Tuesday, March 11, 2014
As a child, Alice Percy had a fondness for those lovable piglets scurrying about the pig pen in her backyard. Not surprisingly, as the family’s meat supply grew towards slaughter weight, Alice remembers her father coaxing her out of the pig pen to keep watch from a safe distance. Rufus Percy, Alice’s husband of eight years as of this month, had a similar upbringing, spending weekends on his father’s commercial pig farm on the other side of town in Whitefield, Maine developing a bond with this favorite of barnyard animals. One could say of Alice and Rufus Percy’s two-person, family-run organic pasture-raised pig farm (they also sell produce) in Whitefield, Maine that it’s in their blood.
“What I like about pigs, is that they don’t have the prey animal instinct that a lot of farm animals do,” said Alice. “Sheep, cows, and goats are herd animals and they flock close together and they always think you’re a wolf. A pig over the size of 50 lbs, nothing much is going to bother that animal so they can take care of themselves. So, once out of that skittery piglet phase they have an almost dog like personality. Each one is an individual and has their own personality.”
Their first winter farming, the Percys built a portable shed-and-run and raised a couple pigs for their own table and remembered how much they enjoyed pigs. The next fall, they purchased a litter of certified organic piglets from Rufus’s father and became certified by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) as an organic certified farm.
“To make a living running an organic family farm you have to work really hard and really smart, and that's just what Alice and Rufus do” said Melissa White Pillsbury, MOFGA’s Organic Marketing Coordinator. “You won't find anyone more committed to living their ideals than the folks at Treble Ridge. They're committed to using organic practices and strongly support the certified organic program, they volunteer their time supporting community organizations like MOFGA whose mission they believe in, they nurture and support new farmers by hosting and mentoring apprentices on their farm as well as incubate and support other food and farm businesses in their community like Commonwealth Poultry Company and Sheepscot General Store. Oh, and they're raising a young family, too! Alice and Rufus Percy are about the best example you'll find of farmers working tirelessly day after day to make our world a better place to live. (As if raising pigs that make about the best pork sausage you'll ever eat weren't enough!)”
The working conditions maintained at Treble Ridge Farm are pleasant, child-friendly, and there are few if any compromises to the safety and welfare of the pigs. Rather than a conventional diet of genetically modified corn and/or soybeans as supplied in modern industrial farming, the Percys feed their pigs a mix of barley, wheat, field peas, and soybean meal from Maine sources. What grains they do not grow they purchase from Andrew Qualey in Aroostook County and Maine Organic Milling in Auburn, Maine. This year they hope to grow enough peas on their own land.
Meaning of Organic Certification
When you see the MOFGA Certified Organic label attached to a product, that means that a third party has inspected that farm and verified that their practices meet the USDA's National Organic Program rules for organic farming. The rules for organic require that crops and livestock are produced in a way that minimizes negative impact on people and the planet. For pork, Pillsbury explained, that means that the animals must eat only organic feed (and they must come from mothers that only ate organic feed starting at least during the last third of gestation), which also means that they cannot have been fed genetically engineered grains since GMOs cannot be certified organic. Organic standards for pigs also require that that they have access to pasture and that they cannot have been given antibiotics or growth hormones. The real value of certified organic for a consumer is that you know that there are teeth behind the claim: farmers are held to a rigorous set of production standards that are verified by a third party.
Raising pigs on pasture is economical, saves on the feed bill, is sustainable, and takes advantage of pigs’ natural style of grazing. At Treble Ridge Farm, the pigs are on a 3-year rotation. The first year they root up the pasture, ripping up grass and roots so it looks as if the land was rototilled. The next year the Percys run a harrow over the land and plant an acre crop e.g. oats mixed with legumes. The third year, they till and plant vegetables. For more on their hog-pasture rotation system, go here. For more on the three year rotation system, check out this article from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
A sow has her first litter when about one-year-old and then approx every six months.
“We slaughter at seven months,” explained Alice. “The big commercial guys out in Iowa that are raising pigs as fast as they can on corn and soy in confinement are slaughtering at five-and-a-half to six months, and then some of the people who are raising pure bred heirloom breeds out in the woodland and minimizing their grain consumption are slaughtering at 10 to 12 months. So we go for something in between.“
“In mind efficiency is not a bad word,” said Alice. “When you are aiming at efficiency for cost of everything else, like animal welfare and environmental healthy that’s when it gets to be a bad thing. That’s when you get into industrial farming, but I have no problem with raising mixed breeds that will grow faster than a purebred heirloom and feeding enough grain they’ll put on weight at a decent pace. That means I can offer a somewhat more affordable product and attempt to make a living at it.”
A lot of the meat gets turned into 13 varieties of sausage, which the farm sells at farmers’ markets in South Portland, Belfast, and Camden. The farm also does cut to order pigs for customers who want half a pig for their freezer. Salt Water Farm at Union Hall in Rockport, Maine has been buying all the sort of bits and pieces the Percy’s have never really had a market for before, so Alice said the farm is getting more on a pig now and hopes more people will get used to buying more parts.
For some of the farm’s recipes go here.
Resources for those who want to learn more about pigs and cooking pork:
Storey’s Guide to Raising Pigs by Kelly Klober
The Joy of Keeping Farm Animals by Laura Childs
Pork & Sons by Stephanie Reynard
Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat by Deborah Krasner
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.