Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sugar Mountain Farm interview

We have a treat today. I had a chance to do an informal, email interview with Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm in Orange, Vermont. He raises pigs organically, on pasture - no antibiotics, no pens, no hormones. He has a fascinating blog for people who are interested in sustainable farming methods or who just like to hear about life on a farm. (His website also has incredibly cute pictures of piglets and puppies. I'm just saying.)


Seasonal Cook: How did you get involved in organic
farming?


Sugar Mtn Farm: It is probably my father's influence that got me interested in organic gardening - certainly what got me interested in gardening. It started with helping him in his vegetable garden. We raised pigs with some cousins when I was a child and another cousin has Highland cattle on a mountain farm over in New Hampshire. I always loved visiting Stoddard and seeing the Highland cattle. I wanted to have a place like that eventually.

I figured out very early on that starting in farming did not look like a way to end up farming. To get started requires capital to buy land, livestock, etc. I read about, and saw, a lot of people who burned out that way. So instead I worked at earning the money that it would take to buy the land and get going. I invented some things in high tech, did programming and computer consulting early on, published a magazine in the computer industry, founded and ran a manufacturing company and then gradually backed my way into the farming.

All the while I kept at the organic gardening with the goal that
someday more of my time would be spent on the land. Not just for myself but for my children. Along the way I found a wonderful young lady named Holly who had similar dreams and together we've been making them happen.


SC: Do you come from a farming background?

SMF: Not really. I have one set of cousins who have a big
industrial style chicken farm. My understanding is that they are part
of a commercial breeding program that then produce the eggs for
producing the chickens for soup and such. Hundreds of thousands of
birds. Factory farming. Not my style and not the scale that I wanted to
do farming on.

On the other end of the spectrum is my father's cousin with the
Highland cattle farm and his brother with the pick your own blueberries
in New Hampshire. That is more towards the end I like. I love Highland
cattle but I'm not quite ready to get them, yet. In the mean time I
discovered I greatly enjoy raising pigs on pasture. Who would have
known!


SC: Why organic?

SMF: Healthier, sustainability, healthier, less expensive
inputs, healthier, environmentally friendly, healthier, less dependence on the commercial industrial complex, healthier, better for the soil life, oh, and did I mention healthier? Seriously though, I strongly believe that organic methods are better for the health of the soil, the health of the plants, the health of the animals, the health of the farmer and the health of the consumer. What has become the "modern traditional farming", a.k.a. big farming, is unsustainable over the long haul, is dependent on non-renewable inputs, costs more in the long run and destroy the farm itself by destroying the soil and creating mountains of debt.

It is important to realize that one must go beyond organic farming to achieve sustainability. Merely being organic is not good enough. You can do organic farming, even "certified organic" but still be feeding your livestock corn and soy without giving them natural free access to pasture, without improving the conditions of the soil, without having a long-term sustainable operation. Merely organic is not good enough.


SC: Why pastured?

SMF: It's easy to do. Our location is ideally suited to pasturing animals. We do not have a lot of tillable soil here on the mountains. Around our house we have what used to be sheep pastures long ago. They were even hayed for nearly a century by the man from whom we bought our land. It is amazing because the hills are quite steep - we are on the side of a mountain.

Safety is an issue. Grazing animals on the pasture is safer than haying these fields - pigs and sheep don't tend to roll over and down the hill like a tractor. By pasturing the animals they are gradually reclearing the old fields. It is amazing to let them into an area of dense brush and then next year see that same space growing lush grasses, clovers and other pasture plants. The fields feed the livestock and the livestock feeds the fields. This also saves me from bush hogging or mowing - a noisy, smelly process I do not enjoy in the least.

Another reason is smell and health. Confinement farming, even just stalls in an open barn means both the animals and the farmer end up breathing a lot of noxious gases and fine particulate matter. That is not healthy. When the animals are free ranging on pasture they spread their manure and urine where it is needed. Pasturing saves me from from breathing this stuffy air in a confined space. My wife's aunt told us that the pigs would smell, that they always smell. However, out on pasture they are clean animals which don't smell. It is the same for
sheep, cattle, chickens, etc. Lock them up in stalls and they stink.
Put them out on pasture and they smell fine and are a lot healthier. The same would be for you or I. Pasturing is a lot more pleasant and healthier than indoor confinement or even pens.


SC: Can you describe your method of raising pigs and how it
differs from, not just factory farms, but larger, officially organic operations?


