Chefs, butchers and farmers visit pig operation
NEWBURG, Pa. -- Pigs frolicked from the woods here Friday, Oct. 30, acting more like a pack of friendly beagles than a herd of swine.
They were Paul Fisher's Large Black English pigs, chosen not necessarily for their friendliness, but for their ability to thrive in the woods, to root in the dirt, to mother their young. But if you like a friendly pig, you couldn't go wrong with a Large Black English.
Paul Fisher is an Amish farmer who pastures his pigs in a series of rotated, wooded paddocks. He turned 27 on the day the pigs came out of the woods, and shared his birthday with 65 paying guests who'd come from as far as Indiana to take part in a field day organized by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). It was a sell-out crowd, according to PASA's Rachel Schaal, who heads up the organization's educational outreach programs.
There were a few chefs among the attendees, according to Schaal, and some butchers. Butchers got a pass on tickets for the event, which cost $15 for members, $25 for non-members. But most of the people who came to Fisher's birthday bash were small-scale farmers eager to learn more about the production and marketing of pastured pork.
There are about 40 hogs currently on Otterbein Acres Farm, where two generations of the Fisher family produce meat and eggs from a flock of free-range Rhode Island Reds, lambs, wool and milk from a flock of sheep, cheese and raw milk from an eight-cow herd of Jershires (a Jersey-Ayrshire cross currently being attended to by a Devon bull), and, of course those big friendly hogs.
The Fisher farm covers 96 acres and they rent some ground. It's all in pasture. And every animal lives in the open. Under the sky. No barns. No coops. Nothing to shelter them from the weather, fair or foul.
"How do they do?" one of the attendees asked Fisher as he led a tour of the fields. Fisher shrugged his shoulders, held out his hands, "Fine," he said. "I think we have fewer health problems than we'd have if we kept them in barns."
Although there's lots going on at Otterbein Acres, it was a day to focus on the pigs. In the morning session, the group heard from Justin Severino, a chef and artisanal butcher who lives and works in Pittsburgh. He spent 30 minutes talking about what he does with a whole pig carcass, and spent another 90 minutes answering questions from the crowd.
Lunch followed Severino's presentation, and included raw milk -- white or chocolate -- and a flavorful sausage sandwich.
After lunch, Fisher led an expedition to a paddock which held 16 hogs being readied for market. His visitors trudged to a spot where pasture met woodland. Some tubs of whey were visible, a thin strand of polywire, a portable feeding trough ... but no pigs. Fisher plunged into the woods and coaxed the animals out to the feeding trough. They snuffled and grunted and checked out the visitors, then attacked the feeding trough.
The trough was filled with sprouted barley swimming in a whey broth. The whey, from both sheep and cows' milk, comes from the on-farm cheese business. Fisher likes to sprout the barley for digestibility, and feeds the whey both to get rid of it and because it's a good source of nutrients for his porkers. He favors barley because he's pretty certain it's a non-GMO (genetically modified) grain. It's also much less pricey than organic feed.
Although his pigs are pastured, unvaccinated and totally drug free, they're healthy and thriving. But not organic. Fisher will feed grain when he needs to, but the grain more than likely will come from fields that have seen commercial fertilizer and pesticides, a no-no for certified organic pork.
It takes six to seven months to get his pigs to their 250-to-300-pound market weight. And his sows deliver litters of five or six piglets. These are numbers that would frustrate a large-scale feeding operation, but they leave Fisher unphased. And, truth to tell, it seems that the soft-spoken, low-key Fisher would be unphased by anything short of a tornado ripping through Otterbein Acres.
His focus isn't so much on the numbers, as it is on the way his animals are raised. There's a story behind his method, and it's a story he tries to get across to his customers. The hogs are butchered by Hurst Meats in Hagerstown, Md., and some 95 percent of the meat is sold direct to buyers at outdoor, producers-only farmers markets in Carlisle, Pa., and Rockville, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.
His customers are evidently getting his story, Fisher believes, because they pay double and more for pork they could buy in a supermarket. Sausage and pork chops, for example, go for $8 a pound at Fisher's stand. One of his ambitions is to spend more time on marketing and getting the story out.
It's a story that's getting a lot of word-of-mouth not only among farmers market shoppers, but from restaurateurs and chefs, according to PASA's Rachel Schaal. "I was very pleased, with the success of our pastured pork event," she said. "Pleased but not surprised."
Schaal is encouraged by consumer interest in the kind of pork Fisher produces, but she said chefs are really paying more attention to where their meat is coming from. "More and more, chefs want the whole carcass. Or half a carcass. They want to use the whole pig, and they want to know how it was raised. I think there's a tremendous market for producers like Paul Fisher."