A burgeoning pig farmer perseveres through rough patches to provide pastured pork to farm-to-table restaurants.
It began innocently enough in the fall of 2015 at a Mother Earth News Fair at the Seven Springs Mountain Resort outside of Donegal, Pennsylvania. I was there as a small-town newspaper reporter covering the event. I attended a lecture on raising rabbits, watched someone demonstrate aspects of bushcraft, and rode a ski lift up the mountain. But it was in the livestock tent that I received that fateful bolt of inspiration.
There, I bumped into Dave Cronauer of White Bison Farm in Laona, Wisconsin. He stood next to a small, straw-filled enclosure where spotted piglets snoozed among half-eaten apples. He explained that they were a new heritage pig breed called the Idaho Pasture Pig — a mix of Berkshire, Duroc, and Kunekune that was developed specifically to thrive on grass.
Though I was working as a reporter in Wheeling, West Virginia, I’d moved back to my family’s recently vacated farm in nearby St. Clairsville, Ohio, to start a grass-fed cattle operation. My wife, Christine, was a newly minted Ph.D. in agricultural economics. And my grandfather had successfully raised commodity beef on the 150-acre property for years. But for various reasons, we couldn’t come up with a workable plan.
“But what about pigs?” I thought to myself as I finished up with the day’s reporting. I could start small with a trial run of two, making for the perfect first enterprise. I texted the chef-owner of a farm-to-table restaurant back home in the Ohio Valley and asked if he was interested in pastured pork.
As luck would have it, he was. We agreed on $3 per pound. And at 34 years old, I began my first venture into agriculture.
Six months later, my dream became 40 pounds of wriggling reality as Dave’s wife, Jodi, dropped a piglet into my arms. She carried the second back to our vehicle.
Our heritage pigs secured in an oversized dog crate, my wife and I headed home like nervous, first-time parents. As we drove past the Pittsburgh skyline, an odor permeated our small SUV. Christine peered back at our queasy cargo, wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into.
Plenty, as it turned out. We kept them on straw in our garage while awaiting warmer weather, and they promptly began a week-long battle for dominance. We’d be inside the house going about our business, when we’d hear a loud crash as the tussling piglets caromed off piles of old china and silverware. “No, pigs!” I would shout as I rushed in to break up the fight, not knowing that what they were doing was natural and largely harmless. And things hardly got easier as we moved them outside.
They dug giant wallows in the soggy spring ground, regardless of how often we rotated them to fresh pasture. They probed our electric fence for weakness, escaping frequently. Once, an irate neighbor called the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office, and a deputy helped corral the pigs, working hard to conceal his amusement.
As the summer heat came on, our lack of a watering system meant trudging uphill with 5-gallon buckets several times a day. And we worried that they weren’t putting on weight fast enough. Around this time, Christine accepted a job offer from California State University, Chico. They needed her to report by early fall, which moved up our slaughter date and further compressed our timeline.
To make an already stressful situation worse, an energy company showed up to make good on a lease signed by my late father more than 15 years ago. Could I, in good conscience, sell meat from pigs raised next to an active natural gas well? I decided that I could get them to market before any fracking fluid was injected under our property. But it was going to be close.
Then, the restaurant owner broke our handshake deal, which was the last straw. But months earlier, we had signed up for a “Lunatic Tour” at Polyface Farms in Virginia. Christine urged me to go, hoping it would inspire me to continue.
As the tour concluded, and the crowd around Joel Salatin dwindled, I managed to get his attention. I told him my tale of woe while we sat in plastic chairs in the shade behind his farm store. He told me of his own failures, gave me some advice, and encouraged me to see my project through to the end. Emboldened, I drove back to Ohio, knowing that come hell or high water, I was going to find a buyer.
Salvation came in the form of a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette food writer named Bob Batz Jr. He introduced me to some chef-owners in the city, and by the end of July, I was navigating a crowded street, holding the handle of a cooler filled with 145 pounds of pastured pork.
Chef Dan Carlton of the acclaimed Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group was holding up the other end, and we were heading for the soon-to-be-opened Pork & Beans restaurant, where in a year’s time my pastured pork would be on the menu in the form of homemade charcuterie. (The other pig went to a West Virginia bed-and-breakfast named the Barn With Inn.)
As I finish this column, I’m sitting in my home office in the small, agricultural community of Chico, California. There’s a picture on my desk of two muddy piglets nosing through a pile of banana peels. My first restaurant payment check hangs framed on the wall. This summer, I’ll take a delivery of 10 more piglets from a breeder outside of Fresno.
And as I contemplate all the nearby farm-to-table restaurants, I think back to what Joel Salatin told me behind his farm store that sweltering summer day.
His blue eyes twinkling behind his trademark glasses, he leaned in and said, “Dorsey, you don’t want to give up on the threshold of success.”
I’m glad I listened.