SMF: There are a number of other farms that raise their pigs out on pasture. Some use huts or stalls where the pigs are put in at night while others let the animals move about freely like we do. Most farms feed their pigs commercial grains and many people have the mistaken notion that pigs can't survive or thrive on pasture alone. Yes, they do grow a little slower (about 10%) but if you give them an extra few weeks they still get to the same size and the meat and fat is sweeter tasting and a lot healthier than the corn fed hogs since it has higher levels Omega-3 fatty acids. We actually did an experiment where we fed a group of pigs only pasture during the warm months and then only hay during the depth of winter. They thrived on it although they did not
grow quite as fast as pigs that are given supplemental feeds such as the milk and cheese we also feed our pigs. The pasture/hay pigs did get a very small amount of bread (about 0.5 to 1 lb) each day or two for training purposes but that was not a significant level for a several hundred pound animal.

SC: Training? You train your pigs?

SMF: Yes, definitely! We train all of our animals to come when
we call. It makes moving them much easier. It's a simple thing to
train. Call them and then when they come give them a treat. Any time you feed them, call them. They pickup on it pretty quickly. Even chickens can be trained. When it comes time to load the pigs to take them to market the simplest way to do it is to train them to load themselves. This is a lot less stressful for them, and us. Since they aren't stressed they don't release adrenaline and other chemicals in their bloodstream that would hurt the quality of the meat. This results in better pork.

SC: What is the limit to the number of pigs you can raise
this way?


SMF: We have enough pasture and woods to raise up for market
several thousand pigs a year. I don't anticipate doing that. It is more a matter of how much time we want to spend doing it. With a very large herd we would no longer know the individual animals. I know our boar, every one of our sows and most of the growers pigs individually. They all know us as well.

In addition to the pigs we also have sheep, chickens, ducks, guineas, livestock guardian dogs and children to raise. We also want time for gardens, construction projects and enjoying life. If we were to follow the "Get Big or Get Out" paradigm that seems so prevalent then we would lose ourselves. If I wanted to be stressed out I would still be managing employees and working at a desk.

To keep this familiarity and fun I don't expect to have more than 200 pigs on farm at any time, probably fewer. By far, the largest group will be piglets or weaners. The number of sows will likely be no more than 30, one or two boars and about 60 growers. This means an annual production of about 120 whole pigs plus about 450 piglets.

SC: Are you going to be able to handle wholesale markets like
restaurants with those numbers?


SMF: Not in any large way. Our goal is to primarily sell
directly to consumers who want whole, half or quarter pigs. We also offer a subscription pig which is one quarter plus eggs every three months. Frankly, the wholesale market pays poorly. We make more money selling directly to the retail customers and our customers save more money buying directly from us - as well as getting superior pork.

Perhaps one of the important things about buying local and from the farm is eliminating the middle man and the expenses associated with that whole system.

SC: Your website indicates you raise Yorkshire White pigs?

SMF:Yes. Ours are the classic heritage Yorkshire Large White pig that originated in York, England around 1769. They are known for their large meaty frame, durability, mothering ability and doing well on pasture.

Ours are not registered purebreds. Based on the fact that we get the occasional spotted piglet I know there is a little something extra in their genetics, some other breed. This is good because a little cross-breeding makes for a healthier more robust animal, bigger weaned litters and faster growth naturally. From each generation we select the very best gilts to raise to become sows and the very best boars to become breeding boars that we trade out with other pig farmers. In this way we can continue to improve the herd over the years.

SC: You mention several different bits of terminology there:
boars, sows, gilts. I've heard of barrows and weaners too. What exactly are each of these?


SMF: Piglets are the young nursing pigs. When they are
weaned after three to four weeks they become weaners. At that
point they are already on a diet of solid foods. On pasture the piglets start munching the grass fairly quickly even though they are getting most of their nutrition from the sow. Weaners become growers, at exactly what age is a big vague but figure on two months or about 50 lbs. Gilts are the young females who have not yet farrowed a litter of piglets. Farrowing is the act of giving birth. A sow is what a gilt becomes after she has had her first litter - that is to say an adult female pig. Boars are intact male pig - that is to say they have not been castrated, or in less delicate terms, they've not had their balls cut off. Another word for castration is cutting. Barrows are castrated male pigs.

SC: Why do barrows get castrated?

SMF: There is the idea that a sexually active boar's meat will
have a bad smell to it, like urine, called "boar taint". There has been some very interesting research done on this down in Brazil. They identified the chemicals produced by the boar and when it became a problem. One issue seems to be that some boars produce more of the chemicals that make the bad smell in the meat. Another issue is that older boars produce more of it. Lastly, boars exposed to females male produce more of the chemicals. So an alternative to castration would be to slaughter the boars young enough and don't expose them to females. Also, this may be able to be resolved through selective breeding.

