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Grow your own way: starting an organic farm-to-fork pig business

Stepping away from common practice and sticking by your values to start your own business can be a daunting prospect. The Pig Site speaks to one pig farmer who has done exactly that.

25 September 2019, at 4:27pm

Michiel Nooijen has been involved in pig farming, in one way or another, since he left school as a teenager. Growing up with his dad’s 350-sow farm in the Netherlands, working at an AI station in Canada for a year, and subsequently returning to take over his dad’s herd, Michiel came to the conclusion that he wanted to raise pigs a certain way and his current enterprise was not allowing him to do so.

He was taking care of 400 sows that were farrowing in crates, in a building that was between 30 and 40 years old. He concluded that this was not a sustainable production system, nor was he happy farming this way.

Michiel approached the government and the farm was bought out, allowing him to investigate his options for starting a brand-new pig production business. He analysed the costs of installing new barns, establishing a farrow-to-finish system and housing 600 sows on straw, then took his plans to the bank. He was met with a disappointing response: run with 1200 sows or no loan. So, in Michiel’s words, “I made up my mind at that point that I was going to do it my way or not at all.”

After a brief period of running a 50-sow farrow-to-finish farm in 2011, halted by issues in his personal life, Michiel had to re-evaluate his plans and ambitions for his organic pig farm concept. It wasn’t until seven years later when he managed to get back onto the farm that his hard work began to pay off.

Now Michiel single-handedly runs a 200-head, certified organic finisher unit. Plans to increase to 400 finishers means it’s a case of building on the strong foundations upon which his business proudly stands.

pigs stand waiting for their treat of organic apples
The pigs wait patiently for their daily treat of organic apples

© Michiel Nooijen

Doing things your way

It’s fair to say that to start your own business and be successful, you have to have the drive, enthusiasm and persistence, especially when the going gets tough. Equally, that business must represent and satisfy your values in order to be a fulfilling endeavour.

Michiel has adopted a drastically different business strategy and runs his farm very differently to the way his father did. We asked him what it felt like to be running things his way and he responded simply, “It’s more fun!”

“I’m not so committed to banks.

“I’m more committed to the consumer and have a great relationship with my customers.

“I’m also producing quality pork rather than just producing as many pigs as possible for further sale.”

The next phase of Michiel’s business plan, once he has expanded his herd, is to begin selling his organic produce direct to consumers through an online marketplace rather than selling to supermarkets.

“I want to farm the way I think it should be done and tell my story to my customers in the hopes that they will understand exactly what they are buying and how it’s been produced, and will enjoy a quality product that they want to continue buying from me,” says Michiel.

Marketing your business

There’s something to be said for “blowing your own trumpet” in order to get your products into the right hands. Promoting your own enterprise by capitalising on your unique selling points, especially if these are attractive to your majority market, is one valuable way of doing this.

Research has indicated a growing consumer demand for products that have come from higher welfare systems, from systems that have low environmental impacts, from businesses that have incorporated sustainability into their strategy; and from organic farms, for example.

Michiel says that his business has always had pig welfare and environmental impact at its core: a unique, low emission slurry removal system and various forms of enrichment for the pigs being two outputs of those core values.

In order to generate some interest around his farm and the concept of high-welfare, low-emission, organic farming, Michiel took to social media with videos of his pigs; the conditions they live in and some of the fun enrichment that he has been providing for them. He hasn’t looked back since.

“We now want to sell our products from home so by marketing our farm and our products on social media, we are directly communicating with our customers and potential buyers,” says Michiel.

“The supermarkets today don’t market our products as we would want, we have to do that for ourselves and get our story out there so that customers can make an informed decision when choosing pork products.

“We want to bring interest back to the farm and how the animals are raised.”

Sticking to your values

In the short-term, achieving his ambitions will be difficult financially and Michiel says it’s hard to see any benefits for himself in the short-term but he believes this is the right way to do things. In both the short- and long-term, it’s better for the pigs, better for the environment and better for the consumers.

