“Go on pig, go on pig!”
Reluctantly, the hog before me abandoned his mud bath to join a group of pigs that were making their way from under the trees, where they were piled together into a napping heap of contentment, to the other end of the paddock. Pig farmer Brad Marshall, assisted by farm manager Casey Oxley and farmhand Angela DeVivo, banged sticks on large plastic panels, and urged the animals to jog up a fenced-off path to an open-air barn.
It’s Monday – sorting day at the pig farm in Trumansburg. Once the pigs are safely inside the barn’s enclosure, digging away at the fresh hay, Brad and Casey walk through the 200-head herd to pick out the 10 fattest specimens. The chosen animals get a few more hours to snack on a big trough of barley before a truck arrives from Schrader’s slaughterhouse in Romulus. In a few days, fresh chops, sausages and pâté will replenish the display cases at The Piggery in Ithaca.
Trotting to Trumansburg
When the shop’s owners, Brad and his wife Heather Sandford, bought their first hog off craigslist in El Sobrante, California, in 2003 and experimented with using all parts of the animal, little did they know that not too far down the road their lives would revolve around all things pig.
“We had city jobs in San Francisco,” Brad explains. “Heather was doing real estate, and I was working in bioinformatics at the university in Berkeley. But we wanted to get back to our roots and try homesteading, so we moved to Trumansburg. Out of everything we tried – cows, chickens, apple trees – we liked working with pigs best. They’re interesting and fun to be around. We very quickly developed a kinship with them, which is somewhat problematic because we’re going to eat them. After all, we started The Piggery to make good pork.”
From boar to butcher shop
For the pair, good meat begins with the right genetics. Their pigs come from a variety of heritage breeds, including the Mulefoot, an old-fashioned American homesteader pig whose very fatty tendencies are tempered through crossbreeding.
This is not always the most orderly process, as one of Heather’s weekly e-mail newsletters reports: “A short time ago, one of our boars got loose, ran us around the farm for a few days, and somehow managed to breed 20 of our sows. We’re pretty excited for these unexpected babies.”
Ideally, each sow farrows about eight to 12 piglets. For the next nine to 12 months – nearly twice as long as confinement-raised animals – their offspring munch on a traditional diet of grass, barley and whey (from the Chobani Greek yogurt factory a few hours away) in hopes they’ll grow to about 300 pounds.
For eight of those months, the pigs are out on the open pasture, rotating every day to a fresh half-acre section of the 70-acre farm (with an additional 20 acres leased). In the winter, they retreat to the warmth of the barn.
“It’s fun to see the pigs dig and play and romp,” says Brad. “And from a meat-quality perspective, it’s actually building a denser muscle structure, like growth rings on a tree. The meat has a better chewiness and mouth feel.”
This quality has attracted a loyal clientele to The Piggery’s butcher shop. The majority are happy to buy such favorites as bacon, sliced ham, sausages, hot dogs and pâté, to which Brad applies his chef’s training from the French Culinary Institute in New York. “On the other extreme, we have customers who come in looking for kidneys, trotters and obscure cuts. It’s always fun to see what they come up with,” he says.
Where’s the beef?
Over the past year, Heather and Brad have expanded the available selection of meats to include beef, chicken, and occasionally duck, rabbit and lamb. All are sourced from local farmers who share their protocols of sustainably managed pastures, non-genetically modified feed and naturally long growing terms for the animals.
If all goes well, this part of their business will continue to thrive, as the couple has applied for a license to become a USDA-inspected processing facility. Once approved, The Piggery will be able to wholesale and custom process animals for other farmers who may not want to deal with marketing and sales in addition to their core focus of raising sustainable meat. “A lot of our farmer friends are excited because they don’t have to do all those little pieces anymore,” Heather says.
To the disappointment of many customers, however, applying for the license meant that Heather and Brad had to close the popular restaurant portion of The Piggery. “There is the risk of cross-contamination in a shared kitchen,” Brad explains. “Plus, a restaurant is very management-intensive.”
“It’s been kind of nice to have someone make us stop and make a decision,” Heather admits. “We have a lot of passion for many different things, but we feel that our mission is definitely trying to expand access to local meat.”
Heather and Brad’s task certainly still keeps them busy, running between the farm and butcher shop, working on enlarging their herd to 600 pigs in the near future, managing a staff of six full-time and six part-time workers, and educating the public with regular presentations at conferences, local universities and butcher classes during the slower winter months.
“It’s been really tough, building this whole infrastructure out of nothing,” says Brad. “Thirty or 40 years ago, there were local farms, auction houses, slaughterhouses, meat markets, etc. We’re trying to rebuild the system now because all of those things are gone due to industrial agriculture and price collapses.”
“But,” Heather adds, “what I really like about what we are doing is feeling that it is important and necessary. All along the way we have felt like our community pushed or asked us to provide more services that there was a need for. It’s been hard and exhausting and fulfilling.”
Local Meat Resources
Cooperative Extension’s 2012 Guide to Foods Produced in the Southern Tier & Finger Lakes
Northeast Organic Farming Association’s 2013 Food & Farm Guide
Meat Suite’s directory for “freezer trade” bulk purchases
by Olivia M. Hall