How to Start a Pig Farm Business

How to Start a Pig Farm Business

In 2020 we collaborated with a local Ferndale business named UpFlip to make a documentary about some of the economics and the agronomics behind the founding of our farm. 
The documentary is well made, entertaining, and an honest, behind-the-scenes, by the numbers accounting of the founding of our farm. We were contacted recently by a researcher hoping to write a book on the arc of farming in Whatcom county. After watching the UpFlip documentary they had the following questions to help continue the narrative into the present day.
The intro thumbnail of the 2020 UpFlip documentary was a real attention getter, and looked something like this: 
Despite the eye catching headline in the thumbnail, after watching the almost hour long interview most viewers commented that the variable costs of pork production and the fixed costs of the land and equipment purchase, and land development were unsustainable and outrageous. 
Have you ever been curious about what goes into the founding of a first generation family farm business? Have you thought about founding a farm business yourself? Watch the Alluvial Farms Upflip documentary and read through the follow up questions below to help you chart your pork's path from idea to pork chop, or to help illuminate your own farm journey. 
1) What year was Alluvial Farms founded? We were founded in September of 2015, and raised our first ten pigs on 3 leased acres in Whatcom county in 2016.
2) In the video you mention an organization that helped in the farm's beginning. Then near the end of the video you mention Tilth Alliance, which is headquartered in Seattle according to their website. Are the two references to the same organization? Matthew and I met while working at Seattle Tilth, helping other people start small farm businesses as staff for their farm incubator program. They later merged with two other organizations to become the Tilth Alliance. They also partnered with the Humanlinks Foundation to create the Washington Sustainable Farming grant fund. We recieved an award from this foundation in 2018 that covered the majority of the cost of building the 100' x 40' hoop barn that is the hub of our pig farming activities. 
3) Questions about pasturing pigs:
  • How much of the year are the pigs outside on pasture? Are pigs able to be on pasture all year, being lighter than cows and thus less likely to trample everything into mud? There are over 80 different soil types in Whatcom county alone. Two thirds of our 45 acres are a very gravelly soil type, which is so well-drained it has a non-existant water table even in pacific northwest winter. This means our pastures drain better than many of the soil types in Whatcom county and will stand up to animal activity better in our "shoulder seasons" of spring and fall. We pasture animals typically between February and November. During the rainiest months we have ways to allow limited access to pastures, or provide outdoor access in the "heavy use area" around our barn, which is bedded with hundreds of yards of wood shavings. 
  • During those months, what percentage of their nutrition do you figure they get from the grass? Can you tell that they need less feed during the time they’re on pasture? Most studies on pasturing pigs show that because they are not ruminants they are only able to get up to ten percent of their nutrition from pasture plants. We do notice an equivalent decrease in our feed bill during the time they are on pasture.
3) You grow all your own grain, right? Matt mentioned barley in the video; is that the main or only grain you grow? The first few years we were in business we were farming on leased land and we purchased feed in bulk from Scratch and Peck Feeds. For the first few years we lived on the current Alluvial Farms site we grew 20 acres of certified Organic barley. We would combine this and store it in grain bins. We mixed and milled our own pig feed by combining our barley with purchased field peas and a mineral mix. After a few years of barley we also grew other small grains as well. In 2021 there were a number of factors that all conspired to a change in our model and we started a relationship with Conway Feed at that time. They have provided our pig feed since that time. They have a "Natural pig" pelleted feed and deliver once or twice a month into our grain bins. The ration is made up of local barley or wheat, Organic soy for protein, and an Organic mineral mix. 
4) You have to buy the field peas, right? Where do they come from? For the three or so years we were making our own feed we worked with a grain broker in Lynden to purchase semi trailers of Organic field peas from Alberta farmers. We would store them in our grain bins. 
5) I take it manure from grazing pigs supplies all your fertilizer needs for grain? You till it in? Do you use any other manure or other fertilizer? And to be really “technical,” what are the differences in using pig vs. dairy manure? When we were growing Organic barley for feed we would sow in the fall and then hire a local manure pumping company to apply liquid cow manure from a local dairy on the grain field in the Spring. It was incorporated into the grain planting with spring rains. We also make compost on the farm with the manured wood shavings from the hoop barn and heavy use area, hides and viscera from all on-farm butchery, and mortalities. This material is too chunky to be applied to a small grain crop in early spring. We also do not produce enough compost to cover a 20 acre grain field. Each time we empty one of our 80 cubic yard compost bays of finished compost we apply it to about one acre of pig paddock in order to be incorporated with a tractor and various tillage implements. 
