On a 115-acre, fifth-generation family farm in southeast Australia, Matt Simmons and his wife Sue raise free range, potato-gobbling pigs. Popular with chefs in Sydney – just an hour’s drive away – their humanely reared pork is a rarity so close to the city.
Homepage portrait image by Martin Duncan
Photos + interview by Alecia Wood
You stumbled into pig farming as a result of growing potatoes. How did that happen?
We started growing organic potatoes and then we couldn’t get rid of them after harvest – you’d always leave behind small, broken, half-rotten potatoes. They’re a self-regenerating tuber so you don’t need a seed, they just sprout and grow more. You’d have to poison the tuber to kill it, so the only way to kill leftovers is to spray them. Instead, we thought we’d get some pigs, put them in the paddock, because they dig up the potatoes. They did such a good job, they just ate every potato, there was nothing left. We started off with just three pigs. A pig just eats potatoes for a while, then sleeps for 10 hours, then eats more potatoes, then goes back to sleep!
Your property was originally a citrus orchard – you were growing oranges, then switched to raising cows, then producing vegetables, and then came the pigs. You were beekeeping somewhere in the mix, too. Why so many changes?
A lot of the farms around here were citrus orchards, there were lots here 20 to 30 years ago. But we were tiny compared to what you need these days – you’d need 100,000 trees to survive in citrus. They were old trees, old varieties. We were competing with overseas oranges and big, big [Australian] farms with newer, more marketable varieties. Big Washington navel oranges versus our little Valencias.
I never though we’d do this, then this, then that. We never got rid of the bees because we didn’t like doing them, and we never got into the pigs because we thought it was a good market, it was just a good progression of things. With the bees, there was a disease outbreak in Sydney and we had to quarantine them, and with the pigs we just stumbled into it. It was the same with potatoes. It’s all just developed.
If you find something that works and get rid of the things that don’t… in agriculture there’s no point continuing to do something that doesn’t work. Not every area will grow everything really well, no matter how good the market is for them.
If someone said 10 years ago I’d be doing free range pigs I’d say, yeah right! Never say forever, you never know what’ll happen.
How does your free range pig operation work?
We rotate the pigs around. They’ll be in a paddock for three to four months, then they move to another paddock, and the old paddock grows grass or we grow potatoes there. We keep moving the pigs and the manure left behind grows something.
The rotating of the pigs and the veggies is an organic practice – we don’t leave them there grazing on dirt, we move them on and regenerate the paddock.
We get reasonably good rain, but our soil is quite sandy. It needs regular rain to keep the moisture levels up. Six weeks without rain here is like six months without rain out west. That’s why the pigs are so good – we need that extra fertility.
The pork takes up so much of your time. The pigs can be very demanding!
It’s not so easy to find local free range pork in Sydney, and you’re selling yours to some of the city’s best restaurants.
There’s very little free range pork in the Sydney basin – there’s not enough room for the pigs. Pork’s one of those industries that’s moved a long way away, because they’re generally considered smelly so they want them far away [from cities].
Did you grow up on a farm yourself?
I grew up in a town nearby. I’d never done any agricultural work before I left school, but growing up in the area you’re always exposed to agriculture. The one thing a person needs to learn before they leave school is the ability to learn. Farmers these days have to be an accountant, sales manager, PR guy… you’ve got to be everything, you need to have that ability to be able to see something and think, how can you do it better? We’ve got some really good farmers and growers here, we all get along really well so they’re very supportive around here.
What are your future plans for the farm?
We love the property here. It’s really good farmland still held together under one property. Our kids are the fifth generation from our family on this property. It’d be a shame to see it divided up for housing, a waste of farmland. I think it’s in the interest [of] Sydney to keep agricultural activity happening here [in this area]. We’ve got no vision of moving. It’s an old family property and we’d like to keep it as a family farm.