In the early 1960s a handful of pig farmers in Oxfordshire, England were concerned about the future market for purebred pigs. Pigs had previously been raised for fat, with people consuming lard as you would butter, even up to World War II. Wanting to produce leaner hybrid pigs, a man named Ken Woolley cofounded Pig Improvement Company (PIC) in England with five other families. In a pub, of course. And that’s where the Sunterra story starts.
Fast forward fifty-two years later and we’re sitting in a comfortable boardroom in Acme, Alberta talking about pig genetics, family memories and the path from that pub in England to Sunterra Farms today. The wooden walls are covered with pictures of the buildings that make up the farms, and Ken Woolley’s son Ben, who manages the pigs, is here. So is Sunterra Group President Ray Price, his mother and Sunterra matriarch Flo Price, and, actually, all the Sunterra Farms office staff. It’s lunchtime.
Ben explains that his father Ken came to Acme in the 1960s to work with a local swine geneticist on improving breeding stock. That geneticist, Dr. Howard Freeden, introduced Ken to his friend Stan Price, who was raising pigs on a nearby farm with his wife Flo. Their eldest son Dave had just turned 18, and Ken invited him to work at PIC for a year and live with the Woolley family in England. Dave returned to Alberta in 1969 with a head full of heritable characteristics like feed conversion, prolificacy, lean growth and other farm-y things that most people never think about. Heck, even other farmers weren’t thinking about those things back then. But Dave and his parents Stan and Flo were committed to the industry-leading PIC model and in 1970 their first load of Landrace and Large White pigs were flown in from England. To keep them as healthy as possible from the get-go, Stan negotiated a private quarantine for the animals, resulting in Dave having to live with them for a month.
“I had to deliver groceries to the side of the road,” laughs Flo.
And since then, the health of the animals has remained number one, says Ray, who just returned from an international pork conference in Japan. The pigs live indoors so their diet and temperature can be managed. They are kept with their peer groups so they feel comfortable. And outside visitors? No way. Even farm staff have to shower and change into decontaminated gear to get inside.
“Pigs are pretty hearty animals, but it’s important to keep them stress-free,” says Ray, adding that healthy pigs don’t have to be treated. “What’s good for the animals is good for us. It’s hand in hand.”
This uber-healthy approach did cause some troubles in the beginning, Flo recalls. People used to buy pigs based on what they looked like, and they started getting upset when they were told they couldn’t see or touch the pigs before buying them. “We were doing something no one could understand, so it was hard for a time,” she says. But with perseverance and commitment to the PIC program, the pigs started selling and business took off. Keeping the pigs so healthy meant they could accurately performance-test peers to continue improving the gene pool. Years of careful genetic indexing, first on a huge wall full of pockets with handwritten notes, then on the U of C main frame before getting a 16KB memory TRS Model 1 computer finally paid off, and the family began to export their coveted pigs around the world to places like Chile, Cuba, Mexico, America, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. They still do to this day.
In 1989, the family took over the Trochu processing plant, now known as Sunterra Meats, so they could ensure the highest degree of quality throughout all factors of production. And by the end of the ‘80s, they were convinced they could sell pork directly to customers. Luckily the youngest Price son, Glen, was in Hong Kong opening grocery stores. After some convincing to join the family business (including a trip to Europe to see how markets were run there), Glen and his team opened the first Sunterra Market in 1990. Today much of Sunterra Farms’ pork is distributed around the world, including Japan – where they refer to it as “clean pork”. By taking ownership of every aspect of pork production, from breeding to nutrition, to processing and distribution, Sunterra Farms is an Albertan success story forty years in the making. So celebrate pork month with the cut of your choice; a juicy pork chop, tender ribs or pork loin, and enjoy knowing exactly where it came from and why the quality and taste is perfect.