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.