I had virtually no farming experience prior to 2007. Though I had a great interest in the farming life and had aspired to someday leaving the city, there had never been the opportunity. My career for the previous 16 years was focused on environmental program and policy development. My work included the creation of the recycling program at the University of Toronto, where I also completed a degree in Environmental Studies. In 2003, I took a position with the Canadian Environmental Network in Ottawa and moved back to my roots in Eastern Ontario. Then in an exchange with the federal government, I spent a year working as a Senior Policy Adviser on the Sector Sustainability Tables within Environment Canada. And my final pre-farmer position was as National Education and Outreach Manager with Nature Canada.
During that final year, I partnered with a friend on an endeavour to bring pigs to his farm near Prescott, Ontario. This transpired in a round-about fashion. He was simply looking for weaners to raise for his family’s consumption, but could not find any farmers in the area who were raising pigs. I did some research and found a farmer in south-western Ontario who was dispersing his herd of Large Black Pigs. We purchased four bred sows and picked them up in a U-Haul. During the 8 hour trip home on a cold November day, one of the sows began to farrow. We discovered this when we arrived home and opened the truck to the sound of what seemed like mewling kittens. It was a trying night, to say the least. We were plunged head first into pig farming, and thanks to the help of a neighbouring farmer, John Ashby of Stonehedge Farms, we learned how to handle the animals.
In a twist of fate, I was to be laid off within a week from my job at Nature Canada, which had just lost a large chunk of its federal funding. So it seemed like a great opportunity to take a business course offered through the Self-Employment Benefits Program to start to raise hogs for meat.
It did not take long for me to become completely engrossed in pig farming. I enjoyed every aspect of taking care of the animals. My learning curve was very steep and I received a lot of help from many people. With the guidance I received in my business course, I prepared an extensive business plan and was convinced that I could ultimately succeed in both developing a viable market for the meat, as well as a breeding program to sell registered breeding stock. The Large Black Pig is a rare heritage breed that came to Canada from England in the 1890s. It was an important and prolific breed until pig farming moved indoors. Large Blacks do not adapt well to confinement and were bypassed for other breeds. As well, they are slower growing than Yorkshire, Duroc and Landrace. So from a business perspective, they fell behind.
By the time that I chose to raise Large Black Pigs in 2007, there were only about 200 females registered annually across Canada (according to Rare Breeds Canada). My decision to raise this breed was based on several factors. They are a fairly docile breed and known to be very good mothers. They are less likely to try to breach the fences than other heritage breeds (like Berkshire and Tamworth) possibly because their sight is restricted by their large, pendulous ears. And they are hardy – able to withstand the heat of summer and the cold Canadian winters.
My decision to make a business with a heritage breed was influenced by my previous activities in environmental issues. Knowing that the general pulse of the public was heading toward more holistic practices in all areas, including agriculture, I gauged that the timing was good. The consumer was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with eating meat from industrially raised animals. So I felt that a market was there to supply an alternative. I use no antibiotics and I raise the pigs outdoors. I don’t use gestation or farrowing crates. I don’t dock their tails or clip their teeth. I keep litters together from farrow to finish. All this to say that I give my pigs the best life they can possibly have as animals destined for the table.
By the end of my first year of farming, the partnership dissolved and I purchased my own 100 acre farm near Brockville, Ontario. By this time, I had 80 pigs. It was a lot of work to make the place suitable for raising pigs outdoors. The existing page wire fences were overgrown and more suited for cattle, so I had to clear the brush and install electric fencing. Thankfully, Large Blacks can be successfully contained with only two strands of fence wire. Bit by bit, I fenced off more area and by the end of the first year on the new farm, I had 9 separate paddocks across 20 acres. The existing barn was fairly basic and had housed perhaps 20 dairy cattle. It required a lot of repairs and reinforcement. I use it mostly for farrowing and have built large open stalls into which I put the sows about a week before they are due.
