Getting to the heart of ethical eating

Meet the meat farmer who is challenging people to put animal ethics on the top of their menus

Dominic O’Neil from Ethical Farmers is a self confessed carnivore who has meat on his menu every day.
“I’m a big believer that we can’t survive without meat – we’ve been eating it for thousands and thousands of years and as far as the evolution of humans – well, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t eat meat – that’s my personal view,” says Dominic, “and I function so much better on meat.”

As the owner of Ethical Farmers, Dominic has been able to put his money exactly where his mouth wants to be. “Ethical Farmers is about producing real food and getting that into people’s fridges – so they can nourish their families,” says Dominic who quickly adds, “it’s not just about the food, it’s about the soil because that’s where it all starts from. Without good soil we can’t do anything, just sunlight isn’t enough. It’s good pasture that feeds our pasture-raised animals. The animals then provide the protein that we need.”

Ethical Farmers is best described as a small business based on a 740 acre property at Dungog. It’s part farm, part butcher and specialises in no waste, whole animal butchery. “We’re passionate about raising animals ethically, on pasture, in small herds and flocks. On our property we produce beef, chicken for eggs and chicken for meat; and then we have pork and lamb farmers that farm for us in the same ethical way,” explains Dominic.

“We’ve also got a butcher shop where we butcher everything and then home deliver it to people’s doors.” Ethical Farmers does not have a retail outlet, and although they do supply a few, select restaurants, their main business is getting meat straight from the farm into people’s freezers.

From city butcher to ethical farmer

“It’s been a steep learning curve for me,” says Dominic who claims to be a city boy through and through. Yet growing up, he used to spend a lot of time on his parents’ hobby farm on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

“From a young age it was my favourite place to go. Mum and dad would pick us up from school and we’d head to the farm for the weekend. So that’s been in me for a long time and I’ve always wanted to have my own place.”

Many years on, after a career that included trying to be a professional rugby player, Dominic sought out expert help with his personal nutrition and found the food he needed was hard to come by. “I was going here, there and everywhere to get good food – farmers markets, certain butcher shops and then I just got a bit fed up with having to travel so much. I remember asking a butcher one time – ‘where does this meat come from?’ – and he said ‘I don’t know – out in the paddock’! So I did some research and that ultimately led to opening up a butchers shop in Sydney (GRUB – Grass Roots Urban Butchery) where we sourced all the meat from the farms ourselves.”

After ten years in the butchery trade, Dominic teamed up with one of his farmers, decided to get into farming and in 2016 the pair started Ethical Farmers on a rented farm in Somersby. A few years in, Ethical Farmers was relocated to its current home in Dungog. Dominic has since parted ways with his business partner and now works and lives with his four children on the farm.

“I try and teach and show my kids that without animals we’d be buggered and we’ve got to treat them well, give them a healthy life and let them live in a way that is as close to nature as possible,” says Dominic.

“We really care about our animals. There’s a saying and I don’t know who said it but I love it – our animals have one bad day – and that’s their day of process.”

Wire, water and no waste

“It starts from the soil for sure. Without good healthy soil we wouldn’t be able to do anything else. Our manager, Ben, who is a trained horticulturalist and regenerative farming enthusiast, says ‘wire and water – that’s the key for us at the moment’.

“So we’re focussing on fencing and water. Hopefully from there we can rotationally graze our cattle on the whole property.” According to Dominic, one of Ethical Farmers’ main aims is to rejuvenate the land by limiting its impact on the environment by using sustainable, organic and regenerative farming practices. The rationale being that good soil produces good pasture, which feeds Ethical Farmers’ pasture raised animals.

“Healthy, happy animals help produce healthy, happy humans. You are what you eat and you are what your food eats.”

With healthy eating at the core of Ethical Farmers’ philosophy, Dominic has a standing tradition among his staff.

“At 12.30 every day we all sit down together and eat a meal that’s been cooked by our chef Victor Pucher. I’m a firm believer that food is medicine and I want everybody to eat well and we’ve got the food here, so there’s no excuse.”

While Dominic has ten years of butchery experience, as far as farming and animal management goes he’s the first to admit that he couldn’t do it without his team.

Read more in the Summer issue of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story and photography by Sally Maguire