Progress: Pork with passion: Local pig farmers put love into product
NISSWA--The crow of a rooster might be the first sound one hears when visiting Patchwork Farms near Nisswa, but it's all about the pigs. The small family farm nestled in a stretch of land surrounded by lakes on County Road 127 is home to some of ...
NISSWA-The crow of a rooster might be the first sound one hears when visiting Patchwork Farms near Nisswa, but it's all about the pigs.
The small family farm nestled in a stretch of land surrounded by lakes on County Road 127 is home to some of the rarest breeds of heritage porkers in existence-and they have the run of the place. Litters of piglets ranging from just days to several weeks old trot in and out of pens, stopping for a wallow in a mud puddle whenever they please, while larger sows and boars pile together in the shade of an oak canopy.
"Our pigs don't ever see the inside of a barn," said Gayle Stevens, who owns the farm along with husband Tim Stevens. "To be considered pastured, they have to be outside 50 percent of the time. Ours are outside 100 percent of the time."
The Stevens family is responsible for some of the only heritage breed local pork available in the Brainerd lakes, found at an increasing number of farmers markets, retail locations and restaurants.
But the pig farmer life wasn't always the plan-they purchased 80 acres east of Nisswa in 2012 to have more space for farm creatures more familiar to the family.
"We got into horses over 20 years ago with the girls, and we did have some sheep and goats and chickens before," Gayle said. "We (later) bought a lake cabin. But there was no room for horses, no room for dogs. I missed having chickens, and I missed having goats. So we sold the cabin and bought the farm."
The couple pondered pig farming, first assuming it would require a large barn. Research soon revealed this wasn't a necessary component of raising the animals, and Gayle purchased the farm's original three pigs while Tim was away for work-after calling first, of course. They joined the horses, cows, rabbits, chickens, geese, ducks, cats, dogs and even bees found on the Stevens' property-not to mention Bob Gobbler, the one and only tom turkey.
"For years, I didn't want to have anything to do with pigs," Tim said. "But when we moved here, we had the acreage and she decided she was going to get three pigs while I was gone. ... Next year, we had babies and more babies and more babies, and it just evolved from there. They have good personalities, though."
All three of the original pigs remain at Patchwork Farms, including Turtle, a 900-plus-pound sow who's mothered countless litters of piglets, and a boar named Brutus, who's fathered just as many. For those without names, their fates aren't quite as idyllic-but the Stevenses put effort into ensuring their lives are as pleasant as possible.
The herd of more than 200 pigs on the farm are made up primarily of cross-bred large black and red wattle breeds, producing a deep red meat with more flavor and marbling than found in commercially produced pork products. The breeds are known as "heritage" because they were some of the original breeds raised by farmers of a pre-industrial, bygone era. The term is "largely art and not science," states heritage breed advocacy organization The Livestock Conservancy, but is important to the future of agriculture.
"These are animals that were bred over time to develop traits that made them suited to specific local environments," the organization's website stated. "Because these breeds have been developed and selected over time, they tend to have better disease resistance, are well-adapted to their environments, and thrive in pasture-based settings."
The Livestock Conservancy maintains lists of endangered breeds of a variety of livestock, and both the large black and red wattle pig breeds are considered threatened by the organization. This means there are fewer than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States, and the estimated global population is less than 5,000.
The Stevenses cross-breed the varieties because it produces a faster-growing pig than the red wattle breed alone, which can take a year to be ready for the butcher. Both are known for gentle dispositions, an important trait on a farm where the pigs are permitted to roam freely alongside grandchildren.
"They wander in and out of these pens, and all the other pigs get to know them," Gayle said. "That way, when it's time to move them into a pen you don't have anybody fighting. We have had that happen where they'll kill each other if they're not used to them. ... We won't keep a mean pig."
The free-ranging lifestyle of the animals is but one aspect of the care Gayle and Tim dedicate to the pigs. Their diets are carefully planned and responsibly sourced, Gayle said, helping to produce pork the family is proud to offer.
In addition to the grass and acorns available in the natural environment, the couple is developing a fodder system to produce fresh, green grass year-round. The pigs also feast on a diet locally grown, non-genetically modified feed and the spent brewers grains from two local breweries-Gull Dam Brewing in Nisswa and Roundhouse Brewery in Brainerd.
"That's just a waste product for them, but it's like all protein and fiber," Gayle said. "So it's a good supplemental feed for the pigs. In the wintertime, it's great because it's hot, so it's like eating hot cereal."
Some of the oats and barley fed to the pigs are grown by a farmer in Browerville, who raises his own herd of heritage pigs and is the closest state-inspected butcher. Other grains are sourced from farmer Wally Thesing in Fort Ripley. What can't be found at Patchwork Farms is the "slop" one might expect pigs-the reputations of which don't include discerning palates-to consume widely.
"We really try to be careful with what the pigs are eating," Gayle said. "They don't get any slop from any schools or restaurants or anything. They might get produce from local farmers-pumpkins, fruits and veggies-when it's the season. Otherwise, we really watch what they eat."
Gayle is passionate about what her pigs eat, just as she's passionate about the effect it has on the humans who eat the pigs. She sought to capture this in naming the farm: "P" stands for produce, "A" for animals, "T" for teaching, "C" for community, "H" for home, and "work" for, well, work.
"Once we got into this, even before we came up with the name, I spent a lot of time educating people on food," Gayle said. "A few years back, I owned a feed store for a little while, so I learned about food for feeding animals. So I don't prefer to have a lot of corn in our feed, because corn puts on a bad fat. We prefer to have more oats and barley for the carbs instead of corn. ... I guess the main thing is we just want to make sure the products are natural, because there's just way too much chemicals into our food that we eat nowadays."
Gayle practices what she preaches, selling their natural pork products to customers browsing at least six area farmers markets-Brainerd, Baxter, Nisswa, Ideal Township, Remer and Staples. Plans in July called for adding Pine River and Hackensack to the rotation, and she hopes to break into the Twin Cities farmers market scene as well. Among the offerings are pork steaks, roasts, chops, braunschweiger, breakfast sausages and nearly 20 brat varieties-the top seller is the wild rice, cranberry and mushroom brat, but some of the newest offerings include feta cheese and spinach and habanero-mango.
If the markets aren't accessible, shoppers can also purchase Patchwork Farms pork at Gramma's Pantry in Aitkin, Grandpa's General Store in Ossipee, the Ideal Green Market in Ideal Township and Northeast Liquors in Brainerd. And for those who'd rather someone else cook their food, visit Northwoods Inne in Ossipee, Irma's Kitchen at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake, Chameleon Cafe near Brainerd International Raceway and Baxter's Bar and Grill inside Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter.
Although the farm's labels don't indicate the lifestyle and diet of the pork behind it, Gayle offers a standing invite to all those interested: "Come to the farm, and you'll see how they live."
Business: Patchwork Farms.
City: near Nisswa.
Number of employees: Two, plus family members who assist with chores.
Interesting fact: Two of the main breeds of pig raised by the farm are threatened heritage breeds-the large black and the red wattle. This means the estimated global population of the breeds is fewer than 5,000 animals.