Thankfully, some farm machinery was included with the farm. A big old Ford tractor worked for about a month and then I traded it for a new Kioti 40S, which is about all I need to do most of the heavier farm chores. I also found a bush hog, bale spike, discs and cultivator, lots of chains, rolls of barbed wire and various useful bits and pieces. I procured a used grain grinder and gravity box, and I purchased wheat, barley and corn from local farmers. It would take me most of a day each week to drive around picking up feed. And the grinder was very unreliable. I now have over 300 pigs on the farm and thankfully, have graduated to taking a weekly delivery of 3 tonnes of custom feed from Willows Agriservice in Delta, Ontario.
Raising the Large Black Pig outdoors is a definite challenge and I often wonder, if I’d had a farming background, would I have done this? As an idealistic environmentalist from the city, I had a vision but no experience to support it. However, I was determined to make it work no matter what. Now in my eighth year of farming, I feel that I have put the most difficult years behind me.
During the first winter on my new farm, young pigs started dying. I would come out to feed in the morning and find one or two dead in the huts each day. I took them for autopsy to Kemptville College and brought in a pig vet from Prince Edward County (there were none in Eastern Ontario). The problem was mycoplasma bacteria. I lost over 40 pigs out of my herd of 200. Thankfully, there is a vaccine so I’ve been vaccinating every piglet born ever since.
The worst time was during the drought of 2012. My pastures were dried up and I lost all that I had reseeded. Feed almost doubled in cost. Though pork sales were good, I did not have enough resources to provide a full ration for each animal. My well was running dry and I had to bring in water. In the end, I turned to the CBC and the Canadian public to help pull me through, creating Sponsor-A-Pig whereby folks could either purchase meat vouchers to be cashed in later, or donate the cost of feeding a breeding animal.
These problems seem so long ago. Nowadays (2015) the farm runs fairly smoothly. I have 2 or 3 live-in farmhands and have been able to expand my pastures. More than half of the farm will be fenced by the end of this year. Sturdy new field huts have replaced my old round bale huts. The pigs are very well fed and it has made a world of difference in their growth rate and condition. It is an absolute joy to wander through the fields, interacting with the pigs, scratching their backs, rubbing their bellies and watching them enjoy their lives.
Bringing a few transferable marketing skills from my previous career, I focused originally on restaurants and butcher shops. In my second year, I joined the Ottawa Farmers’ Market and found that selling my pork directly to the people who would be eating it was much more rewarding, though more labour intensive. I became increasingly frustrated with restaurants that could and would change or cancel an order at a moment’s notice. There was no loyalty there. One particular restaurant asked me to ramp up production, only to go belly up 8 months later, leaving me with extra hungry mouths in the year of the drought. As I became more and more known at the Farmers’ Market, I no longer pursued the larger customers. Now, my business is almost exclusively with the end consumer through farmers’ markets and my CSA.
An early marketing initiative that continues to work well for me is an adaptation of the CSA model – meat rather than vegetables. Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) is an approach to growing and purchasing food in which the farmer and consumer are working cooperatively. I offer 30 shares annually that include 60 lbs of heritage beef, half a pig, and 10 chickens. The customer pays 50% down and then receives meat over a period of about 6 to 9 months. I grow the pork and chicken and my good friend, Robert Lynch of Lansdowne, Ontario provides beef from his herd of Lynch Lineback cattle.
Customers find me either at the farmers’ markets, which now run year round in Ottawa, or through my website and Facebook page. I have built a large customer base of over 1,000 people and referrals are a big contributor to my business’s growth. Social media has not been a major contributor but rather an accessory.
When I began this business 8 years ago, I was one of only a few farmers in Eastern Ontario that were producing pork by raising heritage pigs outdoors. Now, there are at least 3 times that number, though most do not focus exclusively on pigs as I do. I sell breeding pairs across the country and the demand for them peaked in 2011. Lately it has been very low.
In my opinion, consumer awareness and demand for meat from animals that are raised naturally outdoors, that are treated humanely and with as few interventions as possible, is increasing steadily. For as long as I am able, I will continue to farm the Large Black Pig and provide an alternative to the industrial system of meat production.