Walter Jeffries pampers his pigs and tells the world about it on his popular blog
Written onAugust 20 , 2013
There are 70 acres in West Topsham where about 400 pigs harvest their own kale (and garlic, when they’re feeling under the weather), go for rides in mini-vans, and bathe in mountain wallows. They’re about to stop that mini-van habit, but more on that later.
This is Sugar Mountain Farm. It’s owned and operated by Walter Jeffries, his wife Holly, and their three children, and it certainly marches to the beat of its own drum—or rather, its own hooves. In the world of pastured pork, it stands by itself, differentiated from other local purveyors by some of its unique management practices.
Take, for instance, the Jeffries’ feed strategy: most folks raising pigs on pasture supplement their forage with anywhere from 700 to 1,000 pounds of grain over the course of a pig’s lifetime. In such instances, the “supplemental” grain comes to constitute the majority of the pig’s diet. But as Walter puts it, “The commercial feed is candy—it’s high calorie and it’s designed to taste really good, to be highly palatable, so that the animals will eat at the maximum rate possible, so that they will grow as fast as possible. If you give the animal candy all the time, it’s not going to eat the main course—it’s not going to eat the salad. So it’s important that they have a chance to actually learn to eat those other courses.”
Accordingly, at Sugar Mountain Farm the foundation of the porcine food pyramid consists of pasture and woodlot salad bars. In addition to the diverse forage available in the farm’s mountainous soils, the Jeffries seed nutrient-dense crops like kale, broccoli, turnip, and garlic right into the pasture, providing their hogs with pick-your-own veggies all growing season.They also provide the herds with whey, the protein-rich byproduct of cheesemaking, which the farm sources locally (and which is growing in popularity in Vermont as a food source for pigs). The whey balances the high-fiber content of pasture (and in the winter, hay), all the while providing an essential amino acid, lycine, and lending a certain sweetness to the meat. Periodically, Sugar Mountain Farm pigs also get free-range eggs from the Jeffries’ hens—who don’t get any supplemental grain, either—and food waste from local bakeries and dairies. That’s it, though: forage, whey, hay, and the occasional food scrap.
This is true pastured pork, and when you break it down, the farm’s feeding plan is a perfect reflection of Sugar Mountain’s commitment to sustainability. The farm doesn’t ask any more of the land than that which it can regenerate; it builds soil through tightly managed rotational grazing; and it even absorbs what would otherwise be considered waste from neighboring agricultural enterprises. Fifty-pound feed bags from monocultures in the Midwest aren’t in this farm’s picture, and other farmers are taking note.
A couple of years ago, I worked with my uncle on his then- startup cattle and pig ranch in Pennsylvania. It was there that I learned about Walter Jeffries and Sugar Mountain Farm. The farm’s blog, written by Walter, proved essential as we learned-up on the multifaceted and, honestly, often fascinating trade of raising pigs as naturally as possible. And we weren’t alone—the blog is a downright favorite for pork producers everywhere.
Sugarmtnfarm.com has received well over 3 million page visits, according to clustrmaps.com. That’s a pretty hefty number for a (mostly) technical blog about raising pigs. While there are other pig reference sites out there, most are conventionally oriented, with information more pertinent to large-scale confinement operations. For those looking to learn the in’s and out’s of raising pigs on pasture, the conventional sites leave a lot wanting. And while there are online discussion forums and listservs that offer a pasture bent, as far as blogs go none are as content-rich, or as busy, as Walter’s.
Folks tune in to catch Walter’s thoughts on just about everything. From animal health and nutrition to fencing to genetics to rotational grazing to meat quality, the blog’s articles (1,600 of them as of June 2013) cover a staggering range of topics relevant to pastured pork production. They’re also full of quirky nuggets like how to brine your own ham, the role of knuckle bones in the history of gambling, and how to weigh a pig with just a piece of string. It’s all a far cry from the jobs that Walter, now 50, used to hold in engineering, chemistry, manufacturing, publishing, and other fields.
