Concentration of food production and especially processing in ever fewer hands and locations may offer economies of scale but is does leave us vulnerable if a 'jink' in the chain takes place

Michael Hicks, Extraordinary Pork, Dubbo who is now processing his pigs on-farm in a converted shipping container. Photo: Firefly Pictures.
Michael Hicks, Extraordinary Pork, Dubbo who is now processing his pigs on-farm in a converted shipping container. Photo: Firefly Pictures.

With Victorian abattoirs having to cut production, due to the spread of COVID-19, and suggestions this move along with other restrictions could possibly lead to food shortages securing the country's food supply chain has come sharply into focus.

Concentration of food production and especially processing in ever fewer hands and locations may offer economies of scale but is does leave us vulnerable if a 'jink' in the chain takes place which currently is occurring due to the pandemic.

So the question has to be asked how can be best overcome these issues and increase our biosecurity in the food chain as well as increasing diversity of supply?

Small scale pork producers are already faced with limited options for processing as more and more abattoirs close their pig facilities.

To overcome this problem, improve animal welfare and maximise their farm's biosecurity Dubbo based Extraordinary Pork owners Michael and Alex Hicks have taken the innovative step of establishing an on-farm processing facility all within a 40 foot container.

Extraordinary Pork runs a free range operation based on regenerative farming practices on 146 hectares. Berkshire sows are joined to a Duroc boar producing around 280 offspring a year.

There have been plenty of challenges in achieving their end goal of an integrated paddock to plate pork business but according to Michael it has been worth the effort nowadays more than ever given the issues with meat works and food supplies.

"We have a great abattoir at Cowra which we used but it was still a three and a half hour trip for the pigs and in summer that was not ideal," he said.

"So we looked at various options to process them on-site. At the same time I spent 100 hours working on the processing floor at Cowra to gain skills and become an accredited meat inspector."

In 2017 the family applied for and received a grant of $25,000 from the NSW government to develop new technology and regional jobs based on their proposal for a mobile on-farm abattoir.

"The shipping container concept means it can be located anywhere and our unique design allows the central room to be dual purpose. First for the processing and then a week later used for the butchering of the pork," he said.

It took 12 months to design and build the facility with the first pigs processed in late 2018. Today 12/13 pigs are processed each fortnight involving the labour of three people.

Their aim is to increase the throughput to 16 pigs/fortnight with whole carcases being sold to Hungerford Butchery in Branxton (Hunter Valley) and Feather & Bone, Sydney.

"It was a hell of a learning curve when we first started but the quality of the meat and the improvement in animal welfare means it has all been worthwhile, Michael said.

"We would like to thank NSW Food Authority for their assistance during the development and getting and facility operational."

He estimates the cost of construction was $80,000 whereas a conventional facility would have been between $300,000 to $400,000. It is powered by a 30Kva generator.

Another huge advantage of the on-farm facility is the fact the pigs are born raised and killed on-site.

This means no trucks enter and leave the farm to transport the pigs to an outside processing facility and even if they only did the butchering of the carcases on-site transport would once again be involved with trucks coming on-farm from the outside abattoir.

"Today all farmers have to look at biosecurity risks and this is one method in our business of reducing those risks significantly," he said.

To assist other producers, who maybe thinking about opting for on-farm processing, the Hicks family were planning in the future to offer tours of their facility to show what can be achieved.

"There is a great deal of interest out there especially now during the pandemic not only for the processing facility but buying local produced food," Michael said.

Commenting on what could be processed in the container he said it could be adapted to suit most small species including sheep, goats and chickens.

Extraordinary Pork. Firefly Pictures

Extraordinary Pork. Firefly Pictures