7/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Sharon Kitchens Maine Correspondent
WHITEFIELD, Maine — Certified organic farming is not new, but with things like social media being used to raise food awareness, American consumers have begun to look closer at how their food is produced.
Second-generation farmers Alice and Rufus Percy, 29 and 33, realized early on that farming was what they wanted to do. One could say of the couple’s organic pasture-raised pig operation, Treble Ridge Farm, that it’s in their blood.
As a child growing up on a commercial goat dairy, Alice Percy discovered she preferred those lovable piglets scurrying about the pigpen in her backyard. Not surprisingly, as the family’s meat supply grows toward slaughterweight, she remembers her father coaxing her out of the pigpen to keep watch from a safe distance.
Rufus Percy had a similar upbringing, spending weekends on the other side of town in Whitefield at his father’s commercial pig farm, where he kept 20 sows, sold piglets and raised full-sized slaughter hogs.
“I think in large part his experience growing up gave us confidence in attempting what we have done because we were able to start with a specialized knowledge base in mechanics and animal husbandry that many of our first-generation farming peers have lacked at the outset of their careers,” Alice Percy said. “Dealing with tractors or large animals can be scary if you are not equipped to handle an emergency.”
Their first winter farming in 2004, the Percys built a portable shed-and-run and raised a couple pigs for their own table, remembering how much they enjoyed pigs. The next fall, they purchased a litter of certified-organic piglets from Rufus’s father and became certified by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association as an organic- certified farm.
“What I like about pigs, is that they don’t have the prey animal instinct that a lot of farm animals do,” Alice Percy said. “Sheep, cows and goats are herd animals and they flock close together and they always think you’re a wolf. A pig over the size of 50 pounds, nothing much is going to bother that animal so they can take care of themselves. So, once out of that skittery piglet phase, they have an almost dog-like personality. Each one is an individual and has their own personality.”
The Percys operate on a total of 115 acres, much of it leased. Alice Percy’s family owns 35 acres, and the couple are working on buying an additional 50 acres. They usually raise around 40 hogs at a time. They are a combination of Red Wattle, Tamworth, Large Black and other breeds.
Pigs are on a three-year rotation, being moved off of one section of pasture to another to take advantage of their natural style of grazing. The first year, the pigs root up the pasture, ripping up grass and roots so it looks as if the land was roto-tilled. The next year, the Percys run a harrow over the land and plant a crop, for example oats mixed with legumes. The third year, the couple till the land and plant vegetables.
Rather than feed their pigs a conventional diet of corn and soybeans, the Percys feed their pigs a mix of barley, wheat, field peas and soybean meal from Maine sources. The grains they don’t grow they purchase from Andrew Qualey in Aroostook County and Maine Organic Milling in Auburn, Maine. This year, the couple hope to grow enough peas on their own land.
A sow has her first litter at about 1 year old, and then approximately every six months.
“We slaughter at seven months,” Alice Percy said. “The big commercial guys out in Iowa that are raising pigs as fast as they can on corn and soy in confinement are slaughtering at five-and-a-half to six months, and then some of the people who are raising pure-bred heirloom breeds out in the woodland and minimizing their grain consumption are slaughtering at 10 to 12 months. So we go for something in between.”
A lot of the meat gets turned into 13 varieties of sausage, which the farm sells at farmers markets in South Portland, Belfast, and Camden, Maine. The farm also does cut-to-order pigs for customers who want half a pig for their freezer.
“The choices people make about where their food dollar goes have a very real impact on the welfare of real animals and the health of real ecosystems and neighborhoods,” Alice Percy said. “As conventional growers and grocers see more buyers seeking foods that are grown using verified methods that promote the health and welfare of people, livestock and the environment, they will cease to see organic agriculture as a niche or fringe movement, and a greater proportion of the food industry will trend in this direction.
“For this to be tenable, farmers must learn to scale up organic methods without compromising integrity; consumers must learn to eat using more unprocessed, seasonal ingredients and to look beyond produce when thinking local;’ industrial buyers must learn to compensate for and capitalize on a supply of ingredients that can fluctuate severely; and the distribution system for local foods must become more efficient and convenient for both producers and buyers — I don’t believe that farmers markets are a long-term solution.”