Our farm has provided many "first" for both Jared and I. We were new to the whole farming business until 2013 when we were able to move into an old farm house in Harrison Maine. It was there and then that I propositioned Jared into raising a few rabbits, chickens and pigs. Jared had zero experience with farming and even less experience with rabbits, chickens and pigs. He wasn't a hard sell on the idea though. He went right to work on building cages and fences and kept an open mind. Me, on the other hand, this was my dream. I had been working on other peoples farms for years prior, always seeking the opportunity to be involved in the culture, experience and animals.
When Jared and I met we lived in the city of Portland Maine with a very social lifestyle on a 2nd floor apartment flat. We were happy enough with our lifestyle at the time. Jared was just finishing college and I was working full time in a very fast paced career with Calvin Klein. I had to make my announcement several times to be sure it was loud and clear; "I want to live on a farm." So we started looking at our options.
Finding a farm is tough. There just aren't a lot of farms for sale. We considered land and building a house and farm on it, but where? We got very lucky and were able to move into a renovated antique colonial that my parents were considering selling in Harrison Maine. Though they never farmed the land there, the property did have a nice fruit orchard that my dad planted, a large shed row structure for our gear and pigs, a chicken house for our laying hens and a very old english barn where we raised our rabbits. We even took over a large garden area of about 50' x 90' and started planting our vegetable and herb garden.
Our very first pigs were purchased from the local grain store in Bridgton Maine. Thelma and Louise is what we named them. Thelma developed a hernia as she started to get older and we made the decision to butcher her ourselves. That was quite the experience and a story for another blog. I had previous experience butchering and cutting up animals from hunting and from processing our rabbits. Jared was learning this all in the moment and was a good sport to try it all. Understand, raising animals and processing your farm animals are two totally different things and not everyone can do it. Once it was time for Louise to go to the butcher we spent time visiting the butcher facility and working with a transporter to ensure her end of life would be as easy and stress free as we could make it. This was also our first time shopping for a large chest freezer, one of many investments down the road. Our experience with our two first pigs was very enjoyable. They were friendly, clean, healthy and happy. We cherished them on the farm and appreciated the meat we produced from them.
We were still seeking our perfect farm. Jared was from New Hampshire and so naturally we were drawn to the area. We were extremely lucky and patient to find our current farmstead in Barnstead New Hampshire. A 100 acre property with river frontage on the Crooked Run River, a house, an old falling down barn, trails throughout and lots of trees. When we purchased this property it was not a farm. It was not even close to operational. We had to manage the decades of neglect on the land, house and barn. We built all of the fence lines, gates and farm structures. We dug trenches to move water out to the fields. We added electrical to outbuildings to offer light and water heaters for the winter. The work took years and we are still making upgrades and fences to our property. That never stopped us from doing what we loved: FARMING.
One of the hillsides on our property became the perfect spot to allow our pigs to forage. It had plenty of shade, grasses and even a watering hole at the bottom. We fenced this area in with electric high tensile wire and gave our pigs an area of almost 4 acres. Since the area was so large we were able to move in more pigs. What once started as 2 pigs seasonally, grew to 4-5 pigs seasonally and eventually we were seeking farmers to buy entire litters from to raise all at once. We were raising 10-12 pigs at a time and now on a seasonal rotation where young pigs were kept up at the paddock until the field pigs were trailered to the butcher. The pigs took excellent care of the landscape cutting down noxious weeds and manicuring the hardwood saplings to ensure proper growth. We took great care of them and provided them with constant access to grain, fresh water and even fresh fruits and vegetables from the grocery stores. We were very excited about our progress and our ability to sell through so much of our pastured raised pork cuts. That is.... until COVID and 2020.
Covid shutdowns lead to a domino effect that interrupted every part of our farm business. The butcher facilities where we had scheduled butcher dates for our pigs and lamb were cancelled. Grocery stores were being wiped out of inventory and large producers were either shut down, lost their employees or couldn't get their products transported to restock shelves. People turned to self sufficiency and were seeking to raise their own livestock in their backyards. While it's incredible to see how adaptable everyone was to joining in the farming culture it was devastating to those of us that were already doing it as a business. Suddenly the local farmers where we would purchase our piglets from were sold out. The butchers weren't taking new appointments until the following year, the grain spiked in cost and was hard to find. We jumped on the wagon and bought pigs that were being transported up from Amish farms in Pennsylvania and discovered death and illness in ways I would prefer to never remember. The price for a piglet went from $75 to over $200 in some areas. The price of grain went from $13 for a 50lb bag to almost $20!!! The butcher fees started to increase. Suddenly we were sitting down with a pen, paper and calculator trying to see if farming even added up. The math did not make sense. We were at a loss.
