Sugar Mountain Farm's Whole Hog PhilosophyJune 28, 2017
Meet Walter Jeffries, farmer - and now butcher - at Sugar Mountain Farm in West Topsham.
Tell us about Sugar Mountain Farm...
We're a leader in the field of pastured pigs but probably the biggest thing that makes us unique is that we have our own on-farm USDA/State inspectable butcher shop that our family designed and built to serve our farm's needs. When I say we built it I really do mean we did all the work of design, engineering, construction, wiring, plumbing, metal fabrication, etc. It was a homeschool project on a grand scale. In addition to doing our own meat cutting, sausage making and salted products we also raise pigs on pasture - which is why we needed our own butcher shop. We opened the butcher shop in October of 2015.
We've been pig farming for fourteen years now - we started in the spring of 2003. We've been delivering year round on our weekly route to local stores, restaurants and individuals for over a decade. Part of what I like about pigs is that they are so plastic, so easy to do selective breeding. I have a long time interest in genetics, since I was a child. In addition to refining our Yorkshire, Berkshire, Large Black and Tamworth lines I've developed our own cross lines Mainline and Blackieline. The goal with my genetics program is to produce pigs that thrive in our climate on a high pasture diet, without the need for commercial grain-based hog feed. We've been very successful with this such that we're able to farrow and raise pigs year round in our cold climate without the need for confinement, farrowing crates, etc. This is a more humane way to raise animals and uses the resources we have locally.
How did you start raising pigs?
In the 1990's I raised sheep but couldn't pay the mortgage with them. Demand was low, they're slow to grow, have only about 1.8 offspring per year and the cost of processing ate up 90% of what I made on each carcass. I wanted to raise cattle but everyone and their brother raises beef - it is a crowded market. The yield on cattle is also low, the processing costs high and the reproduction rates slow. I had tried chickens and ducks but they weren't for me. Processing overhead and not sufficient market with enough margin. Additionally, there is already a saturated market due to the superb efforts of Misty Knoll. . .
. . .After not making a go of it with rabbits, chickens, ducks and sheep, I did the math and concluded pigs might be worth trying. We got four weaner pigs in the spring of 2003. Our sheep taught the pigs to eat pasture. With a small supplement of whey (7%DMI†) the pigs grew well. The market was there - everyone likes bacon. Pigs reproduce quickly with larger litters that grow rapidly to market size. Bingo! We became pastured pig farmers.
How did you decide to open a Butcher Shop?
After we had been raising pigs and selling through local stores and restaurants the price of processing reared its ugly head again. I figure that the costs to get pork to fork breaks out roughly to:
30% for the piglet,
30% for the feed and
30% for the processing
plus 10% for overhead
To make money the farmer needs to take on each of these three legs of the problem. . . By having our own breeder pigs and pasturing we had essentially eliminated the first two costs to the point where processing is our biggest cost. Ergo, our big project: the Butcher Shop at Sugar Mountain Farm.
Planning and permitting took up the first year. Site preparation was the second year. Next, we set up forms and poured the six shells of the building as we had the funds. . . . 2008 was a huge challenge. That was when we started looking for loans to build the butcher shop. The economy had collapsed. The recession began. Banks weren't lending, the government wasn't doing grants for processing either. We had to foot the entire bill for construction ourselves. This meant we built formwork and then poured concrete when we had the money for each additional pour. That slowed things down considerably, probably adding two or three years to the project.
We funded the entire construction of the butcher shop from our savings, our farm's cash flow, CSA Pre-Buys from customers, a Kickstarter project and loans from individuals. In other words, it was truly a community supported agricultural project. No banks. No government loans. No investors. Just people powered. And it was very much a family project - we did all the design, engineering, construction, electrical, plumbing, steelwork and other tasks to make our dream a reality. I'm very proud of my kids, who were deeply involved in the whole project.
In October of 2015 we opened under Vermont state inspection and began butchering our own pigs. We added sausage making by January of 2016. This coming year we plan to upgrade to USDA inspection from Vermont State inspection. This will allow us to deliver our product outside Vermont. You can see a timeline of the project here: http://SugarMtnFarm.com/butchershop
Why was it important to bring the whole process to the farm?
Cost, control, quality, more value-added products. Processing was our biggest cost on every pig. Doing the processing ourselves trades some of our time for a big savings. This means that more of what we earn stays in our pockets. Having our own on-farm processing makes the difference between razor thin margins and being able to earn a living wage for our family.
Processing also is what made beef and sheep non-viable, once we add on-farm slaughter in three to five years then these species will become economically viable and I plan to add them to our farm again.
What does the future hold for the facility?
Our next step is to finish off the walk-in freezers - something we hope to complete this coming winter. Included in that space is a blast freezer, super cooler, brine room for hams, bacon & corned pork, as well as what we call the cave where we'll eventually be aging and fermenting meats for charcuterie. Later we'll add the final cutting room which is about 3x the size of the initial cutting room we currently use.
There is a space in the Cave section for a small initial smokehouse. My son and I are both looking forward to learning to smoke. Eventually, we'll build out the larger smokehouse which will be big enough to smoke whole roaster pigs for events. Then in about five years, I expect we'll build out the abattoir, the slaughter room, to bring the whole process home. Once we're doing slaughter we'll add cattle and sheep again.
Right now we still take our pigs to the slaughterhouse in Athol for slaughter. We drop off pigs and pick up the chilled carcasses from last week, which we bring home for butchering, sausage making and packing in our butcher shop.
People often ask why we're taking on slaughter last since each animal must be slaughtered before butchering can happen. The answer is pretty easy once you do the math. It costs the least to build the meat cutting portion of the facility, the butchering room, while the butchering process costs the most to hire out. This means that by taking on butchering first we get the fastest and greatest return on investment (ROI) of time and money. Slaughter, on the other hand, is the cheapest part of the process and ironically the most expensive part to build here, yielding the longest time to recoup our costs. Sausage making, smoking and brines/cures/corning fall somewhere in between but much closer to butcher than slaughter for ROI. Thus it made sense to take on butchering first as it is the most expensive to hire and least expensive to build a portion of the project. This then lets us fund the next steps of the Butcher Shop at Sugar Mountain Farm.
Tell us about recipe development in the butcher shop!
We added corned pork this year at St Patrick's day. Corned Pork is actually the original Irish dish that predates Corned Beef. I had been making it for decades for our own family and it was a big hit when we introduced it to the market this year. I don't know of any other maker of commercial corn pork so that may be a unique product to our farm.
I love to cook. I learned to cook from my parents and passed that on to my kids. We love experimenting with food dishes, adjusting spices, cooking times, techniques to improve food. This naturally carries over to the butcher shop for our sausage recipes, corned pork and soon our line of homemade bacons. I'm on my 52nd batch of bacon as we speak. I combine art with science. Systematically testing combinations of ingredients, techniques, cooking methods and cuts to produce the best quality products that I love, my family loves and customers love. It works.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.