Susan and Mike Mueller of rural Viola are literally laboring in the trenches to launch a pastured-pork cooperative in southwestern Wisconsin.
They lost their fences twice in the September 2016 flash floods that devastated the Driftless Region of Southwest Wisconsin. Nevertheless, they are moving their vision forward.
“The time is right for people to get into this style of production,” Mike said. “The co-op will help all the little producers out there have a supply, and combine to market and sell.”
Susan and Mike currently have 11 sows, one boar and 16 piglets born at the end of December. The early winter births were unplanned, and occurred as a result of the September floods, which gave their boar access to the sows when the fences washed out. They lost 43 piglets as a result of the winter births.
“Sometimes raising pigs make me laugh, and sometimes it makes me cry,” Susan said.
Mike is quick to note that if it weren’t for Susan’s hard work in the operation, it wouldn’t be happening.
“Mike has the knowledge and I have the creativity,” Susan explained. “Mike knew about fencing, and he taught me. I’m really good at seeing how to do something with less, and coming up with creative solutions that fit our budget.”
Mike is working on a project to create “sand dams” on their property, to prevent future damage like the kind that occurred in the recent floods.
Susan described how she and Mike needed to think outside the box about how to work with their land and protect their pastures and animals.
“This flash flooding has impacted this valley the same way for years on end, and we need to find a creative solution to prevent or lessen future damages,” Susan said. “We can’t just keep trying to do it the same way.”
Mainly used in extremely dry climates, sand dams are small concrete or stone structures placed across a stream or dry wash that flows only briefly following a period of rainfall in the immediate area, to store water. The skill in designing these structures comes in siting them in such a way that their reservoir will passively fill with sand over a bottom of bedrock. What then seems like a clogged piece of infrastructure is a sophisticated sub-surface reservoir.
Mike and Susan believe the concept has an application in the dry washes on their land that channel water in extreme rain events.
During a rain event, a portion of flashy, turbulent storm water traveling overland percolates into the accumulated mass of sand, the porosity of which allows for that water to occupy 40 percent of its total volume.
Pioneer Gardens Farm
Susan and Mike both grew up in other places, but gravitated to the Driftless area for its suitability to raising pastured pigs. Susan also wanted to live where she had a long growing season to pursue her love of gardening.
Mike grew up in New Holstein in Southeastern Wisconsin, and Susan grew up on a diversified dairy farm outside of Chilton in Calumet County.
Their farm in rural Viola is called ‘Pioneer Gardens Farm,’ and features an old log cabin on the site that dates back to the 1800s.
Susan and Mike have chosen to raise the Hereford breed pigs, because of their suitability to pasture-based production. Tests have also shown the meat from this breed of pigs to have certain superior characteristics such as a neutral pH, which means it holds moisture very well.
Susan and Mike enjoy attending the Crawford County Fair, and showing their animals.
“When I first started showing the Herefords, I’d be told that Crawford County is Berkshire territory,” Mike recounted laughingly. “That’s changed over the years, and now you see more and more Herefords.”
Pioneer Gardens Farm also has lots of chickens pecking around, and in the season features a large garden, which is Susan’s pride and joy.
“I call the pigs ‘my pigatillers’,” Susan added. “I turn them out in the garden in the fall and spring, and they work it up, and clean it up for me, and get to eat lots of tasty vegetables and bugs and roots and stuff!”
Susan also keeps bees. On a recent sunny day in late March, the bees were already starting to buzz around.
When discussing the economic benefits of pasture-based production, Mike explained that it is a much less infrastructure intensive system. Farmers don’t have to tie up huge amounts of money in a facility, take out potentially crippling loans, and they don’t wind up with big lagoons full of manure.
“Pasture-based production means working with what you have,” Mike pointed out. “Animals have a great ability to survive, and a producer can enhance that with extra shelter, feed in the winter and extra care and keep it as natural as possible.”
Mike characterized pasturing as a little more labor intensive in some ways, but noted that with modern technology and fencing, pasture-based producers are benefiting from a big breakthrough in effectiveness and keeping a small footprint.
Mike also noted that one of the benefits of pasturing is that the work can’t easily be automated, and pointed out that there are a lot of people these days that would be happy to have a job where they can be outside, working with nature.
“It’s good work,” he said.
Susan and Mike haven’t paid a vet bill in two years, and cite this as a major benefit of the pastured method of production.
