Old Time Swine
Photos courtesy of Brown Boar Farm
“Mmmm. I haven’t had pork like this since I was a little girl,” my mother-in-law sighed as we finished dinner. The chops, perfectly marbled with a deep, rich color, were a far cry from the dry, tasteless pork that Americans have grown accustomed to over the past few decades. The difference? This pork was from Brown Boar Farm in Wells, Vermont, where heritage breeds of pigs are raised humanely, fed well, and given plenty of room to root. The result: pork that tastes simply sublime. Brown Boar Farm is owned by Marshfield resident Peter Burrows. His daughter Meaghan, who lives in Scituate, runs the farm’s marketing efforts. Because of these close ties to the area, Brown Boar pork is available on the South Shore. No trip to Vermont necessary!
How does a South Shore resident come to own a pig farm in Vermont? Peter and his late wife Regina raised their children in Scituate, where the family spent countless hours working in their vegetable garden. Nearing retirement and with his children grown, Peter thought a farm would be a wonderful way to keep his family connected doing something they all loved. So, in 2001, he purchased a 106-acre farm near his daughter Sarah’s Vermont home. It has truly become a family affair. Sarah and her son, Aidan, often help out at the farm and Meaghan sells Brown Boar’s pork at several farmers’ markets on the South Shore. And, although he has since moved on to a new venture, Peter’s son, Chris, worked closely with his father for several years getting the farm up and running. Peter spends as much time as possible at the farm, but the daily operations are run by farmer Julie Barber, who, according to Meaghan, “is now like part of the family.”
When they bought the farm, the Burrows intended to stick with what they knew best: growing vegetables. But, after a Vermont neighbor suggested they get some pigs to help clear the fields, they purchased 20 Tamworth pigs, a heritage breed renowned for its foraging ability. “We drilled holes in tree stumps, stuffed them with corn, and set the pigs to work,” explained Peter. The Burrows quickly saw that the pigs thrived when allowed to do what pigs do best: forage outside. So, they shifted the focus of the farm and started raising pigs. Soon, another heritage breed, Berkshire pigs, joined the Tamworths. The decision to raise heritage pigs was driven by many factors, but the superior taste of the meat was chief among them.
Bred to be lean and mature quickly, commercially raised hogs stand in stark contrast to heritage pigs, which are traditional livestock breeds that have been raised by farmers for generations. Tamworths originated in Ireland and were first brought to America in the 1880s. Well-adapted to living outside during the harsh Vermont winters, Tamworths have long heads and snouts well-suited to digging and foraging. Currently, there are only 1500 to 2000 registered Tamworths left in the United States. Berkshire pigs, which are renowned in culinary circles for their superior taste, are known as Korobuta in Japan and enjoy a status similar to Kobe beef. These pigs yield a dark red, flavorful meat.
The manner is which the pigs are raised also influences the taste of the pork. To understand how different Brown Boar pork is from what you buy in the grocery store, you have to know a bit about what life is like for pigs on large commercial farms. Simply put, it is miserable. Crammed into pens, they are unable to engage in their natural behaviors of rooting and grazing and often wallow in their own excrement. These conditions stress the animals, raising the incidence of illness. At some industrial farms, pregnant pigs are confined to gestational crates that are so small they are unable to even turn around, and when it is time to give birth, they are prevented from engaging in their instinctive behavior to burrow and build a nest for their litter.
The life of a pig at Brown Boar Farm is about as different as possible from that of its commercially raised brethren. Although they always have access to shelter, Brown Boar pigs spend most of their time outdoors, where they live in small groups. They are held in large pens and are free to forage on grasses, clover, and nuts that fall from the trees that surround their enclosures. Because of their enormous appetites, a small group of pigs will decimate the grasses in their paddock every few weeks, so the animals are frequently rotated and the paddocks reseeded with a carefully chosen mixture of grasses, legumes, and annuals. Unlike other types of livestock, pigs have only one stomach and cannot subsist on grasses alone. The four stomachs of ruminant animals, such as cows, convert grass to protein, which does not happen with pigs. So, to ensure they are receiving adequate vitamins, minerals, and protein, the pigs’ diet has to be supplemented. In addition to what they forage in the pastures, the Brown Boar pigs eat grain, leftover organic or pesticide-free produce from nearby farms, apple mash, and whey from a dairy farm located down the road. The pigs drink fresh mountain water, which, as Peter says, “might be a ‘secret ingredient’ that contributes to the distinctive taste of our products.” In a small barn dubbed “the nursery,” the pigs give birth in a roomy pen and the piglets stay indoors with their mother until they can survive outside. Brown Boar pigs are never given any growth hormones or non-therapeutic medicines. At any given time, Brown Boar is home to about fifty pigs. Eventually, the Burrows would like to maintain a breeding stock of thirty sows, which will produce several hundred pigs a year.
Brown Boar Farm’s commitment to animal welfare extends to even the last phase of the pigs’ lives: slaughter. As farmer Julie Barber says, “you can raise a great animal and it can be ruined at the slaughterhouse.” Their pigs are slaughtered at Eagle Bridge Custom Meat & Smokehouse, an Animal Welfare Approved facility located in Eagle Bridge, New York. Both Brown Boar and the slaughterhouse use many of the techniques championed by animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin to make the final phase of the pigs’ life is as humane as possible. Eagle Bridge, a small, family owned facility, also has an on-site USDA inspector who oversees the slaughtering process.
The South Shore is now Brown Boar’s largest market, but when the family first bought the farm, finding their niche took some time. Luckily, a serendipitous conversation at the preschool playground helped them establish a relationship with Cohasset’s Holly Hill Farm. As Meaghan explains, “it all started at the swing set.” As she pushed her children on the swings, she struck up a conversation with the father standing next to her. Jon Belber, the Director of Education at Holly Hill Farm, was intrigued when he heard Meaghan’s family owned a pig farm in Vermont. Jon was eager to try pastured pork, so Meaghan offered to bring him a sample. After his first taste, he was hooked and proposed that Brown Boar sell its pork at Holly Hill Farm. So, once a month, Julie loads up the refrigerated van and heads to the South Shore, where the pork is sold at Holly Hill Farm and more recently at both the Marshfield and Plymouth farmers’ markets. As word has gotten around about the superior taste of Brown Boar pork, it has gained several restaurant customers, including Chef Barbara Lynch’s popular Boston restaurant The Butcher Shop.
Customers choose Brown Boar Farm for many reasons: to support a family farm, to buy locally, or to reward the farm’s commitment to humanely raising their animals. While, as Meaghan says, “it takes a bit of a leap of faith to purchase meat out of the back of a van,” once customers get a taste of pork as it is meant to be, there is no going back.
For delivery information, please email Meaghan Burrows Swetish at email@example.com or “like” Brown Boar Farm on Facebook. Brown Boar will also custom butcher whole and half pigs and can offer roaster pigs of various weights for a special summer barbeque.
Julia Powers lives in Hingham with her husband and three children, who are devoted fans of Brown Boar pork. The family favorite: risotto with Brown Boar sausage, caramelized onions, and herbs!
Photos by Michael Hart