Jen and Mike didn't set out to raise pork that would wow some of America's leading chefs. In fact, they never intended to be farmers at all. In 1996 they were living in Northampton, Massachusetts, studying for graduate degrees in public health, when they learned that this nearly 200-year-old farm had been bought by a real estate developer who intended to subdivide it into 14 homesites. "I couldn't stand to see another beautiful farm turned into tract houses," says Jen, who grew up spending summers down the road. So they bought it from him.
At first, they merely wanted a way to make a little extra income to offset their property taxes. "We had to do something to help the farm pay for itself," says Mike. "And we didn't have the time to milk cows. Someone told us, 'Get pigs. You get them in the spring, you get rid of them in the fall. Put up some fencing and you're set.'"
Little did they know what they were in for. In 2000 they raised three pigs—"generic pink ones from a farmer up the street," says Jen. The next year they acquired 14 heritage piglets, after Jen tracked down a farmer who was trying to preserve genetic lineages. These once-popular breeds were in danger of dying out because there was no market for them: They don't reproduce prolifically enough or grow quickly enough for modern, high-output farming, and their meat isn't lean enough for most American consumers.
As Jen soon discovered, tending even 14 pigs "becomes a full-time job whether you want it to or not." In those days, the couple did farm chores in the morning before going off to work—Mike at a nonprofit nursing home group, Jen as a development officer at Williams College. At the end of the day, they would toil by the light from the headlamps of their pickup truck: "We wouldn't even stop to eat supper," says Jen. Weekends were often back-to-back 15-hour days of labor.
They made mistakes at first, in part because there was nowhere to turn for guidance. "No one was doing what we're doing—raising pastured pigs outdoors," says Jen. "And the only books we could find were about raising a thousand pigs in confinement settings, or about how to keep two in your backyard." Eventually, Jen acquired a few useful books at auctions. They'd been written in the early 1900s.
Raising the pigs was only half the battle; Mike and Jen also needed to figure out where to have their pork processed (the industry term for slaughtering and butchering) and how to market the meat. Like small-scale farmers across America, they quickly discovered that independent USDA slaughterhouses were few and far between, most having gone out of business or been bought up by huge, industrial livestock farms. They were lucky to find a well-managed one an hour away; out west, ranchers sometimes have to travel 36 hours to reach a processor.