Perhaps because it's more difficult to do at home, perhaps because for some it's a question of ethics or squeamishness, perhaps because eating less meat is one of the top things we all could do to help the environment, but we don't talk as often about organic, eco-friendly livestock farming (okay, except chickens, which we can keep in our backyards).
I eat meat (sometimes), and I wanted to learn more about how it lands on my plate. On a recent Monday morning, I hit the road and drove north, to Treble Ridge Farm in Whitefield, about an hour and 15 minutes from Portland. There, Alice and Rufus Percy showed me around their second-generation farm, where the young couple (she's 26, he's 30) raises organic pigs along with hay and vegetables. They're also giving grain a go — experimenting with growing some of their own feed, which they currently procure from Caribou (barley) and Vermont (soybeans). Finding organic local grain — they want their product to be as Maine-made as possible — can be difficult, they say.
Alice grew up on this farm, which used to be a dairy operation before a fire destroyed it. About six years ago, after a failed trial run with Icelandic sheep (they were truculent animals, Alice says), the couple decided to buy some pigs. In 2005, they were certified organic and sold their first hog products (the meat is processed at Luce's Maine Grown Meats in North Anson). Today, they have between 20 and 30 pigs at any given time, along with four sows, who bear anywhere from a handful to 15 piglets per pregnancy; in early March, I met a new farrow (litter) of piglets. Rufus recently built a beautiful, big timber-frame barn, where the growing pigs play, sleep, and eat in combination indoor-outdoor pens. During the summer, the Percys put their pigs on the pasture in moveable pens, which are beneficial for the pigs (their portability offers protection against parasites) and the farmers (the pigs act as natural tillers).
"Our motto is, 'Happy pigs taste better,'" Rufus says. "We've got to make sure our pigs are happy before we slap that label on." (When I got back to Portland, I made a beeline to Rosemont Market, where they sell Treble Ridge sausage. If Rufus is right, these pigs must be quite content indeed.)
Developing the Treble Ridge operation has been a learning experience, with lessons the Percys hope to share with other fledgling hog farmers. Although raising grass-fed, organic beef, lamb, and chicken is increasingly common, there's less literature available (even from agriculture experts like the folks at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) about raising organic pigs. With more and more restaurants looking to source their meats locally, this sector will only grow in coming years.
Here's why we should care: According to statistics from several academic and corporate agriculture sources, one pound of conventional pork sausage represents about 180 genetically modified corn and soy plants, three-quarters of a pound of petroleum-based fertilizer, plus insecticides, herbicides, and antibiotics. On the other hand, organic sausage like that produced at Treble Ridge represents only organic cropland — no chemical additives or genetically modified feed.