Happy Valley Free Range farmer Jo Stritch and her family at have been subjected to the woes of unforgiving regulations and flawed planning schemes. Last year, a neighbour’s complaint led to a council inquiry as to whether Happy Valley Free range was deemed an ‘intensive’ or ‘extensive’ pig operation. Jo had no choice but to cease farming after VCAT classed the farm as ‘intensive’ due to more than 50 per cent of the pigs’ feed being imported onto the farm. Intensive farming is not permitted in parts of the Yarra Valley.
Jo’s story is riddled with irony. She was named Livestock Farmer of the Year in 2014, and she is revered for her ecological and humane practices. However it appears that VCAT’s uniform approach to regulating farming has failed to recognise Happy Valley for the small-scale, accredited free-range farm that it is, where pigs roam happily on ecologically managed pastures.
Dealing with VCAT cost Jo and her family $22 000. The Shire of Yarra Ranges is also seeking $3724 for issuing an enforcement to move the pigs out. The stress of dealing with the legal system has been almost too much for Jo to bear, as she lacks the knowledge, time and finances. In addition, there are the huge costs of having to sell the property and move.
The logistics of relocating a free-range pig farm is complicated. It’s a time consuming process, which obviously impacted business. The family has struggled to keep afloat, having to downsize and cut back on markets. Emotionally, the process has taken its toll too. Jo and her husband Andrew had been living on their Yarra Valley property for more than 23 years. It was the first property they bought as a married couple and it became a home where could raise their son.
Regardless, Jo and her family have shown great resilience and optimism throughout the ordeal. They exemplify the strength and promise of our small-scale farmers who are working within a system that seems to work against them. The family are set to move into their new place in Warragul South by December where they hope to reconsolidate and expand their business. While they will still be close enough to Melbourne to attend most of their regular markets, they will no longer be able to have farm gate sales and they’ll lose the benefits of tourism that the Yarra Valley attracts. Despite this, Jo and her family are in love with the new farm and the new opportunities it will provide. For example, Jo is hoping to host more open farm days to engage with her new community.
When asked to give advice for fellow farmers, Jo struggles. In her case, she felt it couldn’t be avoided that her neighbours failed to see the value of her farm. While there is a growing demand behind her business, it seems there is also a growing number of people who are detached from where their food comes from and who don’t want to see a farm at their doorstep. It’s appalling that Happy Valley Free Range could be deemed ‘intensive’, when it was the inhumane conditions animals face in intensive piggeries that led Jo to start her free-range farm.
Jo explains how thankful she is for her loyal customers who have shown much needed support through troubled times. The pigs are also what keep her going, no matter how hard or how costly. She loves what she does and she’s proud of Happy Valley, their ecological values, and their ethical approach to farming. She says more and more people are seeking free-range pork and she’s proud to continue to be apart of the community helping to create a fairer food future.