Diversity is the key on small family farm

Posted Sept. 19, 2012, at 10:32 a.m.
Ann Marie and Todd Sheerman visit with an excited Esmerelda, who recently produced a litter of piglets and will have another around Thanksgiving. The Sheermans’ farm is very diversified, but has a strong focus on pigs. The Sheermans sell their meat at local farmers markets and plan to offer wintertime delivery to customers.
David M. Fitzpatrick
Ann Marie and Todd Sheerman visit with an excited Esmerelda, who recently produced a litter of piglets and will have another around Thanksgiving. The Sheermans’ farm is very diversified, but has a strong focus on pigs. The Sheermans sell their meat at local farmers markets and plan to offer wintertime delivery to customers. Buy Photo
Murphy the milking cow doesn’t quite smile for the camera. The Sheermans acquired Murphy, who has a bad foot; it had been broken and didn’t properly heal. Murphy would never do well on a concrete floor, but she thrives on the dirt floor of her stall and the soft ground where she pastures.
David M. Fitzpatrick
Murphy the milking cow doesn’t quite smile for the camera. The Sheermans acquired Murphy, who has a bad foot; it had been broken and didn’t properly heal. Murphy would never do well on a concrete floor, but she thrives on the dirt floor of her stall and the soft ground where she pastures.
A piglet is wary of the lens. He kept his distance, but did show his better profile from time to time.
David M. Fitzpatrick
A piglet is wary of the lens. He kept his distance, but did show his better profile from time to time.
Ann Marie visits with the farm’s mascot, Spike, the first goat the Sheermans had when they came to Maine and settled in Bradford. They began with a focus on raising goats, but things have changed, including relocating to Argyle and raising meat pigs.
David M. Fitzpatrick
Ann Marie visits with the farm’s mascot, Spike, the first goat the Sheermans had when they came to Maine and settled in Bradford. They began with a focus on raising goats, but things have changed, including relocating to Argyle and raising meat pigs.
A mother and her chicks investigate the low foliage.
Courtesy of Abundant Acres Farm
A mother and her chicks investigate the low foliage.

When Todd Sheerman was passed up for another promotion at his job in Connecticut in 2003, he and his wife, Ann Marie, saw it as a turning point in their lives. Within two months, they had sold their house and moved to Maine. First they settled in Bradford, with two goats and three chickens, but they soon relocated to Argyle Township, where they added three pigs to the goats and chickens.

This wasn’t a completely blind leap for the Sheermans. In high school, Todd graduated from the Vocational Agriculture program and had been a member of the Future Farmers of America, and in 1993 he earned an associate’s degree in horticulture. And Ann Marie had spent parts of summers in her youth gardening with her grandmother in North Carolina.

“My grandmother always did for herself,” she recalled. “I guess it was just in my blood that that was what I was supposed to do.”

Today, Abundant Acres Farm has 150 free-range chickens. They raise pasture-fed pigs for meat — about 20 so far this year, and 30 by year’s end. The Sheermans keep gardens. And with the recent construction of their outdoor sap house, the farm will be ramping up maple-syrup production and canning. When Todd isn’t doing farm chores, and when Ann Marie isn’t selling at farmers markets, or making soap and dog biscuits, they offer classes on canning, cheese-making, and herb usage.

The Sheermans have constantly educated themselves about everything they do, with plenty of trial and error. For instance, at one point they had 40 goats, before their focus turned to pigs. And ducks? They didn’t work out so well, unless you were the fox that kept eating them.

With farm-fresh pork in great demand, there’s steady work for Arnold the pig (named for the pig on “Green Acres”) and Esmerelda the sow (named for Esmeralda on “Bewitched”). There’s currently a litter on the farm; Esmerelda is expecting another by Thanksgiving.

For the Sheermans, it’s not just about raising food animals; it’s about humane treatment. Unlike many large farms, the pigs aren’t crammed into pens with concrete floors; instead, they have roomy dirt pens. And they’re not fed slop; they have the run of a fenced-in area of the property for natural foraging.

“They live as they’re supposed to live,” Todd said. “Whatever they want to do, that’s the way they live.”

That means a lot more maintenance for the Sheermans, but that’s worth the extra effort to them.

“We spend time with them,” Ann Marie said, and that includes being with the sows when they farrow, or give birth. “We know them all by name; if you call them, they come to you.”

But does getting to know the pigs so well make it difficult to send them for butchering?

“Everyone’s got to eat,” Todd said. “But for as long as they live on the farm, they will have the best life possible.”

The pigs are humanely butchered, under oversight by state and federal inspectors, at a Charleston farm.

“For us, that was important to have somebody that was both and that has that extra oversight,” Ann Marie said. “I know when I drop them off to be butchered that they’re not going to be suffering.”

Two weeks before butchering, the pigs get fresh cow’s milk every night, which Todd says makes the meat leaner, with much less fat. The difference is obvious in the meat’s quality.

“If you go to the grocery store and you see the bacon, it’s got a lot of fat on it,” he said. “You look at our bacon, there’s hardly any fat. It’s all meat.”

As the farm has grown, so have the job responsibilities. Ann Marie works the farm full time and sells goods at farmers’ markets. Todd rises early for farm chores, and he’s always working ongoing construction and maintenance projects. During the slow winter months, he works a seasonal job elsewhere. For two people whose only extended credit is their mortgage — they only buy with cash — it’s pretty close to their ideal life. And they’re pleased to provide for others.

“The very original thing was, we were going to supply for us and our family,” Todd said. “Everything else after that, we’d sell. It has gotten so much that… we have a wicked abundance of overage.”

“I think it was kind of a passion for both of us when we started realizing how much better we were eating and how much different our lives were and how happy we were,” Ann Marie said.

The Sheermans frequently have groups of children visit the farm, an activity that they welcome with advance notice.

“We absolutely feel a responsibility to help people understand where their food comes from,” said Ann Marie.

She often sees children at farmers markets who think tomatoes are apples, or who don’t know even what a potato is, since they only see them mashed or as French fries. Educating youth, she said, is vital for the children’s increased awareness and understanding. And some of those children might become fascinated with farming.

“If we can capture one child out of 500 that decides that they want to do this, it’s going to be one more child that does this,” she said.

After nine years of trying new things and learning from their mistakes, the Sheermans will keep growing. They hope to bring in an apprentice or two to expand their gardening, and they’d like to increase their acreage. They’ll soon likely double their annual pigs, and hope to keep increasing, as they supply market customers, wholesale accounts, and those purchasing half and whole pigs.

With free-range pork, 150 chickens laying 10 dozen eggs daily, soap, cheese, dog biscuits, maple syrup, canning, and everything else the Sheermans are doing, there’s no mystery to the name “Abundant Acres Farm.”

“It’s not an abundant amount of acres,” Ann Marie said, “but we have an abundance of things off of our acres.”

Abundant Acres Farm will be at the Brewer Farmers Market Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until the end of the season, and will arrange twice-weekly local deliveries of pork and eggs during the winter. To keep connected, find the farm at www.facebook.com/abundantacresfarm or call (207) 852-7887.

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles