Down to Chris Brown’s back 40 in Otter Creek is a rambling collection of pallets, tarps, metal roofing sheets and strung-together fenceposts that house what may be the happiest collection of pigs in all of Hancock County.
As Mr. Brown climbs around the pens, scratching one pig behind the ear, rubbing the belly of another, the group of them, from the largest 700-pound sow to the smallest piglet, grunt, squeal and roll on the ground. They’re loud and hungry and clearly looking for lunch. But Mr. Brown isn’t ready to feed them yet; he’s got to make one more stop on his food-collecting run, to grab a couple hundred extra popovers from the Jordan Pond House’s legendary kitchen.
Yes, these hogs are fed well, with a diet ranging from deli-counter sandwiches, prep-cook vegetable scraps from the finest restaurants, organic and local breads, to fresh Odwalla fruit juices, the last of which Mr. Brown largely credits for the superior taste of the meat which he sells direct to consumers.
The pigs’ food is all free, mostly products that would be thrown in the trash because they are too close to their expiration dates to sell. Every day, Mr. Brown diligently collects and portions out the grub to his herd of breeders, piglets and feeder pigs.
“I’m a gleaner first, and a pig farmer by default,” Mr. Brown says. “I can turn all of this waste into a higher-percentage protein product.”
This lively city of pigs all began about a decade ago with a flock of chickens.
Mr. Brown had acquired 40 of the birds, what he calls “rescue chickens,” meaning that whoever had them either couldn’t handle them or didn’t want them anymore. And the grain feed, he said, was starting to add up to a big bill. So about nine years ago Mr. Brown went to Hannaford to see if there was bread or anything else he could have for his chickens, and what he saw would change his life.
Boxes full of bread. Gallons of milk. Bags of vegetables. All near the expiration date, and all bound for the trash bin. It was a revelation, Mr. Brown said, and one that he could not ignore.
“My eyes fell on this pile of stuff, and we agreed right then that I would take that material,” he says.
The food just kept coming, from bakeries, restaurants, delivery drivers and others. And the real question, Mr. Brown says, was how to turn all this waste into something truly productive. There were the chickens, he said, but somehow that wasn’t quite the thing.
Enter Tulips and Twinkletoes, the first two piglets at the Brown Family Farm. Before they showed up, Mr. Brown had never considered raising pigs, and certainly hadn’t foreseen where he’d end up. But, again, there was all that perfectly good food going to waste and something had to be done.
By U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, he says, the feed is considered “apparently wholesome,” and allows him to label the meat an all natural product. It’s better than organic, he says, because rather than a strict diet, his pigs can have “a little bit of that, and a little bit of this.”
But it’s more than good food that makes good-tasting pork, Mr. Brown says. It’s all about respect and, yes, a little bit of love.
“I learned that animals need the proper food and the proper housing, but there’s something else they need that they don’t always get. And that’s tender loving care,” he says. “My customers call them happy pigs. They’re happy, they’re stress-free. It makes all the difference in the quality of the meat.”
These are tough pigs, too. Mr. Brown breeds them by crossing two varieties, a Tamworth and Duroc, cultivating what he calls a “woods pig.” Strong, large-framed but sweet tempered at the same time, he says. They’ve got a thick coat of fur for the winter and are big enough and tough enough to fight off a coyote or stand up to the occasional bear, he says, both of which are not-too-uncommon sights in the wild woods of Otter Creek.
The Brown Family Farm farmstand carries numerous cuts of pork, bacon and ham, all USDA certified and flash-frozen for freshness. Mr. Brown is also eager to provide custom cuts, pig shares and whole “pick your own” piglets for roasting. He is around on most days and encourages everyone to stop on by.