On a humid August day, the fields of Singing Prairie Farms in Newcastle seemed too hot even for the heritage pigs that live there.
So they moved to a grove of maple and pine trees at one end of the pasture, where farmers John and Holly Arbuckle found them comfortably snoozing and snuffling in the cool shade.
“It’s like a pig spa,” John Arbuckle said, gesturing at the peaceful pigs piled up around him. “There really is something to say about creating a tender product.”
Despite looking so much at home on this land, both the pigs and the farmers are brand new to this place. They all relocated to midcoast Maine from Missouri last month. Before that the farm had been empty while the last owners searched for a buyer. But prior to that, it was the Dyer Valley Dairy Farm, one of Maine’s family-owned dairy farms, a group that now seems to be something of an endangered species in the state. Low milk prices, an ongoing global milk glut and ever-increasing costs have pushed Maine dairy farmers into a tough spot.
In 1950, there were nearly 5,000 dairy farms in the state, according to the Maine Milk Commission. Earlier this year there were just 241. That kind of precipitous decline is familiar to the Arbuckles, who got into pork farming more than 20 years after that industry went through a similar freefall.
“The same thing happened to small, family pig farms in the 1980s,” Holly Arbuckle said. “Nationally, this country lost 90 percent of our independent hog farms when the corporate factory farms became bigger and pushed out the family-owned farms.”
Reversing the downward spiral
But the Arbuckles are vying to buck that trend. They sell pasture-raised pork, a niche product that is growing in popularity, following a similar trajectory to grass-fed beef. Eatwild, a clearinghouse for information about pasture-based farming, lists just four Maine farms that offer pasture-raised pork, not including Singing Prairie Farms.
In Newcastle, the Arbuckle’s pigs are not fed genetically modified feed and they are given no antibiotics or growth stimulants. They practice regenerative agriculture — more on that later — and their pigs spend as much time outside in the fields and under the trees as they want. The Arbuckles started Singing Prairie Farms in La Plata, Missouri, in 2010 as a diversified family farm. They sold pork to local customers, but after a few years they figured out they couldn’t sell enough locally to support the farm.
So they went after a new market, Holly Arbuckle said — the national market. They did that despite living in an Amish-built house in Missouri that had no electricity (they are not Amish but could not afford to install electricity when they moved in). They had a product they felt good about, Roam Sticks, a shelf-stable snack stick that is made from 100 percent pasture-raised, non-genetically-modified pork. They decided to run an online Kickstarter campaign to raise start-up cash to help them produce and distribute more of the sticks. They set a goal of $10,000 and despite running the campaign from the public library, because they had no internet at home, they succeeded beyond their expectations. They met their goal in just 48 hours and ultimately raised $28,000.
“We really didn’t know what we were getting into, going from a local project to a national market,” Holly Arbuckle said.
But pretty quickly, they started figuring it out. During the Kickstarter campaign, they met other people who make food products and learned that pasture-raised pork was hard to find. So, in addition to making the Roam Sticks, the Arbuckles began selling their pork to other companies, including Butcher Box, a Boston-based meat subscription delivery service, online vendor Vital Choice and Serenity Kids, which makes baby food. They are successful enough that they are now purchasing pork from independent family farms that raise their animals in a way they can approve.
“We are a big advocate of supporting independent farmers as much as possible,” Holly Arbuckle said. “It’s not easy to make it as an independent farmer.”
And as the couple became more successful selling their pork to the national market, they realized that they were no longer tied to Missouri and started to dream about relocating their farm and their family. Holly Arbuckle had graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick and always had a soft spot for Maine. She missed the ocean and felt that there would be good educational and recreational opportunities for their two children here.
“I love Maine. It’s a really beautiful area,” she said. “Maine is a very supportive place for farming and the environment, both, which are two big draws.”
They found Dyer Valley Dairy Farm, located at “Cowshit Corner,” a place of some Lincoln County renown. The pungent stretch of Route 194 is the spot where longtime dairy farmer Larry Russell and a group of his friends gathered every week to sit on 5-gallon cans, to drink beer and talk about life. They were even the subject of a locally-made reality show that debuted in 2014.
But times change, and the farm was for sale at a price the Arbuckles could afford. It was 174 acres, much bigger than their 45-acre Missouri farm, and featured lots of pasture land. After visiting four times last year, they decided it would be a good fit for them. They said that Russell is glad the land is remaining in agriculture.
“The best-case scenario would be to figure out ways to keep small dairy farms in operation,” Holly Arbuckle said. “The next best option for dairies that have been forced to close is to find a way to repurpose the land so that it can, at least, remain in farmland.”
Both she and her husband appreciate the possibilities they see in the former dairy farm. They’ve already started to practice regenerative agriculture on the land. That’s a farming movement that incorporates organic farming, permaculture and other philosophies with the aim of restoring degraded soil, improving the water cycle and sequestering carbon. At Singing Prairie Farm, regenerative agriculture means rotationally grazing the pigs through fields of cover crops and grasses as supplemental feed sources. The animals stay on a plot of land for a week or so — long enough to fertilize it but not so long they overgraze it. Then they are moved on to another plot, and the land rests for a long time.
The farm has been approved as a hub farm candidate by the Savory Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that promotes restoration of the world’s grasslands. Savory Hubs are demonstration sites for regenerative agriculture, and the Newcastle Farm would be the first in Maine and the first anywhere that would focus on pig production.
John Arbuckle, a ninth generation farmer originally from Illinois, said he’s looking forward to seeing what the land in Maine will provide, and how they will provide for it.
“We’ll be producing our own baby pigs, producing our bedding, grow some of our own feed,” he said. “We’d like to plant apple trees and have the pigs graze apples that fall on the ground. The majority of our heavy work can be done with horses, and we’ll grow the hay the horses eat. The whole thing, to me, feels very close to the earth. That has a very pleasant rhythm for me.”
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