Looking at his production data, Michiel says that the growth of his pigs is almost as good as in indoor-housed but he says they are healthier as shown by the very low usage of antibiotics on farm.

“I believe a big contributing factor to this is that there is no build-up of methane and ammonia in the housing due to the slurry removal system that I designed for my buildings,” Michiel explains.

Research has shown that build-up of gases, including ammonia and methane, is strongly correlated with the incidence of damaging behaviours, such as tail biting outbreaks in pigs, and also with a low herd health status. Manure processing systems that allow slurry (faeces and urine) to sit beneath indoor pens for extended periods of time are a higher risk for build-up of these gases compared to systems that separate the urine and faeces.

During the summer of 2019, 2100 finishers were found dead in their pens at a farm in the south of Holland. Within 45 minutes, every pig in the barn had died due to a power outage which cut off the air washers allowing temperatures to reach 40 degrees, and a build-up of ammonia and methane in the barn. Methane is heavier than oxygen, so it remained in the pens and suffocated the pigs.

KEY FACT: Ammonia results primarily from the breakdown of urea (present in urine) by the enzyme urease (excreted in faeces). Undigested feed protein and wasted feed are additional sources of ammonia in animal production systems. Strategies to reduce ammonia from animal housing focus primarily on preventing ammonia formation and volatilisation, or downwind transmission of ammonia after it is volatilised.

“Back in 2011, the government also had an initiative to reduce ammonia pollution, so air washer systems were invented. However, these systems used a lot of chemicals which I didn’t want on my farm.

“I told the government this and said that I would invent my own method of manure collection and processing which would do a better job of reducing gas emissions.”

Michiel knew that if you separate the urine from the faeces, the amount of gas produced is reduced significantly so he knew that his system would have to do this automatically, thus the MINO belt system was invented in 2011 and implemented on-farm in 2012.

The belt runs below the dunging area of each pen, the urine runs off to the sides and the faeces is carried to a collection unit away from the pens, the contents of which he collects and sells (as organic manure) to organic farmers locally.

Michiel is currently running testing with the MINO system to investigate the volume of ammonia and methane it emits. He believes it reduces gas output by such a significant amount that it may be certifiable by the RAF list.

The RAF list is a certified list for products that have very low outputs of pollution by ammonia. Currently there’s only one system on there which involves cooling manure down to 15 degrees. In order to be on the list, you must be able to show that you can reduce gas emissions by 85 percent, which is a significant amount.

“I believe the MINO system can achieve 90 percent reduction of ammonia and methane, and, as the belt only runs for 30 mins per day, it only uses about 500 Watts per finishing pig place per year. An air washer is using 14 KWatts per finisher pig place per year. MINO is very efficient and more sustainable long term.”

By removing the pig waste from under the pens, there is no build-up of gases, such as ammonia and methane, which is beneficial both for the pigs and for the neighbours.

Befriending your neighbours

Disputes between livestock farmers and their neighbours are not uncommon, especially when a potential farm expansion could lead to more articulated lorries rumbling past, more smells creeping into your home and an increasing volume of animal noises waking you up at dawn. Michiel says he appreciated that this could be an issue for the future of his business so once the farm was up and running in 2018, he invited his neighbours to see how he and his pigs would not be a problem now or in the years to come.

“I get on really well with my neighbours. Before I set up the farm last year, they were obviously very wary of a pig farm being next to them but I invited them to come and see the farm, smell it, see the pigs and understand that I would be doing things differently to what they were expecting.

“Once they paid me a visit, their worries disappeared, and all was good.

“I believe it’s important to do right by the people around the farm so I make sure my farm is clean and there is no smell.”

Appreciating your journey

Looking back on a tumultuous journey to this point, Michiel says he’s proud to be running the farm the way he thinks farming should be done.

“I feel much more positive about the way I’m farming, about being organic and having a high-welfare, sustainable system,” he says.

“I’m also excited about telling my story to my customers.”