Squeals had been echoing through the Katama Barn at the Farm Institute for 14 hours while three mamma pigs labored last week. Mariah, Carrie and Rhonda, the large sows who together produced 23 piglets, began farrowing Thursday afternoon and by Friday morning were not pleased with all the commotion.
“It’s okay, mamma, it’s okay,” said farm manager Julie Olson, cradling the tiniest newborn piglet from one of three litters. “Everybody’s talking.”
Up until last year, the Farm Institute had only one litter of pigs a year. But with the demand for more locally grown meat, the farm’s yield has tripled. Demand is up not only for Farm Institute pork but also for feeder pigs — that is, pigs raised strictly for meat production.
Between feeding the sow during pregnancy, staying up all night as Ms. Olson and her team did last week for farrowing, feeding the piglets until they’re ready for sale, or purchasing a ready-to-go feeder pig for between $70 and $100 dollars, sometimes the one-time purchase (of a feeder pig) outweighs the long-term investment (of raising your own).
But this year, farmers who normally purchase feeder pigs are struggling to find Island-bred piglets.
“The demand for live animals is almost as great as demand for the meat,” Ms. Olson said. “There are more people coming to me [asking for piglets] than we have,” she said, even though the Farm Institute is not in the business of selling feeder pigs, at least for now.
“Our plan isn’t to be producers of piglets, it’s to be producers of pork but we want to work with people who are interested in doing it themselves as a part of our teaching mission,” she said.
Feeder piglets are typically sold when they reach 40 pounds, at around six weeks old. The customer will then continue to raise them for the next five months or when they reach market weight, between 200 and 225 pounds, and are ready to go to slaughter.
For pig roasts, pigs are smaller, from 75 to 125 pounds, because they are easier to handle on a spit. Local Smoke pig and chicken roaster Everett Whiting already has purchased 25 pigs to raise for the Agricultural Fair in August.
“People want piglets that are coming from a healthy source,” Ms. Olson explained. “They want to buy pigs from someone they trust, and the Packers have been around a long time.”
Janet Packer wears many titles — mother, wife, farmer — but her most important job, as far as many Islanders are concerned, is chief piglet coordinator. She and her husband, John Packer, own Northern Pines Farm and supply many Island pig owners (including Mr. Whiting) with feeder pigs.
“There’s a high demand for feeder pigs on Martha’s Vineyard and with our particular supply this year there’s more demand than supply at the moment,” Mrs. Packer said after finishing up a morning sale on Sunday. “The goal is to be able to keep up with demand, but you don’t want to race forward too fast unless you’re sure you can sell the piglets.”
But demand is so high this year they’ve had to turn people away.
The Packers normally have between 55 and 65 piglets from five sows in one round of litters (there are usually at least two litter a year), but Mrs. Packer said she had hoped to have closer to 100 piglets this spring using nine sows. Their numbers were drastically down this year due to the death of Tarzan, their “prolific boar.”
The Packers bought Tarzan from fellow pig raiser Fred Fisher Jr. at Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm in West Tisbury eight years ago. Tarzan was born a runt, Mrs. Packer said. At the time of Tarzan’s death this past winter, he weighed nearly 1,000 pounds. As a result of his death the Packers’ sows bore 50 fewer piglets than expected.
The Packers sell at $100 a piglet, and Mr. Packer said that price will not come down for two reasons: Demand is high, and the cost to feed the pigs is even higher.
“That price will not come down and will only go up as demand for ethanol increases ... to grow corn,” Mr. Packer said. “Feed prices are climbing dramatically and so will the piglets’. It’s all about the feed expense.”
Mrs. Packer said she prefers a “special Packer blend” and finds she gets a greater yield that way. Plus, their temperaments are more manageable and the cuteness factor is irresistible, she says.
Each customer wants something different, Mrs. Packer said, and she tries to match piglet to customer as best she can, in both size and wit.
“I have one couple who only like female piglets and want them to be cute and pretty and have personalities,” she said. “It’s interesting, piglets are like people and they have personalities as well. You try and match them, sit and watch them to know which piglets are frisky or laid-back and easygoing. It’s quite fun.”
Requests for pigs come from backyard farmers to larger farms such as Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown, so the Packers operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Customers buy from 2 to 24 piglets at a time, Mrs. Packer said, but this year there aren’t enough to go around.
Jim Athearn, owner of Morning Glory Farm, said he’s had to begin buying pigs from Bourne. Morning Glory is raising 12 pigs for a fall slaughter, and the farm will get a new batch of a dozen pigs to raise for spring meat.
“We haven’t been able to buy piglets on the Island,” Mr. Athearn said this weekend, saying he tried the Packers, Mr. Fisher and the Farm Institute to no avail. The price is about the same; the hassle and cost associated in getting pigs here from off-Island is the sticking point.
“We were seeing great promise [in selling pork] and wanted to have more consistent supply,” he said. “A lot more people are selling homegrown meat so the market has been distributed around.”
Grey Barn and Farm in Chilmark, Cleveland Farm in West Tisbury, North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, Allen Farm in Chilmark, Whiting Farm in West Tisbury, Blackwater Farm in West Tisbury, and Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark are all selling pork now.
“I’m hoping that it’s a trend that people will go back to our old historical, traditional thing of raising piglets on excess of the abundance of summer [vegetables],” said Native Earth Farm owner Rebecca Gilbert, “and I think there are more people willing to do that now.”
The demand and the trend is expected to continue to grow, especially if a slaughterhouse is built on the Vineyard.
“The breeding of pigs is going to continue to be big,” said Richard Andre of Cleveland Farm and one of the proponents of a plan to build a slaughterhouse on the Island. “If there was a slaughterhouse here, the numbers would just explode.”
The Good Farm and Cleveland Farm’s Island-raised whole chickens are now available to buy at Cronig’s Market.
Ms. Gilbert reported her first “loaf of bread”-sized pygmy goat was born, and she expects three more in the coming weeks.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Remy Tumin, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.