Paradise for pigs to improve meat quality
Updated: 2012-06-23 02:44
By Wang Zhenghua in Suining, Jiangsu province (China Daily)
Entrepreneur hopes to instill green ways to urban dwellers with Happy Farm, Wang Zhenghua reports in Suining, Jiangsu province.
Though he has faced considerable flak for setting up luxury villas for pigs, Chen Yiqing, the owner of Zhu Bajie Agricultural Tourism Garden, says he plans to set up more such projects in China.
Inspired by the popular online game Happy Farm, Chen had launched a pilot project in Suining county of Jiangsu province to house animals in clean, spacious and environmentally friendly houses.
The project has faced considerable flak, but Chen says they help improve the quality of meat and creates a sense of responsibility toward the environment. Despite the initial setbacks, Chen says he wants to attract white-collar customers to his remote-controlled pig farming.
Like the Happy Farm game, Chen's customers will also be fully involved in the pig-rearing project.
In the game, urban office workers sow, water, fertilize, spray pesticides and reap cyber crops in an effort to satiate their appetite for farm living.
"Food safety has become a major concern in China considering the spate of scandals recently. By adopting a hog, consumers can gain full control on how to raise it and also get access to disease-free pork," Chen says.
Spread over several hundred hectares, the Suining farm has a tranquil look with rows of clean cottages amid the sprawling banyan trees. There are 600 small houses on the plot, with each dwelling costing around 8,000 yuan ($1,260). Work on the cottages began in February and the first pigs moved in within weeks.
In each cottage, about 10 piglets are raised on floors covered with a black, powdery mixture of wheat bran, rice husks and sawdust. The medium acts as a natural fermentation bed that releases beneficial bacteria, which can break down a pig's excreta.
On a typically cloudy afternoon, piglets are seen nuzzling up to their mother in the cottage, while on other days they can be seen running around the property freely. The cottages are less smelly than the traditional pigsties and have no luxury facilities at all though many call them "pig villas".
The project is part of a comprehensive development plan by local authorities to better utilize the old channels of the Yellow River. The disused channels encompass a vast area of up to 12,000 hectares that has been identified as an ideal location for agriculture and agro-tourism.
Yuan Hongyan, a manager at the farm, says that raising pigs in this way cuts down waste to zero, is more eco-friendly and also reduces human effort. In addition, the presence of the bacteria allows raisers to stop giving pigs antibiotics, thereby easing consumers' worries about antibiotic residues in pork.
In recent months, a stomach-turning string of scandals, from soy sauce adulterated with salt water meant for industrial use to poisonous drug capsules made with industrial gelatin, have all posed major concerns to consumers.
Earlier, it was found that pork adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations, had been sent to markets directly or had been processed into sausages.
But pigs raised in the eco-friendly cottages are cleaner, disease-free and drug-free, Yuan says.
"Unlike the animals raised on traditional farms, our pigs are fed with only vegetables and won't hit the market until they are at least 10 months old," she says. Usually it takes around six months for a pig fed with animal fodder to grow to a suitable size for slaughtering.
Also, the problem of waste disposal is addressed while saving human efforts at the same time, she says. Whatever waste remains along with the used-up bedding are used to create biogas and also as fertilizer, Yuan says.
But the biggest attraction of the farm is the whole-hearted way it involves urban workers in the pig-raising mechanism with the help of surveillance cameras in each pigsty.
It’s estimated that in about two months a consumer will be able to adopt a piglet for 4,000 to 5,000 yuan a year, nearly double the price of an adult live hog in the market.
Yuan says the farm has received several phone calls, personal visits and expressions of interest after it became known that the farm provided an opportunity for customers to connect with nature.
"Apart from the food safety concerns, a lot of it (interest) also had to do with the fun on farms and the nostalgia for idyllic existences," adds Yuan.
She says that each piglet is tagged with a unique serial number so as to avoid duplication. The company will also take charge of slaughtering, delivering or auctioning the pork when the piglets grow up.
The company also plans to provide delivery services for those owners who want live animals. If the pig has been raised for leisure purposes, the company will auction the adult animal online or recycle them to traditional slaughter-houses. Part of the proceeds received from such activities would be returned to the adopters.
Chen says that concepts like raising the pigs you want to eat will gain ground in the long run, especially with the high-end consumers as they are not averse to spending money to ensure food quality.
As such, Chen plans to build 2,400 more such cottages by 2013 and upgrade the area to an ecological park that provides combined services like sight-seeing, catering, accommodation and raising other animals like chicken and deer.
But there are also risks, as many of these projects often find it difficult to make profits.
Buoyed by the buzz generated by the online game, several real-life "Happy Farms" have sprung up in many major Chinese cities. The annual rental for a plot of land is anywhere between 100 yuan and 1,000 yuan depending on the region.
A similar concept, nongjiale, which literally means farmers' happiness, even has a longer history. They are places where farmers rent out rooms in their homes and make traditional rural dishes for urban tourists.
Huashang Daily, a major newspaper in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, reported this year that about 80 percent of the real-life farms in Xi'an suffered losses because of the lack of a universal industry standard and the lagging delivery services that dampen the passion of those adopting the land.
But Chen has his own method to perceive the enormous cost, as the pork from pigs raised in an ecological environment fetches twice the price in the market.
"We are targeting the high-end market, and are like the 'abalone' in the pork industry," he says.
Chen's farm has been dismissed by critics as an overly expensive "paradise for pigs" and invited criticism from some circles that public money was being wasted on such projects.
"Every penny is carefully accounted for and the pigsties are just simple and practical dwellings," he says. "The investment in the whole project is our sweat money, and why should we waste it?"
Hu Juchun, director of the Suining county agricultural committee, says that Chen's cottages are designed to provide a friendly environment to keep the pigs in a good mood, which helps improve the quality of the meat.
"These are not villas. They're model-breeding zones, and part of a project to develop breeding techniques for organic pigs. Locals call these homes a paradise for pigs," he says.
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