6) You describe the field preparation process in detail, which includes several stages of tilling? Why won’t no-till techniques work? (I ask this one out of pure ignorance). No-till techniques involve mechanically or chemically killing an existing crop in order to sow a new crop into the residue of the old. Pigs are pretty hard on soil and create a lot of compaction in a paddock when they are on pasture. Unlike ruminants who just snip the tops of plants with their teeth, pigs use thier noses to root up the entire plant, roots and all. They love eating plant roots. When we take pigs off a one-acre paddock we have usually allowed them to destroy close to 75 % of the existing vegetation so field work in the form of chisel plow, disc, cultipacker, seed drill, and cultipacker again is what we have found is needed to re-establish a seed bed, and sow the next round of pasture. After that field work at least three months in the growing season are needed for pasture plants to re-establish. That said, there have been times that we move pigs sooner, or don't have time to farm behind them, and a paddock has re-grown to the point where there is enough vegetation for animals to be put back on it. 
7) Who does the slaughter and butchering? I think you say they are in the Skagit, right? If I write a book about agriculture, I can’t leave this out, even though it’s not necessarily what readers want to read. Do you ever let people come and observe a slaughter? 
One of the most common questions we get from our clients is "Do you do your own butchering?" In truth, all meat slaughter and sale is highly regulated by the federal government. In order to sell our meat by the cut it needs to be slaughtered, cut and wrapped in a facility that is inspected by the USDA.
There are three USDA inspected butchers in our region who we have worked with over the course of our eight seasons in business. Our primary butcher is the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative (IGFC), who have just last year opened a new cut and wrap facility in the Port of Skagit food campus alongside Skagit Valley Malting, Washington State University Bread Lab, Viva Farms, and other local food superstars.
We created the following infographic to help illustrate the web of slaughter and butchery services we access in order to bring our product to market. Sorry our website blurs images in a blog post, I will work on getting this in here more clearly: 
We are so proud of the high-functioning IGFC - twenty years ago they worked with TriVan in Ferndale to build the first USDA inspected mobile slaughter unit in the nation! Since then TriVan and it's offshoot Friesla, both based here in Whatcom county, have become international experts in designing and building small scale butchery infrastructure. While many other mobile slaughter units have been purchased and are in use around the country and the world, IGFC is still one of the very few, if not the only, who actually travels to the farm for the kill. Most other folks park the unit at one site and farmers trailer their animals to the unit. IGFC is currently building an onsite kill floor in Skagit in order to address the slaughter bottleneck created by the mobile slaughter unit. It is limited in it's capacity by travel time, farmer's capacity to create required humane handling conditions, and limited cooler capacity on the truck.
For the past few years we have harvested 120 pigs per year and in 2023 all of these were harvested here on our farm with the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative mobile slaughter unit. 
In 2019 we partnered with one of our butchers Ryan O'Hern, to host a pig butchery workshop in partnership with the Bellingham Technical College's culinary arts school. Here's Ryan, showing the folks how it's done.  
8) You mention building a facility for living, processing, and perhaps retail or even restaurant sales. How much of that has happened in the two years since the video? We spent 2021 in design, permitting and financing, 2022 in construction, and 2023 in finish work for a two story building since the Alluvial Farms property was raw land when we purchased it. We lived in an off-grid yurt for the first three years we were here. We live in the second story and the first story is dedicated to the business. We have hosted five farm to table dinners, and seasonal farm stands, events, and use the downstairs to process lard, pet treats, body balm, and other products upcycled from the by products of the pork enterprise. 
9) You mention possibly hosting events. What’s your opinion on the current controversy over agritourism in the Skagit? I am not up to speed on that controversy. 
10) You talk about buying silos/bins from dairies. Are these dairies that are going out of business? Converting to blueberries? Upgrading? Becoming golf courses? One generation ago there were close to 1000 dairies in Whatcom County. There are now less than 100 dairies here, but they contain the same number of cows. When a small scale dairy goes out of busiess all of the options that you mention above can happen with the property, or many times the infrastructure sits there unused - too expensive to tear down, and no use to the current owner. 
11) Who is your partner for the grape/wine business? 2023 will be our first harvest from one acre of Jupiter seedless red table grapes that we planted three years ago. We have a partnership with Piquenique Wines on San Juan Island for them to purchase the majority of the grape harvest for natural fermentation into a bubbly rose. 
12) In the video you mention geranium essential oil in the CBD salve. Is this the botanical Geranium or the botanical Pelargonium that is commonly called geranium? Where do you get it from? Some of the very first trial body balms that I made were flavored with geranium oil, because that is a scent that I personally like. When we tested it around however I learned that many people interpret the aroma as a rose smell, and don't find it to be universally appealing. Lavendar and peppermint are universally appealing and have antimicrobial properties as well, so those are the two locally made essential oils that I add to make our lard based body balm, or Oinkment, if you will. 
After watching the video do you have more questions for us about philosophy and ecology? Do you feel like your questions are better addressed face-to-face? Come visit us during the Whatcom County Farm Tour, Saturday September 16 between 10 am and 4 pm, or during our U-pick pumpkin patch, weekends in October. 
Thanks again for reading through my stories. We are honored to be a part of your families food, skin care, and pet care routines, and look forward to seeing you all in person this fall.  
Back to blog

1 comment

Loved this well-written information. Keep track of you through Carol. Love that you are always expanding. So proud of you both and the farm you have created! Love, Pat :)

Pat Braman

Leave a comment