McLaren Vale’s top chefs and butchers are raving about Howie Hill Farm — the small Berkshire pig farm taking ethical, sustainable practices to the next level.
When there are pigs lying on the doormat at the back of the house, ideas of ethical and free range farming take on a whole new meaning. Mel and Sam Hage of Howie Hill Farm love their pigs. Nestled in McLaren Vale’s foothills overlooking the Fleurieu, Howie Hill Farm is home to around 40 pure-bred Berkshire pigs as well as the Hage family. More than just a pork producer, it’s an example of a turning point in farming and in eating, and not just for the pigs, but for consumers too.
The pair moved to the region from Adelaide seven years ago, establishing the Cottage Bakery in McLaren Vale. With dreams to live the farm life with their two young children, they bought their property a year ago, and before they knew it, they were selling the bakery and buying pigs instead. “We wanted to give our kids the opportunity to live that whole paddock to plate philosophy, understanding where your food has come from; the story,” Mel says.
Sam and Mel Hage
They purchased their first three sows from renowned Berkshire farmers Colin and Joy Leinert, in the Barossa, to clean up their veggie patches. Soon after, they met Michele and Philip Lally from Clare’s Savannah Farm at a Tasting Australia event and learned that they were selling their herd. That late night conversation turned into a life-changing decision, with Mel and Sam purchasing the whole herd late last year.
“For me, there was a turning point,” says Mel. “I had a friend who had a piggery years ago, but they were in the really caged-in pens, so for me I decided then that it would be great to do something one day where I had a nice impact on the food industry.”
With no existing infrastructure on the property, Mel and Sam have crafted everything themselves, building fencing, nesting and shelters for their Berkshire herd. But the pigs rule the roost, with free rein of the entire property. And why wouldn’t they, with names like Gloria and Whitney (the sows are named after ‘80s popstars) and Kevin Bacon (head boar).
“At the end of the day, they go where they want to go,” Mel laughs. Pigs saunter past the living room window as if on cue as Mel speaks. “We can set things up for them but if they’re going to come down the hill by the house to have their piglets, that’s what’s going to happen.”
It’s all part of their philosophy, part of a wave of farming practices that are becoming increasingly popular. Words like ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ might appear to be a trend but for the Hages, it’s an older way of living that we need to bring back to the fore — for the sake of the animals, and our health.
“Let a pig be a pig and you’ll get the benefits at the end,” Sam says. “As farming processes have changed, the end product has changed. We’ve got to get it out as fast as we can, so we pump it full of this and that…it’s not a natural process at all. There’s more going on than what you perhaps know about with the nutrients and quality at the end.”
By allowing the pigs to freely roam the property, Mel and Sam believe their Berkshires grow at their own pace, producing healthier, tastier fats and meat. “Berkshire pigs grow meat slower, redder, and generally better. They marble differently than other pigs. If you don’t let them roam, they just fill out without any exercise.”
It’s also about what they eat. “We get apples and pears from McCarthy’s orchard down the road, we get a mash from Goodieson’s Brewery, and cakes and bread from the bakery too, so they have good fun,” Mel says. There are future plans for their own foraging forest too, for enrichment and flavour. “We want them to forage through everything we grow, including oregano, marjoram, native thyme, chestnuts and apple trees.”
Karena Armstrong of The Salopian Inn was a Howie Hill fan from the beginning. “An animal that is pasture-raised and less stressed is always going to taste better,” she tells The Adelaide Review. “The meat is a delight to cook with. We use every part of each pig. It keeps us thinking. It’s a bit like a cooking puzzle. To change the environmental future for our children, meat raised ethically and locally is crucial. Eat less meat, just eat good quality and eat the whole animal.”
Ian Shaw, owner of McLaren Vale’s Ellis Butchers, which supplies a multitude of restaurants, says this is the way the industry is heading, but there are still challenges. “For me, it’s always been about respect to the animal,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot more people like that now, but we can’t always sell free range as it comes down to price.
“Changing people’s perspectives on the cost of food is going to be very challenging. Understanding where real food comes from, what it costs to produce that food and how that animal has been treated ethically is the way forward. If we get a few more people breeding pigs like Howie Hill, that for me becomes a much more viable option.”
Sam and Mel hope to continue expanding their farm, and add other animals to the mix. “If you move around multi-species of animals on a farm, it produces more nutrients,” Sam says. “We would like to have cows, pigs, sheep and chickens eventually. That’s what we used to do many years ago in farming, and there was so much biodiversity back then. Now, we’ve gone to this farming model of just having one species — chuck in some fertiliser and chuck in something else, and you’re wondering why the end product of meat has no nutrients.”
In the meantime, Mel and Sam will keep supervising midnight births, afternoon ear scratches, early morning feeds, and the emotional journey to the abattoir.
“Yes, it’s challenging, but when they come up and nuzzle your boots in the morning, nothing else really matters,” Sam says. “We are here to give them the best life possible. Unfortunately, there’s a really bad day at the end of it but they never know. We let them have a seriously good life.”
Photography: Ellen Morgan