Brian Bennett of Bittersweet Farm has been living with pigs for over 30 years. Each year, he raises 10-12 litters of certified organic pigs with 6-8 piglets per litter. The pigs live as families outdoors not in big barns. Bennett’s farm is in the small town of Heuvelton in northern New York close to the Canadian border. All the farm’s pigs have names. “I like to know who is coming to dinner,” said Bennett with a smile. To people offended by smelly pig barns, Bennett reminds them that he does not run a confinement operation. Farrowing huts may smell of manure and afterbirth, but it’s all connected: “Energy, passion, life process and life force.” Bennett’s favorite heritage breeds are Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spots (also known as Gloucester, Gloucestershire Old Spot or Old Spots). These breeds are known as great mothers. Bennett used to raise Yorkshire pigs but their large liters lost too many piglets, especially in extended subzero periods. Heritage pigs thrive on pasture, in woodlands and with diverse diets. Growing much of the pigs’ food on the farm, Bennett spends just over $2 on purchased feeds per pound of meat. Processing at a USDA certified facility costs about $250 per pig or another $2.00 – $2.50 per pound. Bennett and his family process culls on the farm for family consumption. Bennett shared his extensive experience at a workshop called “The Practical Pig” at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY.
Bennett explained “pigs digestive tracts are like ours so they can eat the same things we can.” They eat vegetables, fruits, cereal grains, as well as meat and meat byproducts. Bennett learned that Extension staff advised against feeding frozen vegetables, especially brassicas. Bennett grew up listening to the “Little House on the Prairie” books so he mimics the Ingalls’ family’s vegetable storage – frozen in a root cellar, barn or still in the ground. So far, Bennett’s pigs have enjoyed frozen vegetables without consequences, even in subzero temperatures. “Raise your feed and graze your pigs,” suggested Bennett. His farm saves money on grains and other feed by raising sunflowers, soybeans and sweet or field corn. When crops are close to maturity, he encloses a field with two strands of temporary electrified fencing. “I harvest and store very little feed in the barn,” Bennett said. The pigs live outside and harvest much of their own food. As soon as the pigs finish or the soils are bare, Bennett moves the pigs to a new pasture. He plants a cover crop and/or a new forage crop to protect exposed soils. Soil tests determine how much and which nutrients to add before planting any forage crops. Bennett rents a no-till seeder from his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. Pigs graze leafy green tops of forage crops in late summer. The second season – in winter – pigs root out starchy tubers of daikon radishes or sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). Whey is a welcome addition to any pig’s diet. Bennett gets whey from a local certified biodynamic dairy.
Pigs seeking starchy roots will turn over pastures, brushy meadows, invasive-filled forest edges or gardens. Large trees can survive a pigs working among their roots once a year as long as the forest has 11 months to recover between rotations. When preparing a new field, Bennett uses a pry bar to punch a deep hole in the ground. Burying a few kernels of corn encourages pigs to root even deeper and turn soils over. As soon as soils are denuded, he moves pigs to fresh ground. Bennett warned farmers not to leave pigs on land too long or soils may become compacted.
At Bittersweet Farm, moms wean their piglets at about eight weeks. This is two weeks longer than at most pig operations. Bennett’s pigs live in complete family units spring, summer and fall. The pigs farrow naturally in mid-summer and Bennett often finds 6-8 healthy piglets per family. Bennett does not castrate his boars or clip their eye teeth. Boars over 8 months old must live separately from sows to prevent unexpected pregnancies. Bennett said pig gestation takes 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days (between 110 and 114 days). Bennett keeps two boars at the farm. He sells other boars as feeders or breeding stock. When Bennett wants to breed sows, his oldest boar spends a few weeks with the sow and her family. After a few weeks, the younger boar finishes up to ensure a liter.
When asked why he does not farrow in spring and fall, Bennett explained, “In mid-winter I still have plenty of food for the pigs; by spring, I’ll be nearly out of food.” Bittersweet Farm is diversified, raising calves, lambs, baby chicks and poults. Bennett seeks to stagger the workload with minimal overlap. This does not always work. Having many extra hands lightens the workload. Bittersweet Farm’s homemade farrowing houses are simple A-frames made with largely salvaged materials. 2”x8” rough lumber runners under the floor allow easy movement. Wooden floors can be jerry-rigged with any scrap lumber. 8-foot corrugated metal panels form the a-frame roof/side walls. Bennett recommends farmers observe livestock daily and note any changes in their shape. Babies often drop making a sow’s hips appear boney about 24 hours before labor starts. Palpitate the sows regularly and wash their bellies with a warm cloth. When nipples release milk, this is another sign of impending birth. When Bennett sees these signs in winter and Murphy’s Law promises 3-4 sows farrowing simultaneously, he calls volunteer helpers (family, friends, local college students or CSA members). Helpers observe and try not to interfere with farrowing except to clean out new piglets’ nose and mouth, handling them as little as possible. Most sows devour afterbirths when Bennett tops them with oats and molasses.
In 2014, NOFA-NY named Brian Bennett “Organic Farmer of the Year.” He and his family have taught St. Lawrence University students about sustainable agriculture and community building for over a decade. Bittersweet Farm is a certified organic farm raising pastured chickens (for meat and eggs), heritage turkeys and pigs, Scottish Highland cattle, Angus-Devon cattle and St. Croix sheep. They also raise and sell vegetables, herbs, greenhouse transplants and specialize in sprouts. The farm sells at the Canton Farmers’ Market, Ogdensburg Green Market as well as to wholesale accounts and on-farm customers. Bittersweet is open to apprentice and internship involvement at the farm.