigs are killed along with roughly 3000 others each week.
Reaching this final destination is traumatic for the animals, and logistically difficult and expensive for the business. For the biodynamic farmer whose award-winning pork is stocked in outlets across Victoria and NSW, she says it’s been an “absolute nightmare”.
The slaughterhouse closures come as consumer demand for free-range products continues to rise. Cassie Duncan founded the not-for-profit, educational website, Sustainable Table in 2009 during a time where she says local demand for ethically produced meat was “really niche”.
“Now you see it on menus all over Melbourne where restaurants and cafes are proud of where their meat is sourced. It’s become a part of their philosophy, their brand and how they engage customers,” says Duncan. She maintains a directory of Victorian ethical meat suppliers which is constantly growing, with 42 current listings and regular inquiries from new providers seeking inclusion.
Consumers are increasingly willing to pay for meat from animals that they are reassured have had a comfortable life. But the scope for producers to have control over the circumstances in which their animals are slaughtered is diminishing as local abattoirs disappear and those remaining shift gear to focus on the export market.
The shift has already taken a heavy toll on some small-scale organic and free-range farmers. Miranda Sharp, founder of Melbourne Farmers Markets, says that several of her stallholders have “closed up shop and stopped farming as a result [of abattoir closures]”.
“There’s been a lot of distress of the impact it’s having on their business, the cost but mostly the ethics and distress to the animals,” she says.
Now some farmers are banding together to look for solutions.
Recently in Barham, on the NSW border, eight small-scale farmers came together with a plan. Around a kitchen table, the group laid the foundations for what they hope will allow them to regain control of their business and the way their animals are killed – their very own boutique micro-abattoir.
Mathers, who has been producing Bundarra Berkshires free-range pigs outside Barham since 2009, is leading the push. Until last year, her pigs were slaughtered at the family-run McGillivray Abattoir in Gunbower. Only a 40-minute drive from her property, the McGillivrays had been processing meat for the local farming community for over six decades.
“Over time, we developed a relationship and they took a lot of care with our pigs,” says Mathers.
That all came to an end early last year, when the McGillivrays announced the business would be closing, citing rising power bills and red tape costing upwards of $50,000 per year.
With limited options, Mathers says she “reluctantly” sent her pigs to Riverside, an Echuca-based abattoir that she had previously not been happy with, and which had since come under scrutiny from authorities. The slaughterhouse was under investigation by the Victorian Government’s meat regulator, Primesafe, after video footage revealed animal mistreatment that Victoria’s chief veterinarian described as “the worst case” he had seen in his career.
Mathers says that from her observations, it appeared the Echuca abattoir had lifted its game in the aftermath of the Primesafe investigation, and with new business coming in as a consequence of the closure at Gunbower.
“They had to fix the way they were operating … They were really good to work with in the end. Rough, but good,” she says.
Then, just over a month ago, Lauren received a phone call from Riverside abattoir. “No pigs this week, we’re shut. We’re closing indefinitely,” she recites being told. The abattoir remains closed.
Her business was once again thrown into turmoil. The next closest abattoir is in Benalla, 250km from her property, and requires her pigs being dropped off in the evening and spend the night in a pen before being slaughtered.
Experts say travelling long distance is stressful for the animals, and president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, Tammi Jonas, says that it has been scientifically shown that pigs have a stress response when they are placed near other, new animals. “In these abattoirs, pigs go into holding pens filled with a couple of thousand pigs at a time,” she says.
The long distances are also costly for the farmers. Mathers splits the expenses of the journey with Craig Brown, a rare breed pig farmer in Bendigo. The abattoir closures have put Brown in financial strife. He owes the feed company $40,000 but has to turn away clients who want to buy animals he cannot kill.
“We have a lot of inquiries for little pigs that we could be selling for the same price as a 100-kilo pig, but the big abattoirs can’t kill them because they’re not geared up for small pigs,” says Brown.
A free-range pasture farmer further up the Murray, Bianca Shepherd, can relate. She has four breeds of poultry but nowhere to kill them. “They’re very tasty chooks,” says Bianca. “But unfortunately, we can’t legally sell to anyone.”
Victoria has two abattoirs that process poultry. In October last year, Golden Poultry in Melbourne’s West announced it would stop offering contract kill services for small-scale poultry farmers.
The sole abattoir in Victoria that works with small-scale poultry farmers is Star Poultry – an abattoir that featured on ABC’s 7.30 Report last year for boiling the birds alive. “Basically, we can’t expand our business,” says Shepherd.
Northern Victorian goat farmer, Wendy Lehman, also has stock she cannot kill. She currently has 120 goats that she hasn’t been able to process for 18 months. Meanwhile she spends upwards of $300 a week feeding the animals and is worried they are ageing.
She says that 90% of goat meat in Australia is exported and so the industrial abattoirs don’t support local goat producers. “I can’t have goats and not process them,” says Lehman. “But the facilities just aren’t there for local production.”
Stories like these are exchanged between farmers around Lauren Mathers’ family table as they develop their plan to build a multi-species micro-abattoir in Barham. The farmers vision is to process their animals using new technology and modern ethical practices to give them close control over their supply chain to produce meat that is 100% traceable.
“It’s time we take matters into our own hands,” says Lara English, a multi-species free-range farmer from Cohuna.
They already have a site with power, support from the local council and are hopeful their project would be eligible for a grant from a $1.3 billion NSW government regional development fund. They say the micro-abattoir would include a big window to allow visitors to gain an understanding of how animals are processed.
“It’s all about transparency. We can change that attitude of ‘we’ve got something to hide’,” says Mathers.
For Craig Brown, the abattoir promises financial independence, “the producers can finally be price setters rather than price takers”.
And Graeme Dick – a shearer, singer and salami maker from Bunnaloo – says the micro-abattoir would reinstall “respect” in the killing process. He says that bad work cultures in abattoirs develop from management and seep down into the workers.
“Slaughtering is an art, like shearing a sheep. It’s all about respect for the animal and the job,” he says.
Neil Gorey, former Mayor of Barham and now Councillor of the development-friendly Murray River Council, has nothing but praise for Lauren Mathers and the team working on the concept of a micro-abattoir.
“They’re doing what the consumer wants – they want to see the process controlled from paddock to plate,” says Gorey.
The farmers are hopeful that if they secure $1 million of the NSW Growing Local Economies fund, Barham could have a fully functional micro-abattoir by the end of the year.
“We are dedicated, passionate and our launch will be inevitable,” says Lara English.
This story is co-published with The Sunday Age.