Susan learned ways of deworming her animals that utilize feedings of garlic, molasses and other herbs, and she said they’ve never had problems with worms.
“Most producers give their piglets iron supplements,” Susan said. “But, I found that they love to eat dirt, and get all the iron they need from that. The piglets will start eating dirt and grass when they are three days old.”
In the winter, when they have piglets, the Muellers dig up dirt and feed it to them.
“They gobble it up,” Susan said.
Susan and Mike have a series of pastures that they rotate the pigs between, separated by electric fencing. The pigs work up the soil, and create ridged borders around the fencing that serve as berms to prevent erosion on their steep, hillside pastures.
“The pigs do better on grass than they do on grain, and they birth better when they have more grass,” Susan noted. She explained that they have their favorite weeds, such as purslane, but won’t eat other weeds like milkweed.
“They’re kind of pollinator-friendly animals,” Susan joked.
The Muellers do feed grain in the winter, but in the spring, summer and fall about 50 percent of their feed comes from grass. The Mueller’s are in the process of setting up a system to feed their pigs sprouted grains in the winter so they can feed about 60 to 80 pounds per day of fresh greens.
A typical pig will eat six pounds of feed per day, and the rule of thumb is that at least 50 percent of it should come from grass or stored forage. In the winter, between hay and the sprouted greens, the Muellers are looking to provide that right through to spring.
Many consumers are hungry for healthy, nourishing food. They’re also interested in food produced in a way that protects our waters. Pasture-based production seems to fit this bill perfectly.
Meats from pasture-raised animals have a better balance of healthy fats such as Omega-3 and 6 essential fatty acids, as well as increased levels of antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E.
Pasture or grass-based production of meats is considered to be a regenerative form of agricultural production. This means that it is protective and restorative of the environment.
Support for this method of production is a major 2017 consumer food trend, and shows that consumer concerns are growing beyond “what’s good for me?” to include, “what’s good for the environment?”
Grassfed beef, for instance has experienced a 25- to 30-percent annual growth rate, and sales of grassfed yogurt and kefir have increased by 38 percent in the last year, according to SPINS, a natural and organic market research company.
Mike has been the driving force here in Southwest Wisconsin behind trying to form a producer cooperative for pastured pork to help farmers find the markets they need.
The name of the new co-op is ‘Driftless Area Back to the Land Cooperative.’ Mike explained they chose the name because an important goal of the co-op is to get the pigs out of confinement and back to the land.
“Forming a cooperative is an effort to allow farmers to work together to bring a quality product that we know there’s demand for to market,” Mike explained. “I see it as a way to create another opportunity in farming.”
Nearly 40 farmers interested in pastured pork production gathered at a kick-off meeting for the cooperative last December.
“Most of us little, individual producers have a hard time finding a market for our pork going it alone,” Mike said. “That’s why we need to get together in this co-op.”
He pointed out that most people in their situation just wind up taking their hogs to the auction, and he says farmers can’t depend on that to generate them a decent farming livelihood.
Mike has spent lots of time talking with Rod Ofte, General Manager of the Wisconsin Grassfed Beef Cooperative, which was formed over ten years ago for very similar reasons. The grassfed beef cooperative is serving and expanding its membership, and has achieved profitability in the last few years.
The grassfed beef cooperative serves in many ways as a model for this new effort, always with a focus of producing a quality product and ensuring that the producer-owners garner a good price for their product.
“In the grassfed beef co-op, our mission is to provide the farmer-owners with a 20 percent premium over the conventional price,” Ofte explained to participants at the December meeting in Seneca of the proposed pasture-raised pork co-op.
Coming out of the initial organizing meeting, about a dozen producers have expressed readiness to commit to the endeavor, with even more people waiting to see what happens next.
Mirroring the grassfed beef cooperative’s initial investment structure, the co-op is asking new members to pay a one time up front fee of $100 for the first ten head; $200 for the second ten; up to a maximum of $500.
These funds will be deposited into an existing savings account that has been set up for the cooperative, and used to begin to get the cooperative up and running.
Once the core group has formed and committed, then they will form the working group, which will move forward with creating the official paperwork and bylaws of the cooperative. They will also begin to offer monthly training sessions for members to promote best practices and efficient production.
Mike and Susan Mueller can be reached at 608-627-1800, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.