I've eaten young uncut boars and they tasted excellent. Archie, a
farmer we have borrowed boars from says the trick is to put the boar out by himself away from the females for a month and then the meat tastes fine. He has eaten boars that were several years old and over 1,000 lbs. I think Archie knows what he is talking about.

There is a good reason not to cut the boars. On average, boars grow about 20% faster than gilts and about 10% faster than barrows. The boars also put on more muscle and less fat making for a leaner meat. It is less expensive to raise the boars to market weight than it is to raise barrows or gilts.

Most people who buy male piglets for raising to butcher want them cut because of this fear of the meat tasting bad. I can understand the fear, it is a big investment and you don't know if it worked until the pork is in your mouth. Castrating the boars is a known way of making sure they don't have boar taint. I don't like doing the castrating but half the pigs are male and very few of them will ever become breeders so most of them end up getting cut. It will take a lot of testing and education to get people to want to leave the boars intact. I doubt that it is going to change any time soon.

SC: Why did you choose this breed?

SMF: There are a number of reasons why we have Yorkshire pigs.

In reverse order of importance:
6. Consumers favor a white pig. I'm not sure why. Cuteness?
5. These pigs have long hair and thrive in our harsh winters.
4. Yorkshires have large muscles and a lean body so they aren't fatty.
3. Yorkshires are good mothers which produce superior litters.
2. Yorkshires are known for pasturing well.

And the number one reason...
1. Yorkshires are readily available around our area.

Number one above might seem like a funny reason to use for basing herd genetics but there is a method to my madness. I did not want to bring another breed into our harsh climate who didn't have a many generational history of thriving in our climate. By selecting quality pigs from other farms in our area where the pigs are similarly kept for generations (e.g., not indoor confinement) I preselected our herd genetics to be able to handle the environment they would be in at our place. This gave us a head start on breeding. After that it was a matter of selecting good healthy well formed foundation animals - our
first four sows which we got as piglets from a farmstead just over the mountain from us. Add to that some good luck!

SC: How important do you think breed is to meat quality?

Somewhat, but it isn't so much a specific breed as specific genes. Lots of people will tell you what their favorite breed is. However there are several genetic traits that can compromise the quality of the pork. Farmers and researchers are working to identify these genes and breed them out of the herds. In this respect we appear to have gotten lucky since we don't have any of the problem. I didn't know about this when we started!

Interestingly, one of the important things that have come out of this type of research is that stress is a major trigger for the problem genetics which then causes the meat quality to deteriorate. Pigs raised on pasture, humanely managed have much less stress than those raised in confinement operations. Thus pasturing appears to provide better quality meat for one more reason by simply reducing the stress.

SC: Is it difficult to convince consumers that
sustainably-raised pork is worth the extra cost?


Many people are already sensitized to the quality issue - they are
looking for healthier meat that was raise humanely in a sustainable manner. They already know they don't like the confinement operations, the factory farms and the unsustainability of such operations. People also know about the higher quality and healthy food values of pasture raised meats which are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and have not been
fed hormones, antibiotics or exposed to pesticides and herbicides.
It is true that quality products cost more and pastured meats are no exception. But it is possible and even for someone to do it themselves. If someone doesn't have the space then perhaps they can do it with a friend. Keeping pigs is very easy. If you have a garden space you want to improve, put the pigs on it for a year and rotate them around the space using temporary fencing. In six months you'll have a vastly improved garden and hundreds of pounds of superior quality meat. It won't be pastured but it will be far better than the bland, white supermarket meat. We offer weaner piglets and free help for people who want to do it themselves through email, our web site and blog and there
are a lot of other great free resources on the web about raising small numbers of animals.

SC: How do you sell most of your pork - direct to the
consumer or through markets?


SMF: We sell almost entirely directly to the consumer. We earn
more that way and the consumer gets a better price by cutting out the middlemen and extra costs like transportation and storage that would be incurred with wholesale markets.

Our primary means of reaching new customers is our web site, being listed in directories, word of mouth and posters on community bulletin boards. We offer both piglets and full grown market pastured pigs as whole pigs, half pigs and quarter pigs delivered to the butcher. People who want to do it themselves can buy their piglets from us. Buying from us has the advantage of getting quality piglets rather than culls from the big breeding operations. We don't sell our culls since it is easy and inexpensive for us to raise them ourselves on our pastures and that way our piglet customers know they're getting good quality animals.

SC: What sort of future do you imagine for the small family
farmer in New England?


