From Carolina to the Catskills, AWA Pig Farmers find Greener Pastures

Tamworth piglets at AWA Farm explore the territory and learn how to forage Photo by Mike SuarezRaising pigs according to the industrial farming model is a study in homogeny. In industry parlance, “quality control” means having all the same pigs fed all the same food while housed in uniformly dark, cramped facilities with concrete-slatted floors. Maximum efficiency with minimal attention to animal welfare.

In contrast, not all Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) pig farms are cut from the same cloth. Diversity is not only tolerated—it’s celebrated. Though all AWA pig farmers share a commitment to raising pigs outdoors, on pasture, to the highest welfare standards, farm size, topography, and the animals themselves are as varied as the people who run them. Consider the following two examples.

High Meadows Farm

The northwest side of the Catskills, between Woodstock and Cooperstown, may not seem to some like pig farming country, but that’s where High Meadows Farm is located. Owned by John and Laura Hussey and managed by their friend, Ann VanArsdale, the farm sits on the outskirts of Delhi, New York, the hills surrounding the farm rising steeply from a level valley floor. The land, according to VanArsdale, is heavy clay and rocks, with about 125–130 usable acres—mostly pasture lands—out of the 500 total acreage. For the past 17 years, on about 20 acres in the valley on what was once a hay field, the Husseys and VanArsdales have been raising pigs. (Ann’s two daughters and now-retired husband used to work the farm, as well.) Both families migrated from Nantucket, Massachusetts, to establish High Meadows. Though John had a few pigs on Nantucket, neither family came from a longtime farming tradition.

High Meadows itself does have one “longtime” distinction, though: It was the first farm in New York to join the Animal Welfare Approved program. The farm mostly specializes in selling breeding stock—weaned piglets and the occasional bred gilt or breeding age boar. High Meadows pigs stay in large outdoor pens year round. Port-A-Huts provide shelter, well-bedded with straw during the cold months. The farm also sells farrowing huts and shelters to facilitate the efforts of other farmers who want to raise animals outdoors.

In 1995, John, Laura and Ann got their first pigs for the farm—a boar piglet and two gilts—all Tamworths, a breed listed as “threatened” by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC). According to Ann, “They are an old breed. They are feisty and do well outdoors on pasture year-round. We generally have harsh winters and they do very well in their bedded huts.” Sows of this breed are excellent mothers and do a good job of suckling their litters. Both of these are ideal characteristics for maximizing animal welfare in a pasture-based system. Since that first Tamworth, the farm has diversified. High Meadows now also raises crosses between Tamworths and Gloucestershire Old Spots (a breed listed as critically endangered by the ALBC) and plans to add some purebred Gloucestershire Old Spots in the future.

The Husseys, says Ann, have always been interested in conserving rare and heritage breeds. In fact, the pigs aren’t the only unique animals on the farm. They also raise Suffolk Punch draft horses—yet another critically endangered breed. Majestic, sweet-natured and docile though they may be, the horses aren’t just for show. On the High Meadows website, you can see pictures of Ann hitched up behind a team of powerful Suffolks, tilling a field the old fashioned way.

Though Ann says she never envisioned becoming a pig farmer, she enjoys the different personalities of the animals and “seeing the piglets romping in the pasture. They are smart and each one is an individual.” There are challenges, of course—corralling unruly piglets and feeding and watering when the weather dips to 30 below to name two—but she feels good “knowing that our pigs have a life that is healthy” and knowing that they are doing things right and providing quality animals to their customers.

Parker Family Farms

Parker Family Farms is located in the Orange County community of Hurdle Mills, within north-central North Carolina’s Piedmont Plateau. For Randall and Renee Parker, roots in the place run deep. “Both of our grandparents farmed in Orange County,” according to Renee. “We actually live on Randall’s grandparents’ farm. There is an old family cemetery behind our house that is Randall’s family. Some of the graves are unknown and only have rocks to indicate a burial.” She’d like to do further research to find out just how long they family has been there. The Parker’s four children, Mandi, Tiffany, Kendall and Martin, help carry on the farming tradition. In addition to pigs, the Parkers raise free-range chickens and beef cattle, as well as crops including wheat, corn, soybeans, hay, asparagus, and tobacco.

The Parkers foray into pig farming initially served as a way to diversify as they cut back on their tobacco production. It seemed like the right move, explains Renee: “Our kids enjoyed raising pigs for our local county livestock show. We felt this was the right fit for our farm, land and future.” They talked to their livestock agent, who found information on raising pigs outside. The Parkers now raise between 150 to 200 pigs on about 20 acres they own, with other animals and some of the crops on rented land.

The pigs are of mixed origin. The first pigs they added to the farm in 2005 were Farmer's Hybrid—an old, slow-growing breed little used today but well-suited for pasture life. Since then, other breeds have been added. Renee says “We have brought in different breed boars of varying qualities. We also make sure they are good for outdoor production. We try to be careful of mothering ability” in choosing breeds to add to the mix. The farm raises pigs from start to finish, and like other AWA farms, the pigs are free to roam in the open pastures and graze on a variety of grasses. Pastures are maintained by rotating the animals periodically and reseeding the pastures when necessary.

Since jumping in seven years ago, Renee says they’ve learned a lot about pig personalities: “Pigs like attention. Sometimes this is not a good thing when you are trying to work with them. Instead of getting them loaded or moved from pasture to pasture they want to lie down and get a belly scratch.” She also says their nest-building instincts surprised her. “I have seen them use all kinds of building material for a nest. One used briers. I felt sorry for the babies but mom didn’t seem to mind and it didn’t seem to bother them either. If she is happy with briers in her nest I am not going to be dumb enough to try and take them from her. A mama sow in labor or with babies can sometimes be a scary thing.”

As the Parkers, as well as John and Laurie Hussey and Ann VanArsdale of High Meadows can attest, farming pigs on pasture can be a lot of effort, with payoffs that include—but extend well beyond—the strictly pecuniary. Whether in the Catskills or along Tobacco Road, Animal Welfare Approved farms are doing their part to turn the tide against an industrial model that cares little for local communities, the land or the animals. The Parkers frame what they do as a sacred duty: “We believe that we are given the opportunity to serve a community of people who care about their land and where their food comes from. We strive to be better stewards of what we have and to take care of this wonderful home called Earth. God created this Earth and the animals on it, so we strive to protect them both as much as we can.”