There are some quite remarkable people in this world and every so often one of them comes into my life. I first met Tammi Jonas, publiser of the blog Tammi Jonas: Food Ethics, at Eat Drink Blog 2011 and was able to get to know her a little better when she came to Adelaide for our version of the Australian national food bloggers conference, Eat Drink Blog 2012. Tammi is a food writer, food activist, food producer and cultural theorist close to the completion of a PhD examining the role of food and foodways in the development of a sustainable society – and a home butchering student.
From the very first time I met her, I was struck by Tammi’s friendly, genuine manner, easy laugh, open-mindedness, her quick, razor-sharp intellect and her utter commitment to her firmly-held beliefs. Tammi has made the journey from vegetarianism to meat-eating in the only way she has felt ethically able and as a result is now learning to butcher her own meat, cure it and is also sharing that knowledge with her Eat Your Ethics workshops. To further ensure the security of their own, personal food chain the Jonas’ (or Jonai, as they prefer to be known) have now launched a campaign through Pozible to fund the construction and licensing of a registered boning room on their own property. If that’s not conviction, I really don’t know what is. To learn more about this truly inspirational woman, read on …
While lots of us care about the provenance of our food, not too many are prepared to make such radical changes to their lives to ensure an ethical meal. Was the change from suburbia to Daylesford an evolving decision or more of an epiphany?
It came from a long-held desire to move to the country that one day happily collided with the realisation that we could make a modest living as farmers, all while still advocating for a fair and ethical food system. I grew up on a cattle ranch in Oregon, so country living was not only familiar to me, it’s my preferred natural state, and Stuart, though from generations of suburban dwellers, must have been a farmer in a former life – I call him ‘hypercompetent’, which is pretty useful as a farmer! We have always wanted to grow, cure, ferment and pickle more of our own food, and we can now do all of that while sharing our produce and our learning with loads of like-minded people. So what may have seemed radical to many people seemed totally logical to us.
You don’t use harmful chemicals or sprays and follow pretty traditional organic farming techniques, but have chosen not to seek organic accreditation. Why is that?
There are a number of reasons why we won’t be seeking any accreditation – neither organic nor free range – and I need to write more on this topic soon. In short, we work on a transparency model rather than an accreditation model. The people who buy our pork aren’t ‘buying from a stranger’, we deliver the pork directly to their door, or they pick it up from the farm, so they can see for themselves and have lengthy conversations with us about our systems, plus we’re now running the Eat Your Ethics workshops to share our practices with more people. Accreditation schemes are largely designed to give people confidence when they can’t/don’t know their producers.
We also cannot ensure that all of the grain we procure for the pigs is organic – it’s prohibitively expensive, and in drought years, unreliably available. Our primary focus is on ethical animal husbandry and good agroecological practices, and while we don’t use any synthetic inputs on the farm, some of the things we bring in from elsewhere will have come from such ‘conventional’ systems, though we’re working to reduce those external inputs. Free range, on the other hand, is a no brainer – we wouldn’t dream of putting our pigs into an intensive system, and could easily be certified if we wanted to be. But I’m pretty sure our twitter account, Instagram feed and website prove the point about the wonderful space our pigs have to wander, root and wallow! And if in doubt, just come visit and see for yourselves!
Why pigs? While you do have other livestock, pigs probably require the most intensive husbandry and management of all large farm beasts – so why did you choose them?
Kind of like the move to the country, pigs were the obvious choice for us, as they’re very clever animals kept in what we consider unconscionable conditions in intensive systems as a population increases its pork consumption on the back of those systems. Chooks were the other possibility as they’re the other most intensively raised animals, but frankly, I think we should stop eating chicken except for the once or twice a year when you kill the surplus roosters, which is how it was not that long ago. So while pigs are, as you say, a lot of work, they’re the most in need of an increase in ethical farming systems and lots of awareness raising to help people understand why it matters to choose free range.
Once you made your decisions, was it very difficult to educate yourselves in the various practices and how did you go about finding the supports – suppliers, information & buyers for your product – you needed?