But inquisitive blog visitors find more than just Walter’s two cents—they also stumble onto a rich online community. There are more than 13,000 comments on the blog’s various articles, most from other pig farmers, discussing what has and hasn’t worked for them, and building off each other’s experiences. This techy interconnectivity makes the agricultural world a little smaller, engaging faraway folks in dialogue previously reserved for neighbors and kin. Indeed, during any given minute, visitors to the farm’s blog hail from all over the country and the world. With this pooled knowledge and perspective, the site has evolved into an aggregate one-stop-shop for porcine know-how. For the digitally inclined, this sort of networking and development proves to be a more prolific source of information than ye olde stagnant reference book or veterinary guide.
Of course, the farm itself benefits from this fount of dialogue, too. Walter told me of a serendipitous exchange between Sugar Mountain Farm and one of its longtime blog followers, North Mountain Pastures, a Pennsylvania farm that had long been inspired and helped by Walter. In 2011, both farms were fundraising for on-farm butcher shops. North Mountain Pastures ran a Kickstarter campaign in early 2012 and, inspired by the crowd funding model, Sugar Mountain Farm followed suit. “So, in a way, I inspired North Mountain Pastures, and then they, in turn, inspired me.” Both projects were quite successful, with Walter’s campaign reaping more than $33,400 (his funding goal was just $25,000), and the farms continued to share ideas and plans as their projects evolved. “In his construction, he wanted to do arched ceilings, like I did,” Walter says, “so I told him how we had done ours and referred him to the various blog articles that showed the trusses and forms. So that’s how he was able to then do his. It’s a very nice feedback loop.”
The Jeffries have been planning on building their own USDA-inspected slaughtering and butchering facility since 2008, when Walter, Holly, and their older son apprenticed with Vermont master butcher Cole Ward. The family is eager to enter the final stage of producing its own pork products wholly on the farm, and wholly themselves. By integrating these final aspects of production into their business, they will greatly reduce processing costs and be able to offer more affordable pricing to their wholesale and retail accounts. (The majority of Sugar Mountain’s sales are to restaurants and stores; you can find their pork products—including hot dogs and kielbasa—at various food co-ops, general stores, and natural food markets in northern and central Vermont.)
The “butcher shop,” as the Jeffries call it, is slated to open with rudimentary cutting capacities this fall, phasing in its own sausage making, curing, smoking, and slaughtering over the course of the year. When fully up and running, Sugar Mountain will produce the standby cuts and cured meats we’re used to, but also some specialty cuts and sausages that local butchers don’t offer, plus an attractive offering of local charcuterie options, and even whole smoked pigs.
The Jeffries plan to manage and staff the shop themselves. They’re also building it themselves. That said, it’s a relatively “nano” abattoir that Walter notes “is almost the same size as the hay shed that it replaced.” The small size will allow for some favorable gains in energy efficiency, which has been taken into consideration in virtually every aspect of the shop’s design.
The Jeffries’s new shop will also save energy in and of itself by eliminating long drives to regional slaughterhouses. Farmers in Vermont often face a drive of at least a couple of hours to the nearest small-scale, USDA-inspected abattoir; not only are these hauls fiscally and carbon expensive, they’re also taxing for the animals. The Jeffries make the ride more comfortable by bringing their pigs “to market” in a mini-van, where they benefit from temperature control. They also do the drives late in the evening, to skirt traffic and to reduce the passengers’ trip time. Still, Walter notes that an on-farm processing facility “raises humane farming to a higher level, to the level we had in the old days when animals did spend their entire lives on the farm and were not trucked to far-off feedlots and slaughterhouses.”
Enterprising farmers across the country and the world have already begun looking to the planned shop as a model for their own, using Walter’s blog as a learning platform and consulting him via email. Sugar Mountain Farm may have marched to the beat of its own hooves for more than a decade, but these days it seems there’s a whole band tuning in.
Photo courtesy of Sugar Mountain Farm