Happy pigs, happy life

Sometimes, the farming world always seems to be demanding more. Occasionally it seems like farms are encouraged to expand regardless of the human, animal, or environmental cost.

Lauren Mathers — who owns and operates Bundarra Berkshires in Barham, and is the director of both Little Pork Deli and the Murray Plains Meat Cooperative — fights this mentality at every stage of production. And she takes pride in doing so.The lifelong farmer believes the future of agriculture is not in large international corporations, but in small communities and businesses throughout Australia.Bundarra Berkshires is run on a 230 acre plot over two blocks. The farm has 80 Berkshire sows, with a steady replacement rate keeping their team of pigs manageable. They also run farm tours, and have their own butchery on site.Berkshires are known for their unique flavour palette. Their meat is juicy, flavourful and tender.Bundarra Berkshires’ small goods and pork has snatched Australian Food Awards and the Sydney Royal Fine Food Awards, and was a state winner in the ‘delicious’ Produce Awards. For Mrs Mathers, every tiny step of  their farming process contributes to the award winning pork. What now is a complex empire started as a simple need for quality food.“I couldn’t get good pork. I just saw a niche in the market,” she said.“In our area there were no free range pig farmers doing Berkshire pigs, nor doing paddock to plate.“Charcuterie, small goods — we just couldn’t get it done anywhere, it was just about filling a market gap.“Now we’ve been doing it since 2013.”Bundarra Berkshires now runs a lot deeper than that. Mrs Mathers finds pig farming invigorating. Her method is almost a return to pre-industrial agrarian society — she avoids chemicals and harsh medicines at all cost, and spends her days strenuously serving her animals’ needs.Each day revolves around taking care of the sows, with help from husband Lachlan, and three children Frida, George, and Lucy. The family members are the only ‘staff members’ on the farm.“The work ethics of mum and dad being on the farm, and being outdoors is something that’s always been in my blood.“I worked it out and I’m a sixth generation farmer in the family.“It was always going to be something I was going to do.“Just seeing mum and dad work the land, and have animals growing up, I’ve always loved animals.“Every day I get up, check the piglets, do a run over the farm. In the afternoon, you come back and feed them.“You’re basically spending time with them in the morning and the afternoon.“They’re free range so there’s a lot of checking wallows, food, making sure everyone’s got shade and straw, because if piglets get cold, they die.“We don’t have heating lamps. It’s a pretty natural environment.“Pigs will make a mess, so we keep everything they need to do that.“There’s essentially a lot of moving them around. We’re not cropping, we don’t have the space or water, so it’s just moving them around from pasture to pasture and letting the farm regenerate.”Pigs was not the first options for the Mathers’, who did consider cattle.  But Mrs Mathers said cattle was not “suitable for us”.“Cattle are a bit harder to handle. Whereas smaller animals are easier to run.“After we got our first pig, we quickly realised that we really loved the animal.“We get such a kick out of them. They’ve all got their own little personalities.“You never get tired of visiting piglets, they’re just so cute.“Seeing a pig happy in a paddock is definitely what keeps us going.“But after ten years, we’re really still only setting up.”Environmental ethics also play a large role in Bundarra Berkshires’ production process and output. Sustainability and collaboration are core motivators too.“Our environmental focus is actually to reduce our carbon footprint, we don’t crop, we don’t irrigate — the only water we use is for drinking.“Our butchery and farm are run on solar power.“We buy feed from the most local company possible. So that means low food miles.“We don’t have a lot of machinery.“With our customers we want to create trust with them.“We want them to know that the pork that they are buying was actually raised, and is environmentally friendly.”As a founding member of the Murray Plains Meat Cooperative, Mrs Mathers is driving plans to establish a micro-abattoir in Barham, owned and run by a range of district farmers.Her passion in celebrating small farming operations and doing what she can to help them thrive — including through the micro-abattoir project — has seen Mrs Mathers invited to speak on farming collaboration at the national Farm2Plate Exchange conference in South East Queensland’s Scenic Rim from May 18 to 19. Alongside agricultural experts like Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe, she will speak on ‘Changing The System Through Collaboration’.“The broad spectrum of people going on that panel is going to be really interesting.“For us, collaborating with other farmers makes sense. We are 300km from Melbourne and 900km from Sydney.“We all need to work together to get our product on people’s plates.“It’s about working together to reduce our carbon footprint, collaboratively sharing workspaces, and we can help each other with cross marketing.“It’s about sharing knowledge and costs.“Working collaboratively with other farmers, even just for freight, delivery and feed, we’re working with grain farmers, and keeping food miles low, helps the environment.”Mrs Mathers truly believes farming co-operation is the path to the future, and is in conversation with farmers around the country about the topic.In some ways, it’s been a tough 12 months for Bundarra Berkshires. COVID-19 had an impact and recent droughts have put increasing strain on the farm.“We’ve lost restaurants. We’ve lost customers,” Mrs Mathers said.But help of family has made it easier, she said.Mrs Mathers’ parents moved to Barham from Mudgee to get in on the swine game themselves, running 50 sows of their own on 80 acres in a collaborative process with them.“They didn’t think they’d go back to farming, ever, but they saw an opportunity to come back, and help us out.“They are right next door. It all makes perfect sense.“Dad enjoys mucking pigs out.“We’re doing this because we want a viable future for our kids.“Both our daughters are really involved with the farm.“For them, the collaborative approach is going to be the normal way they see farming.“The kids wouldn’t even know what fertiliser looks like.“They feed the pigs. George, who is four, also helps now.“The kids always check troughs, check on the piglets, rear them if they are sick, which they do quite often.“It’s definitely a whole family situation.”While working with family has its challenges, Mrs Mathers said they are also the ultimate support network.“We all sit at the table and work it out together.“We all have the same common goal — to produce some of Australia’s best pork.“With global trends, we are in a hot seat for success.”