Margaret O’Farrell and Alfie McCaffery run Oldfarm, an organic pig farm located in North Tipperary with a mission to bring the real taste of pork to Irish consumers.
From the beginning…
Well we kind of ‘fell’ into farming if the truth be told! When we first moved here we were both working in full time jobs and kept a few hens and decided to have a couple of pigs for ourselves. However, Alfie was enjoying the pigs so much he decided to get a couple of sows to go with the boars we already had…. hey presto we had a lot of baby pigs!
We sold on most of the bonhams (piglets), and raised the rest on for meat. Hence, Oldfarm Pork, was started on a part-time basis. The reaction we were getting to our meat was really wonderful, so when in 2009 we both lost our full time jobs within months of each other, it was time to look at building up the business.
Keeping pigs is not for the faint-hearted! It is not very physically demanding but it is constant – winter and summer – 365 days of the year. People are not familiar with outdoor reared pigs, so getting someone to come ‘pig sit’ for a day or two, or the idea of time away for a holiday, is difficult, very difficult!
Rearing the pigs the way we do – outdoors, free-range on an organic, non-GMO diet is more expensive as it takes the pigs longer to grow.
Life on Oldfarm…
The pigs have to be fed and watered at least once a day. In hot weather, it is a constant round of checking their water troughs – and in winter it is much the same, especially in freezing conditions as the water freezes over. Fences need to be constantly checked too. Sows with litters will need feeding more often, and an eye kept on the little ones. Bedding/sheds need to be checked, cleaned out and replenished. Then of course there is the rest of the residents here that need minding. This summer we started operating as a B&B so there’s never a time when there isn’t something to be done.
We also keep hens and ducks. They need to be fed and watered at least twice a day too. And, of course, the eggs have to be collected too. We allow our birds to roam around the property freely – so once they are let out in the morning they wander until they are ready to go to bed. Which is all fine and dandy but in the summertime, and those long summer evenings, it was often 11.30 before they went to bed and I’ve had to stay up in order to lock them in! In winter they will go to bed much earlier – thankfully.
We feed our hens with exactly the same food as the pigs get. However, recently we’ve had the first chick born on the farm for decades and rather than feed it barley (which would be too heavy for it’s baby tummy) I’ve been making up my own chick feed. The reason for this is that it is only one chick and chick feed which is full of GMO contaminated stuff and other nasties come in 20 kg bags a bit much for one little chick! We’ve just recently added a bee hive to our menagerie…. so that is another job that has to be scheduled into the day – for the moment I am leaving that to Alfie. I’ve also got my ‘honesty table’ at the gate for egg sales – and that needs to be watched during the day for restocking.
We recently got a gift of a pair of Muscovy Ducks…. I am afraid I do spend quite a bit of time entranced watching them! They are just learning to fly and it is fun to watch them.
Real Irish pork…
The fun begins when a pig is ready for the butcher. If I tell you that we recently had a pig climb out over the side of a covered trailer, you will know what I mean! You cannot herd pigs. You have to tempt them with their favourite foods or hope that they are hungry enough to climb into the trailer for food!
Once they are loaded and ready to go off to the abattoir, our butcher then hangs the meat for approximately 14 days to allow the flavour to develop. If the pig is going completely to pork, once the butcher has jointed the meat he blast freezes it for us. As we do not use any preservatives, or inject the meat with water, this is the only way to preserve our meat. And as we do not use preservatives or water – the meat retains its consistency in the freezing process.
If we are doing bacon – the pork meat is steeped in a brine mixture for a period of 7 to 10 days. Again no injecting takes place – it is a natural curing process. Therefore once again the meat is suitable for freezing. We often experiment with different flavours and curings at home for sausages and dry-curing.
Our pigs take approximately 10 months to get to optimum weight for killing. In a factory scenario the pigs are killed at c 5 months, so it takes twice as long for us to grow our pigs.
Know where you food comes from…
I guess the main thing I would say to people is to know where your food comes from. I know times are tough but in the end what we eat determines our health, and if we are eating cheaply produced food that has been fed all sorts of chemicals and bad stuff then it will reflect on our health. We have always encouraged and invited our customers to come and visit, to see how our pigs live and what they are fed. They live a good, clean life here at Oldfarm.
For the love of the job..
I would say that at the end of the day, I know that what we produce is a really good product. Oh, yes, sometimes when you’d love to have a holiday and you can’t, you do think why, oh why are we doing this.
However, it is lovely that we can set the day at our own (or the animals) pace. We spend so much time outdoors, we grow a lot of our own vegetables too – so really while there is a certain ‘sameness’ to each day – every day is totally different. At this time of year – Autumn – we are busy harvesting and foraging, freezing and preserving, for the winter months.
My favourite aspect – is probably the miracle that is nature. I love watching the way the new mother hen tends to her chick, or watching a sow that has just had a litter. I must do a recording of how the mothers ‘chat’ to their offspring – it is amazing to be able to listen in on those conversations.
Wow! Should I choose someone who doesn’t know good pork or bacon, or should I choose someone who would really appreciate it??
If I was to go with the first option – maybe some factory-farming pig producer to introduce them to ‘real’ pork. Or perhaps I’d go with Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall by way of thank you for all the education of the masses that he has done.
Margaret and Alfie sell their pork and bacon direct to customers via their website at www.oldfarm.ie.