If you want happy pigs, you need to treat them with respect, says Longbush Pork farmer Naya Brangenberg.

Jeremy Wilhelm and Naya Brangenberg have Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith to thank for helping to start their pasture-based pig farm. When the couple bought three heritage-breed Large Black pigs in 2008, they named the two sows after English chefs, Nigella and Delia. Initially destined for the dinner table, once named the sows were off the menu. Instead the pair were the first to breed in a free range pig farm that now runs to 600 pigs on 50 acres high in the hills above Gladstone.

Originally, from the United States, the couple first moved to New Zealand when Jeremy, a statistician, was recruited by Statistics New Zealand. For Naya, a veterinarian, animal welfare is an integral part of running the farm.

“We see pigs as highly intelligent animals, and we have set up the farm so that the pigs can choose to do the things they want to do. We wanted a farm where pigs can be pigs, and they can express their natural behaviours. If you go against those behaviours you are asking the animal to compromise, we prefer to make the compromise even though it’s harder for us as farmers,” she says.

“Pigs need space – they like ranging around, digging up dirt and wallowing in the mud. The sows like to laze together in the sun with their litters of piglets. They like foraging for crops. We don’t trim teeth, cut tails or castrate boars. It works because they have plenty of room. There are no injuries because if they don’t like each other they don’t need to be near each other.”

This does translate into more work for Jeremy and Naya –  but it’s something they accept.

“Pigs turn over the soil so you have to keep moving them on a two-year rotation. We let the pigs demolish an area then we will sow crops to absorb the nutrients and  to make sure that we don’t get erosion. It is a completely fundamental difference to more intensive pig farming, and the price of our pork reflects that.”

But then, so does the quality – pigs who’ve led happy, natural lives make great pork. Naya says the meat is more tender, tasty, and marbled along the lines of waygu beef. Longbush Pork is highly sought after by chefs in the Wellington region. You’ll find it on the menu at Nikau, Ti Kouka and House of Dumplings amongst others. On this side of the Rimutakas, Longbush Pork is served at the Martinborough Hotel (try the Longbush Pork stuffed hocks),  Tirohana, and La Pancetta. It’s also available at Joe’s Meat Market in Kuripuni, Masterton for special requests.

Naya is a passionate advocate of pasture-based pig farming, and has been invited to talk on the subject as part of this year’s Wellington on a Plate ConversatioNZ seminar. She says that one of the issues in the pig industry is that there is no enforceable definition of ‘free range’.

“Pig farming here is just the same as elsewhere. You have really good farms and not so great farms and it isn’t always reflected in the labelling. There are only a handful of free range pig farms in New Zealand – yet think of all the times you might have seen free range pork listed on a menu. It’s just not possible that it’s all genuinely free range. Chefs and customers need to ask the questions about how pigs are raised and who is the farmer.

Meanwhile, Jeremy and Naya turn their attention to raising happy pigs and producing the best quality pork they can. And the lesson learned from Delia and Nigella? Pigs destined for the market shall remain nameless.