Following my blog in July celebrating the best ham we and our guests have ever eaten it was a pleasure last week to visit Canterbury’s Murellen Pork, birth place of the 21st Birthday ham.
Expecting the high pitched squeal of pigs on arrival I was surprised not to hear a peep from the grunters. Located in the lee of Mount Torlesse just out of Sheffield, this resplendent piggery sits on 20 acres of mostly glossy green grass.
Murrellen Pork was set up in 1999 by Murray and Helen Battersby (hence the name - Murr-ellen). After farming pigs in the area for 40 years the couple realised to upsize the operation they could either focus on quantity or quality – and chose the latter. Now managed by son Colin and wife Karen, Murrellen Pork farms around 1500 pigs at any one time. Colin says this number means they can keep the ‘owner operator’ feel of the business.
Like a Wellington team management text, the farming practice is built around reducing stress. Some techniques follow the research of Temple Grandin , famous for her extraordinary knowledge of animal behavior. The entire supply line has been analysed and set up to avoid stressing the animals unnecessarily. For example the pigs are trucked to Timaru for processing via State Highway 50, instead of State Highway 1. This is not for the scenery but because the truck only needs to stop twice on the way. Every stop on a journey arouses the pigs and they get stressed! On the farm round feeders are used instead of straight designs. Pigs have narrow vision and being able to keep an eye on the pigs on each side while eating allows for a more relaxed mealtime and improves nutrition intake. Other measures include PH analysis of the meat and temperature control of the pig enclosures – you can read more here.
While being fattened up at the Murrellen premises the pigs are initially housed in mobile pens (the piglets arrive from a free range supplier) before shifting to a larger facility for the final five weeks. In a similar manner to Joel Salatin’s mobile chook houses (as described in the book The Omnivores Dilemma) these pens are regularly dragged onto a fresh patch of grass with the resulting rich effluent spread to fertilise new grass and enormous worm farms. The pigs are fed a locally produced vegetarian diet which supports the mobile self-fertilising system.
The effect of the Canterbury earthquakes on Murrellen has been twofold. Restaurant closures in Christchurch meant a substantial drop off in demand and Murrellen’s office, and the historic house where Colin and Karen live will probably be demolished.
If you are after New Zealand pork, charcuterie or other piggy offcuts, Murrellen’s produce can be sourced via discerning Christchurch and Wellington butchers (a full list is available here). They include Ashby’s in Christchurch which won the best bacon award in 2011 with Ashby’s Murrellen dry cured bacon, and Waikanae Butchery who was the Gold Medal Winner (Pork category) in The Great New Zealand Sausage Competition 2009.