Taranaki free-range pig farmer leaving industry as pressure from cheap imported pork mounts


10 July 2022

Ester Taunton

Stephen Foreman's free-range herd has shrunk from 60 sows to just 10

A Taranaki free-range pig farmer is winding up his herd as pressure in the market and on farmers continue to grow.

For the last 12 years, Stephen Foreman​ has raised pigs on a 24-hectare block just south of New Plymouth with his wife, Helen Foreman​.

While they once had a herd of 60 sows, the Foremans now have just 10 and will not replace those animals as they become too old for breeding.

Stephen said with the cost of production climbing and huge volumes of cheap imported pork flooding the market, consumers and restaurants were less willing to pay a premium for free-range pork.

He said free-range pork was more expensive for several reasons.

“You can’t raise as many piglets as the indoor commercial operations, because free-range sows tend to accidentally crush some of their piglets.

“Free-range pigs also don’t grow as fast because the conditions are colder. Indoor operations are temperature controlled.”

On top of that, pigs raised outdoors were built differently. Consumers wanted lean meat, but pigs bred to be lean lost the fat “buffer zone” that kept them warm outside, Foreman said.

Stephen and Helen grew up on dairy farms. However, Stephen always liked pigs, so, as a child, his parents bought him some sows to look after. He did so well with them that they built a commercial pig farm.

“They are such bright clean animals, creatures of habit and I like their nature. I have tried other things, we kept deer for a while, and I’ve tried shearing, but I just like pigs best,” he said.

After leaving school 37 years ago, Stephen went straight into working on the family pig farm and eventually bought a quarter share.

Twelve years ago, he and Helen saw the opportunity to move to free-range and bought their land at Egmont Village.

The couple started out selling at farmers’ markets and before long, their pork was being stocked by local butchers. The Foremans also have a long-standing supply agreement with meat company Wilson Hellaby.

“We wanted to look after our pigs really well and provide our customers with the best meat, so we have always bought the highest quality sows,” he said.

“We feed our pigs grass and a good quality formulated diet, but New Zealand does not have large arable areas, so pig feed ingredients are imported, and costs have increased significantly.

“The free-range and commercial market is just getting tighter all the time. The people we supply are telling us that many restaurants are not buying free-range pork because customers don’t want to pay free-range prices.”

Farrowing (birthing) crates allow sows access to food and water but prevent them from turning around and potentially crushing their piglets. Opponents say the crates prevent the animals expressing their natural behaviour

According to NZ Pork, more than 60% of pork eaten in New Zealand comes from overseas, from dozens of countries, much of which is raised using practices which are illegal here.

Changes proposed by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (Nawac) would result in the gap between New Zealand pig farming practices and those allowed overseas widening even further.

Under the Draft Code of Welfare for Pigs, use of farrowing (birthing) crates could be completely banned, more than doubling the minimum amount of space provided to growing pigs.

No other country has completely banned farrowing crates, where sows are kept before, during and after giving birth.

The crates allow the animals access to food and water but prevent them from turning around and potentially crushing their piglets. Animal welfare groups have long called for them to be banned, claiming the crates breach the Animal Welfare Act as they did not allow sows to express natural behaviour.

Stephen Foreman’s free-range sows do their farrowing in huts, but the set-up does not work for all sows, he says.

But the pork industry says banning use of farrowing crates would result in tens of thousands more piglets being crushed by their mothers each year, and further drive up the costs of New Zealand produced pork, making pig farming largely uneconomical in New Zealand.

Stephen said, although the proposed code looked “really glossy and nice” on paper, it couldn’t be put into practice without driving a lot of pig farmers out of the industry.

“If you don’t have farrowing crates, there will be a lot more crushed piglets. Pigs are naturally lazy animals, when they want to lie down, they just drop to the ground. Sows can crush eight or nine piglets in a farrowing hut, particularly maiden sows with their first litters.

“Some sows are good mothers and some aren’t. I’ve had some sows I have had to move to indoor farms because they are squashing their piglets. That is the big difference between a farrowing hut and a farrowing crate. The crates were invented to save piglets’ lives.”

Stephen likened their use to humans putting infants in cots to sleep.

“Humans are told not to sleep with their babies but to put them in cots. They are there to protect piglets while they are at risk of being suffocated and crushed to death.

“The New Zealand pork industry is suggesting limiting the use of farrowing crates to a short period after the sow gives birth and I think that would be a good solution, but Nawac wants a total ban. My question to Nawac is, did they put their own child in a cot? I did as I wanted my child to be safe.”

If a total ban came into effect, many New Zealand pig farmers would go out of business and demand for imported pork would increase even further, resulting in even more overseas pigs being raised to lower welfare standards, he said.

“The view being taken here seems to be what you can’t see can’t hurt you. I’d like to see the Government put the same requirements on producers of imported pork as they do on pig farmers here.

“If overseas producers can’t meet even our current high standards, then their product really should not be coming into the country.”