Me and my tamworth piglet, spring 2010
I had the opportunity this morning to visit Footsteps Farm in Stonington, CT. Craig, and his wife Sheryl, farm there on land that has been in his family since the early 1700s. They now raise certified humane pigs, cows, turkeys, and chickens in a rotational grazing system. I was very excited when he offered to give me a tour of his farm, because it was a great opportunity to meet and network with another local farmer, and because I heard that he raises tamworth pigs. On acorns. My dream farm in action.
And it's true that Footsteps Farm shares my love of cured pork projects. Craig has the dream of creating a traditional Spanish-style Serrano Ham here in CT, and he's spent the past several years developing his own breed of pig he thinks will be perfect for the job. It's a mix of Large Black (a big pig known for their size and color - black pork has the best marbling and big hams are always better), Berkshire (the most well-known breed in the restaurant circles because of its shape and high-quality pork), and Tamworths (a traditional New England breed known for its exceptional mothering skills, foraging, and cold tolerance, as well as for its bacon). He calls them Large Shire-worths and he's still working to breed just the right characteristics.
And he hopes to begin curing hams in the next few years. The perfect ham requires the perfect pig (raised on pasture, nuts, and aromatic plants for 14-24 months) and the perfect curing conditions (closely monitoring the temperature and humidity). It's an art, to say the least, and it takes several years of dedication to learn how to make an outstanding product. But there's nothing like a traditional Spanish (or Italian) style ham and it certainly seems like a goal worthy of dedicating your life to.
He's still tweaking his rotation system and clearing trees from his pastures, but I really enjoyed seeing his farm set-up. Once the piglets are weaned from their mothers, they live in groups of 15-20 pigs that rotate their way around the farm in 1/2 acre paddocks. He feeds a very small amount of grain and encourages the pigs to forage for what they need by eating greens and rooting around for bugs and other good stuff. To add even more diversity and nutrients to the soil, he also rotates through his small herd of Scottish Highland cattle, meat chickens, laying hens, and turkeys. I could tell by the way that he talks and the way that he interacts with his animals that he has a strong understanding of how pigs interact with the forest/pasture and how proper management can lead to really healthy pigs and really delicious tasting pork.
What I enjoyed most was his careful explanations of his farm systems and clear answers to the many questions I had (about raising pigs, zoning, taxes, and agriculture in CT). We sat on his porch for more than an hour chatting about agriculture in CT and I felt like I learned so much. I especially enjoyed getting his feedback on my ideas of vegetable forages for pigs (planting carrots/beets/turnips/kale as part of a rotational grazing system to help diversify the pigs diet and make the most of your land). He was intrigued and excited and I hope to continue working with him on the concept.
In fact, I'm going back on Monday afternoon to lend a hand castrating piglets (as well as meet another new farmer interested in starting a pork farm in North Stoningtion). I'm not sure how I always manage to get myself involved in situations like this, but I suppose it's all part of the adventure!