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Reclaiming the Farm
While Jude Becker was attending Iowa State University, his family’s sixth-generation, 400-acre farm near Dyersville, Iowa, was being rented out to larger farmers. Becker wanted to manage the farm himself. The challenge was finding a way to make the relatively small operation economically viable again.
He began researching opportunities in niche agriculture. Soon came an idea spinning from his childhood interest in the family’s small hog operation. After graduating from college, he began developing a high-value niche business in organic, pastured pork.
Today, at 37, he has remade the farm, reinventing his family’s production systems and marketing methods. Becker Lane Organic Farm annually produces and direct-markets 5,000 hogs to restaurants and retailers across the country who are looking for niche food.
Becker employs three people full time at the farm and also engages a marketer who is headquartered in California.
Becker splits his time between managing the farm and visiting new and existing retail customers around the country.
“Sometimes it’s taxing trying to run the farm as well as trying to be in Manhattan, Chicago, or California,” he says. “It’s rewarding, though, because I’ve been able to reinvent the future of the farm. It’s vibrant again because of its own economic activity.”
Becker started by taking small steps in both production and marketing. He began in 1999 by farrowing just six sows. His early marketing efforts began with Internet research. He also did some traveling and started talking to restaurant owners and chefs. He was seeking out eateries willing to buy specialty pork products from a small producer.
“I started marketing on a small scale, beginning by selling to some chefs in Chicago who wanted organically produced meat and who wanted to purchase it directly from farmers,” he says.
As a few chefs began buying the pork, they provided word-of-mouth advertising by sharing their positive experiences with each other. Then, Becker’s fledgling business got a real shot in the arm when he was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The invitation came after a producer for the show had eaten some of Becker’s pork in a restaurant.
“He liked it, and they happened to be producing a show about raising hogs on pasture,” he says. “The TV crew spent two days shooting videotape at the farm.”
Becker kept on talking to chefs and retailers, traveling to cities around the country. As orders increased, he increased production at the farm. Soon, his extensive pastured-hog production system had grown and evolved to a scale allowing him to eventually reclaim the entire farm from outside renters and to commit it to hog production.
Becker now farrows 250 sows outdoors, even in winter. Each sow farrows in an outdoor enclosure measuring 100×50 feet. These farrowing paddocks cover a 25-acre field. Inside each paddock is a 6×8-foot insulated, metal farrowing hut. Plastic flaps covering the hog-size doorways help keep out the cold. Deep bedding inside provides a nest for the pigs.
“In eastern Iowa, it can get really cold in winter, with temperatures dropping to as low as -20°F.,” he says. “The sows and piglets stay warm inside the huts.”
Sows farrow twice annually. Becker times breedings so that a batch of sows farrows every three weeks in the outdoor paddocks.
A single strand of smooth electric wire fixed 1 foot above the ground holds sows in paddocks but lets piglets slip beneath to mingle with other pigs of similar age. A perimeter fence of woven wire encloses paddocks housing each farrowing group. This confines piglets to mingling only with pigs of a similar age. Alleyways between paddock compounds allow passage of a tractor-drawn trailer hauling ground corn and soybeans. Each sow is fed manually.
Sows have individual drinkers in the paddocks. In warm weather, above-ground pipes supply water to the drinkers. In winter, a tractor-drawn wagon carrying a big tank delivers water to the paddocks.
Litter size ranges from eight to 15 piglets. The piglets are weaned at 7 weeks. The weaning rate per litter averages eight to nine pigs. Average weaning weight is 15 pounds.
Becker’s piglets are older and heavier at weaning than piglets reared in more conventional production systems. The older, heavier piglets are better able to withstand the stress and disease risk threatening them at weaning. This helps ward off disease before it gets started. This is important because Becker does not treat animals with antibiotics.
Weaned pigs go into bedded hoop barns that provide about 16 square feet of space per pig. They are fed in these barns for about five months or until reaching a heavy market weight of 280 pounds. Sows are rebred in a bedded pole barn. They’re later turned out in large groups on pasture.
“My goal in establishing a hog pasture is to make a lawn for the pigs,” says Becker. “The grass is a mix of perennial ryegrass, Italian ryegrass, brome, and timothy.” Pasture takes up 150 acres.
Becker also organically produces much of his own feed and bedding. He grows corn on 150 acres and grows 50 acres each of oats and soybeans.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of challenges, but they’ve been good experiences because I’ve learned from them.”
When he started, he had to invent his own systems for growing and marketing. “Making mistakes is inevitable, but I learn and grow from them. The learning process enriches my life,” he says.