The one very unique thing about farming is THE FARMERS. They are resilient. They are a family. We knew all we needed to do was connect within our farming community and trust in the goodness of people. We met Michelle Divoll at her farm in Massachusetts to buy some of her pigs and to discuss the future of farrowing (raising our own piglets onsite with a breed sow) and raising Idaho Pasture Pigs (IPP). Not only was she the nicest person we had met but offered the easiest transaction ever. We loved her set up and made a plan to buy one of her IPP piglets for a future breeding program. We picked our piglet, Lucy, that day and couldn't wait to bring her home.
Raising piglets is something we had been doing for several years at this point. Breeding and farrowing is something we had zero experience in. We knew we needed good quality and healthy breed sows and we would also need a nice and easy boar (uncastrated male pig) or consider AI (artificial insemination). We were grateful to find a super nice and proven boar, an American Guinea Hog named Angus. We acquired another breed sow potential from Michelle, another IPP who we named Mabel. Neither Lucy or Mabel were even close to being old enough for breeding so we continued our relationship with Michelle to supplement our pork supply.
Now I could totally take you off on a tangent story about the time Lucy got out and went wild in the woods and gave us a run for our money (literally) but you can read more about that story HERE. What I will share is that even though we had great relationships with other area farmers, before we met Michelle, we were always disappointed with the condition of the farms we were getting the pigs from. Pigs living in small confined areas eating and sleeping in their own urine and feces and ankle deep muck of fermented feed and mud. We got pigs that came from a barn that had never seen the sun. The Amish pigs we got this one time came with a condition called "dippity pig syndrome" (a first for us for sure!) When COVID hit, those very farmers we did business with regularly just turned their backs on us and cast us aside. Meeting Michelle was life changing and helped sustain us until we were ready to farrow on our own. Her farm was clean, organized and all of her pigs were very well taken care of.
Now this would be the part of the story where I conclude with my "And we lived happily ever after" but wait, there's more. To really give you the full reality of our farrow to freezer accomplishments you have to understand the real challenges we and many other farmers face. This is not a easy hobby or business. Farming is hard. Everyday you are faced with issues that are sometimes totally out of your control and they can crush you, if you let it. Our farm has been an uphill race since the day we bought it. From sickness and death, lost butcher dates and COVID related issues we dealt with a lot more bigger issues even after COVID.
Nothing can prepare you for the moment you see the butchering facility burning to ground with the pigs you just delivered to, the day before, in it. That happened to us in April 2022. The worst part was that the butcher facility did not have the appropriate insurance to cover our loss and our claim was denied by our own insurance. We suffered another devastating loss. That same year we dealt with our very first freezer failure and lost an entire freezer of meat. Again, not covered by our insurance and another huge financial blow. This was also the same year we signed up for several farmers markets (something we had been doing for several years at this time) and they added another direct competing farm and allowed them to set up directly next to us and undercut our prices on the same exact products. We bowed out of the Farmers Market gig so fast after that. Lucy aborted her very first litter and we were just about finished with the stress and headache of it all.
My husband always tells me "If it were easy everyone would be doing it" We didn't buy a farm and invest thousands of dollars and hours into it to just give up. We stayed pretty quiet through 2022 and waited to see if we were going to move into a different direction or if we stay on our path. Mabel helped us make up our mind in the early months of 2023 with a perfectly healthy litter of piglets. Uneventful, exciting and seemingly easy; we farrowed our very first litter of piglets on our farm. A celebration in so many ways. A healing moment on the bruised heart and soul we carried around so heavily in the past years. You can understand now, how jovial this moment was for us.
We could finally raise our own pigs free of mud and muck, access to good food, fresh clean water, ample sunshine and plentiful natural forage. We didn't have to wait in line for someone else's sick or diseased pigs. We didn't have to deal with the awkward transition of completely unhandled pigs since these guys would be handled daily by us. We could ensure that our pigs were being born and raised the exact way we intended them to be.
Lets jump ahead to Monday January 22, 2024. This adorable and healthy litter was pulled from the hill they have called home since March 2023 and hauled to our local butcher. Emotional, yes. This part is never easy nor should it be, however, these guys were raised with purpose. We are farmers. We have chosen a life that is not easy. We have chosen healthy meat produced here on our farm versus commercially raised meats. We have chosen a better and healthy life for our pigs outdoors on our farm. The pork produced here on our farm is different from any pork you will get anywhere else. This pork is the product of extremely hard work, dedication to our farming heritage and only exist due to the resilience of both Jared and I. I hope the details I have shared in this blog doesn't have you considering the overall sanity of us. It seems a bit crazy now that I think of it. Even as I write this I can't help but remember the sadness, anger, bitterness and loss that we endured all of these years. To conclude this story with the success we experienced yesterday, after driving away from the butcher with an empty livestock trailer, has us feeling so grateful and accomplished. We might not be as crazy as we thought. We might be doing exactly what we should be doing at the right time.