SMF: Hmm... I suspect the future will be a lot more like the
present in most ways than people tend to think. After all, if you look at the magazines from the 1950s, '60s, '70s and such they predicted we would all be zipping around in flying cars and traveling regularly to the moon. On the other hand they totally missed the power of the modern computers which brought us laptops, PDAs, cellphones, GPS, the Internet, etc. So I hesitate on making much in the way of predictions! I guess my best prediction is that tomorrow's weather will be likely to
be the same as todays with a chance of something different.

SC: Just your sense of what the future holds...

SMF: Okay, but realize this is from my rather limited world
view... In the future the population will continue to grow but the rate of growth will decline. More and more people are living in the urban areas, disconnected from the land but longing for a vision of a simpler time and place. This will make agri-tourism increasingly popular. People will visit farms, spend a week or two getting to walk in the fields & woods, breath clean air, helping with light chores and eating good food. They will take these bonds back to the city with them by joining Community Supported Agriculture programs so they can get good
food regularly. The continued globalization pressure will produce a bit of lash back in the form of strengthening the Buy Local movement which keeps resources and money in the local community. So... now come back in 20 years and we'll see if I was too far off in this limited prediction!

SC: I like your predictions: they're optimistic. Do you think enough people are becoming interested in organic and sustainably raised food to support a renaissance in New
England farming?


SMF: Definitely. Over the past four decades there has been a
growth in awareness of the issues related to sustainability and the movement is continuing to bloom. If anything it is accelerating. A lot of it is controlled by how much disposable income people have. Better quality things tend to cost more, especially when they are produced more locally in lower volumes. If people have the money they tend to be more willing to support organic and sustainable food production on a local level. If the economy tanks I would expect this market to suffer to a degree. It is critical for farmers to control their debt and expenses carefully so they can weather the dips in the economy. But, that is true for everyone.

SC: Are there particular difficulties involved in interesting
customers in organic, locally-grown meat, as compared to the roadside stand mainstays of apples, u-pick strawberries and corn?


SMF: I honestly don't know how to compare since I have never
done u-pick or a roadside stand. One hurdle that I can think of is
there is a time delay with the meat while a roadside stand can be more of an impulse buy.

SC: I'm envying you your Vermont farm this week particularly. You could miss fall altogether in Boston.

SMF: It turned out to be a surprisingly good foliage year. It
was very slow getting started and the colors were muted but then on Thursday of last week and Monday and Tuesday of this week we had some good weather and nice colors. Not as brilliant as two years ago but satisfying. The remarkable thing is we still have not gotten a frost. It is now a month and a half past when I expected to get the first frost and our cucumbers, beans, tomatoes and pumpkin's are still growing. Perhaps this is a side benefit of global warming?!?

SC: Well thank you Walter for talking with me here at the
Seasonal Cook. I hope that you have a great fall.


SMF: Thank you for having me. I've enjoyed this conversation.
Keep on cookin'!


Joint Copyleft 2005 Sugar Mountain Farm & Seasonal Cook

4 comments:

Helen said...

I loved the interview! What a great idea. Who knew that male pigs taste different than female? How did you do the interview? Did you e-mail him one question at a time and he e-mailed you back or did you do it on the phone and then transcribed it?

Pyewacket said...

Essentially, I sent him a longish list of questions, which he answered, and we worked out a few follow-ups. I learned a lot - I didn't know that male pigs tasted different from female, or that you could train pigs, or that New England pigs could be raised almost entirely on pasture. I hope I get a chance to try his pork at some point.

Jessica R. said...

I really luv this article!!! Thank you!!!! I REALLY like the idea that the animals are happy and out on pasture on grass wher they should naturaly be rathr than in cages. It makes me want to go order a pig form a local farmer like this. How about som tasty pork recipies to go with that pig?

Evelyn said...

It is a great article. I'm not sure if I read it correctly tho. From my reading, he said that male pigs shouldn't taste different!
One thing that he didn't mention in his reluctant 'prediction' of the future is NAIS. I would encourage eveyone to educate themselves on NAIS. SugarMountain Farm has an excellent educational resource on it. http://nonais.org/
Basically, the National Animal Identification System wants to mark every animal in the country (even your kitten) w/ a Radio Frequency chip. When you buy, sell, move your animal (livestock or pet) you'll have to report that movement to the government. In the initial phases of the program, it'll be livestock only. But, once fully implemented, your pets will be included. For more info, look at Walter's (Sugar Mountain Farm) NONAIS blog.
The USDA is joining w/ BigAg to run small farmers out of business. They are the compitition & Big Ag doesn't like that they are starting to get market share.