After Mike and his wife, Jen Small, bought their farm in 2000, they drove out to a local breeder to buy piglets with a handmade wire cage in the back of their station wagon. "How many do you want?" the breeder asked. "Ten," said Mike. "One," said his wife, both at the same time. "I'll give you three," was the breeder's response. In 2001, they switched to heritage breeds. They raised seven Duroc and seven Large Black that year. Soon, they were growing rapidly from 57 rare breed pigs in 2002 to 520 last year.
The strong local foods movement is a key to their success.
Consumers want "humanely treated, no / minimal antibiotics, no hormones, no animal parts in the feed," Mike told us. But they also focus on raising a high quality product. "Folks at the farmers' market might be willing to sacrifice taste a little," Mike told us, "but the restaurants will not."
Flying Pigs Farm currently raises over 500 Large Blacks, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Tamworths each year. During the spring, summer and fall, the pigs are housed in one acre paddocks that have access to the woods for shade and to pasture for rooting and grazing. Mike is careful not to leave them too long in any one paddock, but, in general, the rejuvenating power of the grass keeps the land strong and healthy. In the winter, they move to paddocks closer to the road where it is easier to fill feeders.
Mike uses a two strand electric wire most of the time and electronet for smaller piglets. Adult pigs will test the two strand, but as long as the wire is hot and the pigs have what they need the pigs will not break out. But, "when you know you need to move the pigs and you say to yourself, tomorrow. Tomorrow you may well find they have moved themselves," Mike warned. Piglets have less contact with the ground and so they are not grounded enough to feel the shock from two strand wire. With two strand you will find them walking down the road far too often. Electronet has its own problems though. Pigs love to root. When they are flipping over pieces of sod searching for morsels, they will flip it right onto the electronet and short it out. Mike does not use electronet in the winter either because it can get buried and tangled in the snow.
Porta-huts provide shelter to the pigs. The huts have plywood bottoms and they bed them with straw. The plywood bottoms keep them from rooting and turning the straw to muck immediately in winter. For piglets it is important to make sure there are enough huts and plenty of bedding. Bedding up the sides of the walls is also important to keep piglets from piling.
Pigs on pasture still need a high energy feed. Mike feeds six tons per week. In addition to the standard corn- and soy-based ration, Mike supplements with hay and apples from a local farm. The orchard sends them two 4x4x4 foot boxes per week. "It is amazing how much they love the apples," Mike told us, "You put out two pickup trucks full of apples and think, 'what have I done?' Then, in the morning, the apples are gone." On occasion, the pigs also get a treat of eggs. They boil up the cracked eggs and floor eggs to attract the pigs, if they need to get them on a trailer or in the barn. Supplemental feed may depend on what is locally and seasonally available. "In another area you may have access to milk or acorns and you can supplement with that," Mike told us.
The main water source at the farm is a spring hole on one side of the property. They have a set of hydrants every 250 feet extending up and down the hill from the spring. This allows them to run just one length of hose from the hydrant to the waterer no matter which paddock they have rotated to in the winter. In the summer they run black plastic tubing to waterers with float valves that self moderate the water level.
"We are very lucky to have a USDA facility only ten miles from our farm," Mike told us. It did not used to be that way. They used to have to drive more than an hour, which put more stress on the animals. They are also lucky in their relationship with their butcher. "My butcher and my feed dealer are the only ones I don't let anyone else deal with," Mike told us. This is important because, not only does the butcher rarely make mistakes in cuts or packaging, but he is also willing to try new things.
Marketing and Sales
"Diversified markets have helped us be successful," Mike told us. Flying Pigs Farm sells at two Greenmarkets in New York, to restaurants, online though their website, and directly at the farm by appointment. Mike has learned small things can make a difference at farmers markets. They have a 10-foot-by-10-foot space with a pop-up shelter and 8-foot tables. A green canopy and a sign suspended on PVC pipes 10-feet above the ground keeps Flying Pigs visible to their customers at the market. "Market-goers are creatures of habit. They tend to do the same route at the farmers' market. One week they moved us 20 feet over into a different booth. The next week a number of customers asked - where were you last week? They did not see us, just a few feet away." The sign helps avoid this problem. They get a good price for their pork from $4 per pound for shanks to $25 for choice cuts.
Over time, Mike and Jen developed a good crew. They have 3-1/2 people that help outside, one person that helps with the books and another who helps at farmers' markets.
For more information on Mike's presentation at PASA, contact PASA for the recording.