Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
You won't find more blissful pigs than the heirloom breeds roaming around Jen Small and Mike Yezzi's 150-acre farm in upstate New York. You won't find better bacon, either. And yes, there's a connection.As the morning mist evaporates from the Battenkill River Valley and sunlight saturates the cool, blue shadows, the hills are alive with the sound of...oinks. Today 60 lucky pigs at Flying Pigs Farm are going to a new pasture. "They're so happy," says Jen Small, 42, who owns the farm with her husband, Mike Yezzi, 41. "You can feel it."
Their daughter, Jane, 5, is happy, too, because it's the first time she's been allowed to help with this chore. Her job? Herd 60 pigs, ten at a time, from the old pen into the new one. The "pens" are one- to four-acre sections of pasture and woodland, demarcated with portable fencing made of electrified wire. Pigs typically take a toll on the land they inhabit—trampling it bare, churning it into mud puddles, digging with their snouts for roots, minerals, and grubs. But here at Flying Pigs, a pretty 150-acre stretch of rolling fields and 19th-century farm buildings in Shushan, New York, the animals are relocated every three to eight weeks, depending on the season and their age. So, over time, their activities actually prove beneficial to the farm: They push back overgrowth from the encroaching woods, fertilize the ground with their manure, and till weeds into the soil. Meanwhile they have regular access to fresh grass and roots, and cool, clean mud wherever they go.
Jane carefully counts out ten pigs, sidling among them to separate this group from the rest, then gently shoos them down a six-foot-wide lane constructed of stakes and wire. As she walks behind them, she coos softly, "Come on, pigs; come on." And they do.
Jane weighs 45 pounds, the pigs five times as much. But she's not a bit nervous—and neither are her parents. In fact, so gentle and friendly are these pigs that, a few years back, a USDA inspector accused Jen and Mike of drugging them. "He said, 'They're too docile. I'm sending their livers out to be tested,'" recalls Jen. "Of course, there wasn't anything in those livers; not even antibiotics. It was an eye-opening day for that guy." He had never before encountered pigs raised with such kindness and care.
Jen and Mike wouldn't have it any other way. "We've always treated our pigs like pets," says Jen. "At first, it was naïveté: This is how you treat animals. Some of the older farmers in the area came by and sort of chuckled at us. I didn't care; I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of. It's the least we can do for the creatures that provide us with food."
Jen and Mike are part of a growing movement of farmers who are discovering that a humane, hands-on approach to raising farm animals isn't just wise, ethical, or environmentally sensitive (though it is all those things). It also results in a better product, one that conscientious consumers are willing to pay for. Beef and milk from grass-fed cattle and eggs from pastured chickens, for example, are higher in vitamins A and E and contain vastly superior ratios of omega fatty acids. Happier animals also mean more delicious meat; studies have shown that stress—from crowded, hostile conditions, overheating, lack of air—can decrease meat's juiciness. Feed also makes a difference: At Flying Pigs, the animals consume corn and soy, sheep's milk from a local cheesemaker, and apples from a local orchard, along with whatever they dig up from the dirt. And old-fashioned breeds are typically more flavorful. The heritage varieties at Flying Pigs—including Tamworths, Large Blacks, and Gloucestershire Old Spots—produce meat that is tender and infused with fat and a deep, savory porkiness.
"It's amazingly marbled," says chef Mike Anthony of New York City's Gramercy Tavern, one of about half a dozen top restaurants that order from Flying Pigs. "It has flavor and character. It's definitely not 'the other white meat.'"
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.
They also knew they'd have to create their own audience, one customer at a time. They had hoped to sell their pork at greenmarkets in nearby Saratoga Springs and Troy, but there was no space available, so they ventured four hours south, to New York City, rented stalls at the Union Square and Grand Army Plaza greenmarkets, and suddenly found themselves acting as de facto transporters, distributors, and salespeople of their meat, while also running the farm and holding down 9-to-5 office jobs. It helped that Flying Pigs' meat practically sold itself—to the chefs who trolled the markets looking for fresh, high-quality ingredients, and to food-savvy consumers. "We started getting a lot of positive feedback," says Jen. "We realized we were onto something."
In 2003 Jen became pregnant and the couple agreed that something had to give (Jane was born in 2004, and Charlie followed two years later). So Mike left his job to devote himself full-time to Flying Pigs. Jen now works part-time for American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving agricultural resources. "People see farming as this romantic dream job," says Jen. "They think, 'I'll just run off and be a farmer.' But it takes years to build a good customer base. We both had two full-time jobs for the first five years. That's the reality, folks. You build slowly. You work very hard."
One aspect of Jen and Mike's life is too hard for most nonfarmers even to contemplate. The idea of raising animals and then sending them off to slaughter often makes people squeamish. But consider the bigger picture. According to Paul Roberts in his book The End of Food, "The largest [pork slaughterhouse] in the world...in Tar Heel, North Carolina, processes 2,000 pigs an hour." And for these pigs, life is as mass-produced as death; they spend it squashed together indoors, in filthy conditions. In 1980 the average American hog farm was home to 101 animals. Today that average is 1,173. The "successful" family farm is now a CAFO—concentrated animal feeding operation—with a sewage output equivalent to that of a midsize city.
"Look, I understand and respect people who don't eat meat," says Jen, who as a teenager abandoned her dream of becoming a veterinarian when she realized that she'd have to euthanize animals. "But if you do, this is the kind you should eat."
Price can be a stumbling block for some people: Humanely raised meat can cost up to twice as much as the industrially produced stuff. But Jen has many customers who have found innovative ways to make it work, by including half as much meat in their weekly diets, or looking elsewhere in their household budgets to trim expenses. Still, in this cost-conscious economy, it's hard to see how a place like Flying Pigs manages to survive at all. "We get an income off our farm," says Jen with a shrug. "But it's not a way to get rich, by any means." Yet both Jen and Mike consider their farm successful, because success in this business may simply mean finding equilibrium: Flying Pigs has reached a size the couple can manage without compromising their values.
It's a Thursday afternoon, and Jen and Mike are getting ready for their weekly trip to the city. They eye the weather report anxiously because a rainy weekend means a deserted market where they may not sell enough even to cover the cost of the trip. After supper they'll tuck their children into bed, say goodnight to the babysitter and farmhands, then climb into the truck and set off, arriving well after midnight. All day Friday while Jen works the greenmarket, Mike will make deliveries to restaurants. Saturday they'll work two markets, then load their truck with vegetables, bread, and cheese they've traded with fellow vendors in exchange for unsold meat. By the time they pull into their driveway, another 450 miles on their odometer, their children will be fast asleep.
Yet Jane and Charlie are never far from Jen's thoughts. "I don't want my kids to be as ignorant as I was about where food comes from," she says. "And I hope they won't have to live in a country where the farmland has been paved over. Once it's gone, it's gone; you don't get it back."
She adds, "I don't want my kids turning to me in 20 years and saying, 'Where were you? What were you doing?' I know it's a cliché, but I don't want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution. I want to do something that outlasts me."
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