BOWMANSVILLE, PA — Two words describe how passion meets purpose at Creek Place Farms: “Berkshires, naturally.”
The road to this 150-sow certified purebred Berkshire farm was years in the making for Donald and Maria (Kawulych) Longenecker. Their preparation, hard work and long hours are paying off in “happy pigs, living naturally, and ultimately rewarding consumers with delicious Berkshire pork,” as Maria put it.
Their purpose is developing top quality feeder pigs to supply producer/finishers who serve a growing demand for market niche pork. To accomplish this, Creek Place Farms farrows 20 to 25 sows every month throughout the year to make available a consistent flow of naturally-raised Berkshire feeder pigs, while growing their own herd of females and doing some seedstock sales at the same time.
“The well-being of the pigs comes first,” Don explained. “Our animal flows are different here compared with a conventional swine operation. We have a more hands-on approach.”
Creek Place Farms is designed around the knowledge that pigs are social animals, so the sows live in groups during gestation, and each sow has her own suite with her piglets after farrowing. Crates are not used for gestation or farrowing because they simply are not needed.
This passion for pigs began with Don as a boy growing up on his parent’s farm near Lititz, PA, where he had his own few pigs and rented land to grow cash crops and save money for college.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science at Iowa State University and a Ph.D. in swine reproductive physiology at University of Missouri, Don’s years in the research world meant his dream of breeding the perfect pig would have to wait.
Eleven years ago, the couple took a first step. They were leading a health-conscious lifestyle in Southern California, when they purchased and renovated an old farmhouse in eastern Lancaster County, PA along the Conestoga Creek, a few miles northeast of New Holland in the hamlet of East Earl. They stocked it with goats, sheep, pigs and a steer. It was a part-time home, and slowly, the idea germinated: Did they want to give up the Southern California life, plant roots in Lancaster County and farm year-round?
Today, Creek Place Farms is home to a breeding herd of 150 sows and gilts. Purebred Berkshires make up the majority of the total herd, and a smaller non-Berkshire herd produces market hogs as a Niman Ranch partner for Whole Foods.
“That is the completely natural pork program we use for all of the animals here, including our main herd of certified Berkshires,” Don explained. “This process is not for everyone. It is a mindset.”
The three-farm complex is designed and operated with a combined approach of hands-on interaction along with automation. On one of the Bowmansville farms, Northeast Agri Systems built a state-of-the-art gestation and farrowing facility, and on the other, renovated the bank barn for a nursery and grower/finisher pens.”
All animals at Creek Place Farms receive a totally vegetarian-based diet, using whole ingredients and no byproducts. Corn and small grains are grown on the 117 acres for a more self-sufficient diet and to provide straw to bed the group sleeping areas.
Fresh feed is mixed frequently by the computerized system, which also logs how much feed each animal has consumed throughout each day. When entering the sow feeder, an electronic reader identifies the animal and knows whether it has consumed its quota of feed for the day. If not, a bowl fills with about 15 grams of feed at any one time, along with water being added.
Key to the operation is how the Longeneckers have married their high animal welfare standards to a high-tech, state-of-the-art swine facility, which allows them to control some factors — like the inside environment — while letting the animals make some choices — like whether to go outside or stay indoors at any given time.
“There are no crates, no negative discipline, no electric fences, and no kicking or hitting,” the couple explained. “How the animals are handled is not only a welfare standard, it also affects the quality of the meat and we take pride in that.”
Creek Place Farms has gained a reputation for purebred Berkshire quality, having sold pigs to swine enthusiasts and producer/finishers all along the East Coast. All purebred animals are identified with blood tests and several boars are collected on-site for A.I. breeding.
They have also developed a boar “Cody,” sired by the famous Legend boar. Cody is a standard-bearer for the breeding program, where the focus is on producing a good, strong overall pig. On the breeding side, they strive for consistent offspring and good mothers. And on the meat side, the focus is quality meat and more of the high value cuts evidenced by large shoulders, deep bellies, and bigger hams.
Temperament is important in this natural environment. While the facilities boast some of the most technologically advanced equipment and animal management systems, they are designed for social living. The only time the sows are confined inside is during farrowing until the piglets are weaned.
“Our operation is animal centered, meaning our focus is to provide the best possible environment for our animals to live, grow and flourish in,” Maria explained. “We built our farm taking into consideration the normal behaviors of pigs. They are a social animal, so we have created a group living system where they live in fluid social groups.”
A walk through the gestation area finds sows peacefully napping together. “They like to cozy-up,” Maria said. “We give them parameters, but they get to decide how they want to live. They choose among themselves when to eat, where and when to sleep, when to go outside, when to stay inside.”
Don and Maria make a point of walking through the animals and interacting with them inside and outside.
“This is our life every day,” said Don, obviously content with how life has come full circle. The pigs are the passion that consumes all of their time, and has also simplified their lives with a basic purpose.
“I happen to love pigs,” Don said with a grin. “I like to see a calmness in the free flow of the animals, a quiet farrowing house. Everything we do here is because we care.”
Farrowing a new litter and watching the pigs grow, he said, “feels like opening a present.”