SHERMAN, Maine — At 11 p.m. Sunday, Sam Sides had 171 pigs, more than 70 customers for his Sides Family Farm’s all-natural pork products and he was planning to build a new pig barn this summer.
Three hours later, his barn was a smoldering ruin, his pigs were dead from the fire that destroyed it and the 25-year-old town selectman already was beginning to think about how to reassemble his business.
“You stop and you want to have a pity party,” Sides admitted Wednesday. “It does suck that this happened. It’s a catastrophe, but I am in business for myself, I have a lot of people relying on me, and I am not a quitter.”
Nor is his farming community. Since the fire, Sides has received more than 500 telephone calls offering help, said his mother, Joanie Sides. Friends are organizing a benefit spaghetti supper from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 13, at the Sherman gym to help him recover from the fire.
“He has had people from way up in northern Aroostock County down to as far as Kittery wanting to help,” Joanie Sides said. “He had a business send him a check for $500 and he didn’t even know of these people, but they know of Sam, they know his pork, and they want to help him get back on his feet.”
And Sides got some good news Thursday, said his father, Tim Sides: Sam Sides and his insurers have reached a tentative settlement that will allow Sides to rebuild his pig farm.
Sherman Fire Chief Todd Hayes has said the fire appeared to be accidental. He said he believed it started because of a malfunctioning utility wire.
State fire marshal’s office investigators never were called to investigate, Sgt. Tim York of the fire marshal’s office said Thursday.
A Sherman native, Eagle Scout, one-time volunteer firefighter and a selectman just re-elected to his second one-year term, Sides has wanted to be a farmer since he was 5, his mother said. He didn’t become interested in pig farming until his father, a retired mechanic who worked at Baxter State Park, gave him two small pigs when Sam was 10.
“Ever since then he has cared for them,” said his father. “It was tough to keep him in high school because he didn’t think he needed an education. He just thought he could go right into farming.”
Sides made the dean’s list at Iowa Lakes Community College and earned an associate degree in applied science, with minors in animal science and crop production, before getting a bachelor’s degree in animal science at Northwest Missouri State University, he and his father said.
He bought what is now Sides Family Farm in June 2009. Once a 1,200-acre potato farm, Sides’ farm is now 300 acres devoted solely to pig farming.
Sides started with two local supermarkets as customers and now caters to 70 restaurants, supermarkets, delis and food outlets, including 56 Hannaford supermarkets, said Eric Blom, a spokesman for Hannaford.
At one point, Sides had about 750 pigs, making his the biggest such farm in Aroostook County and one of the biggest in New England, said Sides and Charlie Kenney, a pig farmer in Patten.
“He has a unique product, and there is a customer demand for it,” said John Ellis, owner of Ellis Family Market of Patten, one of Sides’ first customers. “He does an excellent product. It is natural. It is local. We actually sell it frozen. When people come through, they ask for it.”
Clark Souther, president of the Maine Pork Producers Association, said that the fire hit Sides as he was switching his business from raising pigs from birth to full-grown, about 260 pounds, to buying 40-pound pigs and raising them to full-grown.
Selling off most of his herd and building a bigger barn was part of Sides’ plans, Souther said.
“He had a good market,” Souther said of Sides, who is a member of the association’s board of directors. “The fire will definitely have an impact on the market.”
Sides’ father calls his son’s farming success “pretty phenomenal, considering that it’s northern Maine.”
“He has always wanted to make a go of it locally, right here in Sherman, instead of [being like] all of his classmates going downstate or out of state, because there is no jobs up here to speak of,” Tim Sides said. “Most everybody’s either on welfare or a senior citizen.”
“The quicker he can get going again, the better it will be,” Souther said.
Hannaford supermarkets will welcome Sides Family Farms’ return to the stores’ shelves, Blom said.
Sam Sides said he hoped to begin removing the old barn’s ruins this week and wants to get back to raising pigs as soon as possible. He said he was glad the fire happened after he had sold most of his herd. He expressed gratitude to the firefighters from five towns who fought the fire. The flames would have destroyed his house and garage if firefighters hadn’t worked fast, he said.
But it will be awhile, he said, before he recovers fully from the fire.
“It’s a terrible, terrible thing to have happen,” Sides said. “No one should have to experience this. It happened so quick.”
Anyone interested in donating funds or making other contributions to help Sides Family Farm can contact Sam Sides or Patty Qualey, the organizer of the April 13 dinner. Sides can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (207) 267-0280. Qualey can be reached at (207) 365-4515 or by emailing her at email@example.com.