Pig producers prosper despite major pork industry challenges

Published: February 2020 I By: Joanna Webber, Photography: Steve Gonsalves

Gunnedah pig farmers Leon and Melinda deGroot share their strategies to thrive in the face of a changing Australian pork industry.

Leon and Melinda deGroot are pig farmers who live at Waterford, a 234-hectare property on the Kamilaroi Highway near Gunnedah, North West NSW. Melinda pours out pellets for the farm’s commercial crossbreed pigs, while Leon looks on. 
PIGGERIES have been hard hit over the years. Transport costs, losses in infrastructure, excessive regulations, the cost of feed and battling to compete with cheaper pork imports have seen many pig producers disappear.

The irony is that we’re now eating more pork than ever. According to Australian Pork Limited (APL), when you include ham, bacon and other smallgoods it’s our second favourite meat after chicken. Based on fresh pork alone, consumption per capita grew by 19% between 2015 and 2018.

Leon and Melinda deGroot live at Waterford, a 234-hectare property on the Kamilaroi Highway near Gunnedah, North West NSW, where they run their privately-owned operation, Leon’s Pork. Before the drought, they had 200 sows. Now they have 50 sows on the farm suckling about 1,000 piglets a year.

After 47 years in the industry, Leon has seen good times come and go, but these past few years, he says, have been the toughest. 

“They say that with pigs, you’re always standing in shit, it’s only the depth that changes,” jokes Leon. 

“It’s true it can be a hard life, but pigs are real characters. I think all pig farmers have a special affinity with them because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to put up with the smell or spending most of our time elbow-deep in it.”

Leon was born and bred a city boy. One of four children of Dutch migrants who came to Brisbane in the early 1950s, he showed his horticultural leanings at age 14, when he planted a vegetable garden in the bush behind his suburban home.

“My father was a fitter and turner,” he says. “He and my mother left Holland after the war because there was nothing to eat. No food. They were living on tulips. They arrived with the equivalent of $100 in their pockets. After Year 10, when I told them I wanted to go to Queensland Agricultural Training College, they agreed, even though it would have been a great expense for them at the time.” 

Pig farmer launches promising piggery with only 50 sows
College was a turning point for Leon who specialised in pigs and cut his teeth on a farm in Queensland after graduating in 1974. He managed a piggery at Boggabri until 1980 then worked for pig farmers Barry and Rickie Butler who helped him buy his first farm – 24 hectares in Boggabri where he built his first pig shed for 50 sows and launched Leon’s Pork.

In 1985, Leon took a leap of faith and together with another local pig farmer, he bought Waterford for half a million dollars. Originally it was 52ha with 200 sows, but over the next decade, Leon was able to take over the whole enterprise and also purchase the 182-ha farm next door.

Leon moving his pigs with a little help from GT, an American Staffordshire terrier.

The golden days of the Australian pork production industry 

“Those were the boom years in pork production,” says Leon. “In the 1970s big new piggeries were being built all over Australia in the English style. They were woeful things that have since been bulldozed down, thank god. Grain feed cost next to nothing, pork prices were good, and the pig industry looked really promising.”

Looking after the animals’ welfare wasn’t only the right thing to do, it made better business sense. “Free-range pigs came indoors because it was better for them and there was money in it,” says Leon.

“Building new production sheds was the first real change. Pig farming was coming into the modern era with high-tech efficiencies. It was becoming a much more specialised industry and we thought we could just keep expanding forever.”

Then in the early 2000s, the completion of the Pork Biosecurity Risk Assessment opened the doors to importing meat from overseas. While fresh pork isn’t imported, APL says imported processed pork accounts for about 45% of the pork we eat today.

“Everyone said it would be the end, but it wasn’t,” says Leon. “It was the end of an era where shortages had driven higher prices in Australia. When cheap imports from Europe, Canada and the United States became available a lot of small pig farmers just couldn’t survive.”

Pig farmers’ advice for a successful pork production business model 

Leon’s survival strategy at that time was to partner up. The giant retailer Woolworths needed supply and approached Leon’s Pork in 1990. They developed a business model that lasted for the next 10 years.

“We got eight local pig farmers on board and went from selling 10 pigs a week to 480 between us,” says Leon. “We dealt directly with stores in Tamworth, Gunnedah, Narrabri and the Sydney depot. All the pigs were processed at Gunnedah and Tamworth.”
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It was game over when Woolworths moved all its pig processing from northern NSW to an abattoir at Kingaroy, Queensland, more than a seven-hour drive from Gunnedah. Leon’s Pork could no longer keep up. “Taking a loss of $10 a head on all pigs transported to Kingaroy meant we had to either move our whole piggery or find another relationship,” says Leon.

Today, the support of local butchers helps keep things ticking over. 

“Whenever we revert back to local, we get lucky,” says Leon. “We supply six local butchers and have a ‘customer-for-life’ relationship with them.”

Transporting animals is still a major cost. There are limited places where the pigs can be processed, another dynamic that has changed the industry. “We’ve seen many abattoirs shut down,” he says. Until recently, they have been taking their pigs to Frederickton, about an 800km round trip. Now even that has closed, so they are looking around again. 

