Raising Heritage Breed Pigs at Cape Cod Organic Farm
Tim Friary loves his pigs, and clearly, they love him.
The young ones recognize the sound of his truck and bound over en masse to the edge of their wire-enclosed pasture, awaiting his arrival. If he doesn’t come fast enough, they scramble over one another to reach the round rubber drinking trough first.
“Noses together, guys!” one can almost hear the alpha piglet shout. And, as four or five of them wedge their snouts under the rim, “Let’s flip it, now!”
“Pigs fool around and play,” says Friary. “They have a lot of fun here.”
Here being Cape Cod Organic Farm on Route 6A in Barnstable, land which Friary has farmed since 2009. Known previously as the Barnstable County Farm, the 100-plus-acre farm was run by the county’s correctional facility inmates until its operation was no longer cost effective. Friary’s years of experience and vision for the property contributed to his being selected to lease the land.
Friary learned to love growing things while spending time on his maternal grandparents’ small farm in Taunton, where he grew up. His Italian ancestors always had gardens that they tended organically, and in 1995 he committed to growing that way too, as a vocation, beginning on Commerce Street in Barnstable.
Friary now offers fruits, vegetables, herbs and cut flowers, as well as specialty grasses that are used for site restoration. He sells produce at several weekly farmers’ markets and at his on-site stand, and also supplies multiple chefs at local restaurants.
Cape Cod Organic Farm runs both a full summer season CSA and has a more abbreviated fall harvest CSA this year. A trip to a local farm also yields the added perks of getting a feel for how the food is grown, what it looks like at harvest, and knowing who’s cared for it since pushing the seeds into the soil. Now you can also select from a variety of heritage breed pork delicacies.
Convinced that taking good care of the land positively impacts every facet of his farm, Friary’s holistic approach includes rotating crops, using beneficial insects, and building the soil with green manure and composts. The farm is Certified Organic, precluding any use of genetically modified materials, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. These practices, as well as the absence of all livestock antibiotics and hormones for the trio of pig breeds he introduced to the farm in 2010, are reaping big benefits. The meat is delectable, product sells briskly, and most importantly, the pigs roaming the Barnstable pastures are healthy and happy.
Choosing which pigs to nurture came from years of farm life, researching different breeds, and careful consideration of the Cape’s climate. The three heritage lines he raises have historic roots originating in England: Tamworths, Berkshires and Large Blacks. Vital to small sustainable farms in Europe for centuries, heritage pigs have strong immune systems that allow them to be pasture bred and roam the outdoors year round.
Offspring of these three lines or crosses thereof will produce coat colors ranging from a rich russet brown to black. Ideal for hot weather, their dark hides will fend off what could be devastating sunburns for pigs with paler complexions. “They can be outdoors even during our Cape Cod summers,” says Friary.
It’s more expensive to raise these breeds, because they require more care than those selected for mass-produced commodity pork. There are presently about 5000 heritage pigs registered in the United States. Pigs are just one of the many examples of heritage livestock that are in danger of extinction. Consumers who support farms that raise these animals help to maintain and preserve these lines for future generations.
Friary tracks the genetic lineage of his pigs carefully to ensure that the offspring remain healthy. From birth to six months, the pigs rotate from area to area, free-range eating their way across the pastureland with their siblings. At maturity they travel off-Cape to a USDA- inspected facility in Athol, Massachusetts, that is state-of-the art in its humane approach, with holding pens designed by Dr. Temple Grandin.
Mom and dad pigs (sows and boars), selected for their strong genetic traits, have a decidedly longer time on the farm, depending on how long they remain “active.”
A female can become pregnant at six months of age, a male a viable father at about the same age, but from there it’s anyone’s guess. Friary has seen pigs top out at age seven or eight, but he’s had one guy who made it to 14.
Although the pigs are kept encircled by portable electrified fence lines—and if they choose, they can sleep in metal huts—in the wild of the night, stuff happens, even to mature and quite robust pigs. Coyotes, fisher cats and hawks are just a few of the farm’s visitors. One particular hog, Stubby, was so intimidated by a night visitor that, he, well, “just stopped performing,” says Friary. “Nothing.”
Like all livestock that are no longer earning their keep, with the cost of premium organic feed and hay, Friary can keep them only so long. He recalls that, “We gave him a couple of months, still no action. He was really traumatized by something.”
Short of getting him a therapist, Friary tried it all, but the day of reckoning came, and the truck arrived. “I led him towards the ramp, and right there, at that very moment, he pulled away and mounted Debbie,” says Friary. “Stubby got over what ever it was that was bothering him, and he’s still doing his job now,” laughs Friary. “Talk about waiting till the last minute.”
