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Feature: Telling the organic story

”If I was reborn as a pig, organic is what I would like to be,” says Denmark’s biggest organic pig farmer, Bertel Hestbjerg, who farms in Holstebro in western Denmark where the sandy soil is ideal for organic production. “Organic is not the answer to everything, but for the group of growing consumers who care about animal welfare, I think it’s a great project.”

Hestbjerg farms 500 hectares in total: 900 organic sows at the main farm, another 550 sows at a farm 50 km away and 10,000 pigs finished per year at two rented farms in Northern Denmark. He also has business interests further afield, in Iowa in the US.

There are around 40-45 organic farmers who sell their pigs to Friland, the sales company owned by Danish Crown. The production methods are defined by a concept that all producers of Friland pigs must adhere to – a concept that has been drawn up between the company and the Danish organisation, ‘Dyrenes Beskyttelse’ (Animal Protection).

Friland, says Hestbjerg, is looking to increase its supplies of organic meat as more consumers are prepared to pay the extra cost.

“The market is definitely there, but it’s about telling the organic story – about food safety and animal welfare. We only finish around 100,000 organic pigs per year in Denmark and we export around 65% to Germany, France and Asia. The UK used to be our biggest market but it suddenly collapsed because of the recession. That caused us some difficulties, but we’ve now found other channels, in particular Germany and France. China and the Philippines are also showing increased interest in organic pork.”

Checks and balances

Although the DKK 13 per kg premium that Danish organic pig producers receive is much higher than for any other productions, the cost of production is considerable. Feed costs alone amount to around DKK 7-8 per kg and producing organic pigs is highly labour intensive. Hestbjerg farm has 15 employees.

Under the organic rules, the pigs have to be born outdoors and remain outdoors for at least seven weeks with their mother. They are then permitted to come indoors, into a straw-based system with three times more space than traditional pigs. They are also required to have an outdoor run.

“You could say that organic production in Denmark is a compromise between animal welfare and protecting the environment,” Hestbjerg explains. “If our finishers were to live outside, the land would be black due to nitrogen leaching. We also have to put a ring on the sow’s nose to protect the grassland. In fact, we have to ensure that there is grassland all year round, and we rotate our fields so that our pigs do not spend more than one year on the same one.”

One step further

In a move designed to fine-tune his production, last summer, Bertel Hestbjerg bought a farm that combines grassland and forest. Some of the trees will be used for bio fuel and some will provide fruit and nuts for the pigs and offer them shade in summer. In addition, the roots will absorb the excess nitrogen in the soil.

“I want the dry sows to have grassland and to forage in the forest. I also want the piglets to remain with their mums for 13 weeks, which means that they will spend more than half their lives outdoors.”

With piglet mortality rates above average, rigorous environmental regulations, strict veterinary and official controls and the high cost of production, what is it that attracts famers like Bertel Hestbjerg to organic pig farming?

“I want to tell a positive story about farming and create something that people respect and find interesting. I believe that the organic market is growing. Consumers are willing to pay a high price for good wine, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be willing to pay a premium for organic pork once they know exactly what they are paying for.”

The future

Sales of organic foods in the UK were hit hard during the economic downturn, but, according to the 2014 Organic Market Report, the overall organic market returned to growth. According to more recent data published by the Soil Association, sales of organic meat have yet to feel the benefits of the resurgence in interest in organically produced food.

This is in marked contrast to the situation in Denmark, whose population is among the world’s largest per capita consumers of organic foods. According to Friland, domestic sales of organic pork rose by 34% in the latest year and there has also been increased interest from a number of key export markets. As a result, the company is now actively seeking additional supplies of organic pigs to meet this demand.

The differences between free-range and organic production are:

  • All feed is organic
  • No antibiotics can be administered without a vet recording the dosage in a medical journal. If an organic pig receives more than one antibiotic treatment, then the pig is no longer organic
  • The suckling period has to be at least 7 weeks (EU rules are six weeks)
  • All finishers must have silage.