The toughest periods in the pig industry revolve around drought, as the feed component of grains makes up almost 60% of the total cost of producing pork. “When you hit a drought, of course the cost of feed goes up,” says Leon. “When you’re paying $250 a tonne for raw grain and suddenly you have to pay $450, it’s very hard.”

Diversifying pork production increases profits for pig growers 

Diversification is a must for modern pork producers and Leon and Melinda decided to go into hay production. “The drought has made it hard, but we’ve been able to irrigate with secured underground bore water, which I bought a couple of years ago when it was $2,000 a megalitre,” says Leon. “Today it’s $5,100 per megalitre and we’re competing with the mining sector.”

Hay sales have been a major source of revenue. In a good year, the farm can produce 50,000 to 60,000 small square bails. “For the past two years we have only produced 15,000 bails a year, but we need that extra revenue because between the current pork market and other expensive factors like transport, you can’t make a profit purely from pigs,” he says.
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“The drought relief funding has helped a lot with transport costs. We are producing about 25% of what we normally would, so we’re hanging in there just below critical mass.”

His son Nick would have been the natural heir to the farm, but has had to follow another career. 

Melinda and Leon checking newly-cut lucerne.

“If pig farming hadn’t been such a challenge, Nick would  have taken over,” Leon says. “Instead, he’s a miner.”  
Family grows successful pork production business 

When Melinda answered a job advertisement for a production manager with Leon’s Pork in 2013, she could never have imagined that not only would she land the job, she’d also marry the boss.

“I grew up in Penrith, Sydney, but I always knew I was going to become a farmer and nobody in my family was surprised when I did,” says Melinda, who studied agriculture at Tocal College in Paterson, NSW.

“I had worked on a few properties after graduating, but I’d never worked with pigs before and to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know if I liked them before I came here,” she laughs. “Thankfully, it turns out I do.”

Leon, in the centre, carrying his three-year-old daughter Isabella, with his son Nick and Nick’s year-old daughter Mia to the right, and wife Melinda and Nick’s wife Tegan to the left. Maggie, the cattle dog, and American Staffordshire terriers Sonic and GT make up the party.

The couple fell in love and in 2016, they married. Both have children from previous marriages and their daughter together, Isabella, three, loves life on the farm.

“When I started, the pig industry was very rocky and we needed to make some big decisions about which way to go forward,” says Melinda. “Our long-term game plan is to develop environmental stewardships through the Office of Environment and Heritage [now the Environment, Energy and Science Group].”

Aiming to reduce the pig industry’s environmental footprint, ongoing research and development has focused on improving waste minimisation, preventing pollution, nutrient management and beneficial reuse of by-products. “It’s a four to five year process, but we’ve already employed an environmentalist to do surveys on the farm and it’s definitely something we are exploring.”
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Another plan to future-proof the business is to build a small processing plant on-farm, which would also service other local pig farms. “We intend to do that down the track but it’s a big investment and right now just getting through the drought is the main focus,” says Melinda.

Melinda patting a sow. 

While it has its up and downs, Melinda has come to love pig farming and says she can’t imagine doing anything else. “I have a partner who helps me to stay level-headed even when things get stressful,” she says. “Every time we overcome another hurdle I feel stronger as a person.”

3 common myths about pigs 

  1. Pigs are dirty.

  2. Truth is, pigs are very clean animals that rest most of the day and are known for keeping separate areas for sleeping, eating and toileting. The popular myth is probably due to their love of mud, which acts as a sunblock in the warmer months and helps them cool down, since they don’t have sweat glands.

  3. Pork should be cooked all the way through to avoid parasites.

  4. Because we don’t have the Trichinella spiralis parasite in Australia, it’s safe to eat fresh Australian-grown pork medium rare with just a hint of pink.

  5. Pork is fattening.

  6. Once trimmed of external fat, pork is a lean choice. A 200g uncooked serving of trimmed pork fillet contains 2.2g of fat. That’s less than a same-sized snapper fillet or skinless chicken breast.
Fast facts about the Australian pork market

Butcher Brett Streater at Ian Doyle’s Meat Service, Gunnedah, which sells Leon’s Pork.

  • Australia produces about 360,000 tonnes of pig meat each year.

  • Pork is our second most consumed meat after chicken.

  • Australians eat about 24.2kg of pork per person annually.

  • This includes fresh meat and processed products, such as bacon, ham and smallgoods.

  • Pig farming contributes $5.2 billion to the Australian economy.

  • It employs 36,000 full-time workers.

  • Just over 8% of pork grown in Australia is exported.

  • It goes to destinations such as Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

  • The pork industry accounts for 0.4 % of national greenhouse gas emissions.

  • That is significantly less than other agricultural sectors.

  • Feeding pigs swill is illegal in Australia.

  • Grains, such as wheat, barley and sorghum, make up 60% of pork production.

  • Pig farming in Australia includes indoor intensive, semi-indoor extensive and outdoor, free-range systems.

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