Eight to fourteen piglets comprise each litter, with the individual piglets weighing about five pounds each, except for the runt who is closer to three. Friary finds that more often than not, the last pig born is largest in birth weight but sadly, frequently stillborn. Birth occurs right out in the pasture, with Friary using farrowing (birthing) huts that offer the mother and her litter some protection from the elements.
Two pregnant sows are at the any-day-now stage, and Friary hops their fence to offer his services of—who knew—prenatal massage. They luxuriate in the attention, clearly loving every stroke on their backs and sides. Friary has a good record projecting accurate due dates, and has a tendency to hover nearby as the arrival time approaches, though with more births behind him, he’s become more relaxed about it. “They know just what to do.” says Friary, “They’re good moms.”
The vet arrives quickly, within a day or two of the birth, to castrate the males, and notch all the ears—thus the term “earmarked”—so that Friary’s pigs will be recognized as belonging to his farm.
“If you wait much longer than that the moms become ferociously defensive of their litter and it can endanger the vet,” says Friary. “These moms are big, weighing in from 550–625 pounds, and could do some damage. We’ve figured out a system to corral them into the truck while their babies are being tended to, so everyone is safe.”
The babies get registered, and named, usually “spur of the moment,” says Friary. Betty I, Wilma, Debby, Betty II, Stubby, Tammy; well, you get the picture. And yes, for some reason, of the 92 pigs on the property, the ladies outnumber the fellows.
“Once I just drew a blank and called to two of the young guys working with me at the time for their girlfriends’ names,” says Friary. “I think within three months they both had broken up.”
The babies stay close to the mothers for milk. If two litters are combined in one area, some of them will try their best to get a little more milk, but the moms know their offspring.
Babies are weaned after the first nine or ten weeks. By then mom has usually tired of the milking scene and is ready to move on. Sometimes a mother will reject one or more of her young, and hopefully those piglets will be juggled into another litter. Then the young herd is off on its own.
“We rotate them, giving them fresh pasture and they root it up fairly quickly,” says Friary. Before an area is exfoliated of plant growth, Friary moves them onto new turf. “That way it’s still ideal for seed cultivation and we can reseed with perennial rye, timothy grass and clover, and it actually responds fairly quickly as long as the weather supports it.”
Grazing is supplemented with lots of excess veggies from the farm. “They’re social feeders. They’ll consume pounds of vegetables, including pumpkins and beets,” notes Friary.
“Now that they’re growing taller, some of the young pigs figure out that they can leap the electric fences, and so you must always carry a bucket of feed in the truck.” says Friary. “Forget about ever catching one, you’ll be running for two days. They know the truck sound brings food, so show them the bucket and you’ll have them back.”
To provide for the winter months when the farm’s organic biomass is not available for feed, Friary is growing, harvesting, drying and storing his own organic hay. It’s only during their last month on the farm that Friary supplements the pigs diet with organic feed to grain them off and get them up to their final size. With a regime of so many vegetables and the exercise from grazing, these herds produce lean cuts of pork with a nice amount of marbling, much more tender than a traditional pink factory pig.
Products available include frankfurters, steaks, sausages, chops, ribs, spare ribs, bacon, hocks, jowls, fat back and leaf lard. Pork lard is well loved by home cooks and chefs worldwide for dishes both savory and sweet. Friary recommends a crock-pot for easy rendering of bacon lard, and proclaims as his go-to pork favorite slow-grilled ribs slathered in BBQ sauce.
Friary dreams of a kitchen on the property, where he’ll be able to develop, market and serve his own line of charcuterie including salumi, pâté, and other specialties. Add a few milking cows and an artisanal cheese line may follow. He envisions a mobile food truck someday. Can a Prosciutto di Barnstable be far off?
Friary’s three children are active in his operation. His son Travis joins him in caring for the livestock. Eldest daughter Sara resides in Boston but helps with sales and office work when home, and Ema, his younger daughter, studies at St. Andrews in Scotland, and has worked in the fields and sold at farmers’ markets for many summers.
For now, though, Friary is moving steadfastly toward his goal of reaching an estimated carrying capacity of about 200 pigs by next year. His boars are clearly on board. One warm evening last summer, just as the tourist-packed Cape Cod railway train chugged by on the tracks running through his pastures, “Right there, Wilbur and Betty went at it,” says Friary.
“Talk about a value added attraction.”
Cape Cod Organic Farm
3675 Main Street, Barnstable www.capecodorganicfarm.org / 508-362-3573
Cape Cod Organic farm is open May through November and as well as some weekends in December for Christmas trees. Off-season e-mail: email@example.com or check them on Facebook for hours, winter pork availability and pick-up times. Recipes too!