We’re still educating ourselves every day! We’ve been the grateful beneficiaries of the knowledge of other free-range pig farmers who went before us, all of whom have been incredibly generous with their knowledge. We started with our four-month Road Trip USA trip in 2011, where we visited Polyface and a couple of other farms to learn about their systems, and then got lots of information and support from people like Anthony at Greenvale Farm, Fiona at Fernleigh Free Range, and Loz at Bundarra Berkshires. We’ve read a lot of books as well, and of course have learned the most just by doing! As for buyers, our sales started with the enthusiasm of friends and followers on twitter and the blogs, but have since broadened out to include a diverse set of people locally and in Melbourne who care about the treatment of animals raised for meat.
You have visited Joel Salatin’s inspirational Polyface Farm – what specifics did you bring home with you as a result of that?
Polyface was fantastic, and I detailed that visit in 2011. I brought home a few things – one is that Joel does what he says he does – his animals are raised in a great system that benefits the land. The vertical integration he does is inspiring – it’s also quite labour intensive. We certainly aren’t afraid of labour, but we need more hands on deck to run a system as diverse and demanding as his – we’d love to get there one day! But I also took home a stronger view that meat chickens just aren’t really sustainable, and don’t sit well with my ethics. Joel still runs meat chickens that have such large breasts and feeble legs (Americans don’t like thigh meat, silly buggers) that even though they’re out on the paddocks in an otherwise ethical system, my view is that the breed itself isn’t ethical – the poor birds can barely walk by the time they’re three or four weeks old. I think that’s inhumane breeding, personally, though I otherwise am a huge fan of Polyface’s systems.
You are now working towards the next logical step in your ethical meat journey – your own on-site boning room. Was this always part of the plan and (aside from funding it) what have been the largest obstacles you have encountered?
Our plans are always evolving as we discover the next challenge and work out the Jonai way to solve it (which typically means learn more and do more ourselves…). We hadn’t anticipated doing all our own butchering, though we’ve always hoped we would be able to do artisanal curing and fermenting once we were well established and could afford the prohibitive setup and auditing costs. We’d been told by all the small growers that butchering is always an issue, but didn’t fully understand the problem until it was ours as well. There is, quite simply, a shortage of skilled butchers around, and the good ones are running successful retail ventures in their own right and so have little time for private jobs like ours. We’re so lucky to have found Sal, our wonderful butcher in Ballan, who not only is very good at what he does, but is incredibly generous and willing to share his knowledge and skills with me so that we can do it on our own. But he won’t be able to keep up with our needs within a few months on top of his own thriving shop, and he doesn’t have the licence to cure either, and we’ve had issues finding someone else suitable for the curing side. So while some people may think setting up a boning room to do it ourselves is a fairly extreme response to the problem, it’s in keeping with our constant drive to do things ourselves, and to maintain total transparency about what we’re doing.
You are in the process of completing a Ph.D., have a partner and three children, pigs, chooks, cattle & sheep, open your farm to the public, are teaching yourself butchery, write several blogs and still work part-time. Do you have more hours in your day than I do?
Ha! I get asked that *a lot*. In fairness, I just quit my full-time job with the government so I can focus on the farm and finishing my PhD this year. Some of my time is created by having the amazing Jonai involved in everything together. The #orsmkids aren’t called that for no reason – they’ve taken on a lot of the domestic chores, including cooking up some delicious meals when Stuart and I are otherwise occupied, plus they tend the chooks and help out where they can with farm chores. Stuart never stops moving – the man is incredible at getting on with the job at hand, and is by far the primary labour force on the farm, doing all the feed procurement and feeding, as well as leading the infrastructure projects like the endless fencing… he also does all the laundry (except folding, which is the kids’ job).
And don’t tell my supervisor (actually he’s well aware of it), but I haven’t done much on the PhD in the last year, though that is changing as I have a target to write a full rough draft by the end of August… not having a tv helps with the time factor too, I guess, though I tend to think of that as time other people sacrifice rather than time I save. Oh, and I do also tend to be pretty energetic (and enthusiastic) by nature.
If you want to find out more about Tammi’s Boning Room Project or even support it check it out on Pozible here.
Image courtesy of and owned by Tammi Jonas.