For him, bacon is already home
LINCOLN — “Why pigs?” was the first question posed to Nate Gusakov, owner and operator of Full Belly Farm located off Quaker Street in Lincoln. His answer was simple and unabashed:
“Why pigs?” he responded. “Bacon, in a word.”
Before he began leasing his 17-acre farm three years ago, Gusakov had been a wandering graduate of Sterling College’s Sustainable Agriculture program and Bristol-native who dreamed of one day operating his own small farm.
While at Sterling in Craftsbury and shortly thereafter, Gusakov encountered the writings of “sustainable ag gurus” such as Wendell Berry and Harlan Hubbard, which encouraged him to pursue his dream of raising his own meat.
“The root of why I’m into animals at all is because I wanted to grow my own meat and be more responsible,” Gusakov explained. “Not even responsible — just closer to the death that’s feeding me — and for health reasons too. And I love bacon, I love eating pork.”
His love for pork products aside, Gusakov was drawn to pig farming for its self-sustainable nature. He explains that a pig farm is an organism in itself. The pigs contribute to the health of the organism by consuming all of the leftovers, thereby turning waste into energy, and also by rooting up the ground and essentially plowing it for the farmer.
Gusakov has his farm set up so it will require “as little labor as possible,” which is key for the young farmer, as his pigs are not exactly paying the bills. Raising pork is really just for fun — Gusakov spends his weekdays building houses all over Addison County.
To simplify the farming process, Gusakov keeps his pigs on a rotational grazing system. The idea, he explained, is to mimic the movement of wild herds by having his animals moving through one spot and grazing it down cleanly before moving them on to the next patch of land. This type of grazing allows Gusakov to raise what he has dubbed “semi-pastured pork.”
“For a month or two they are what I truly consider pastured pork,” he said, “which is actually eating grass or wheat and shrubs, or whatever’s growing. And then, with the size of the yard that I’ve had them in after that couple months they’re on mud, they’re not on pasture anymore because they’ve sort of used everything up. So, most would call it semi-pastured.”
For truly pastured pork, he explained, the pigs would be moved on a regular basis so they would always be on fresh grass. This would allow grass to actually become a steady part of their diet. Gusakov hopes to raise his next batch, which he’ll start in the fall, using this method.
Gusakov raises just two batches a year, with about five pigs in a batch. He favors what are called “heritage breeds,” or the older, more traditional breeds that “tend to be more vigorous and healthier” and are especially suited for grazing on grass. Tamworth, a red breed that is particularly hardy and adapted to the cold climate, is a favorite.
“I’m sort of settling into the scale I want to be at, which is 10 pigs a year, which is micro. I mean just tiny, tiny, tiny — hardly a farm almost. I raise them ’til six months and then that’s when I slaughter them.”
The slaughtering process can be particularly interesting on the Full Belly Farm, what with Gusakov’s two-and-a-half year-old daughter, Abigail, running around. Though he sends the pigs away to be slaughtered and butchered, Abigail certainly isn’t blind to what is going on.
“Ah yeah, she gets it,” said Gusakov, shrugging his shoulders. “I’ll ask her, ‘What’s in the freezer?’ and she’ll say, ‘Piggies!’”
As little Abigail grows older, Gusakov is interested to see how she takes to the industry.
“I’m very curious,” he said. “I mean, she’ll either become a raging vegetarian or just be totally cool with it. Either is fine by me, I mean she’ll know where it comes from.”
And knowing where the meat comes from is what it’s all about.
For Gusakov, there’s simply no comparison between his pork and that produced by the large-scale meat-packaging conglomerates.
“They might as well be different animals,” he said.
“Flavor,” he explained, is one major differentiator. “It’s the same as the difference between a Shaw’s tomato from California from three weeks ago, and a tomato fresh out of your garden. Also, textures, flavors, fat — actual, real, good, healthy fat is in there. Anything that we can try to decipher out of meat is going to be healthier in a grass-fed animal that has lived outside with air, and water, and sunshine and vitality.
Happier pork, it seems, makes for tastier pork.
“I mean, if we could measure unseen vitality that would be a lot better,” said Gusakov.
Different feed, along with vitality, also makes for a more flavorful end product.
“Pork that is fed a mixture of things other than just grain absolutely tastes different,” he said.
Some Vermont farmers, according to an article in The New York Times about trendy restaurant fare, are raising what they call “apple-fed pork,” or pigs that are fed apples to sweeten their flavor and to give the meat a more desirable texture. While Gusakov does not make a conscious effort to cater to this trendy market, he does throw his animals the occasional apple core or two. After all, this is Vermont.
“My good buddy Mike Shepherd, who’s been doing pork for awhile, he has apple orchards all over his land,” Gusakov said. “So what he does is run his pigs in the orchards, and then when the apples drop in the fall, with no labor involved, there’s this huge influx of (feed for the pigs). And I’m sure it flavors up the pork a lot.”
SMALL FARM BOOM
Shepherd is just one of Gusakov’s fellow farmers in the Bristol area who has helped him establish himself as a small-scale farmer.
“There’s a long list of farmers and teachers who have shaped and influenced almost everything I do now,” Gusakov said. “The very first farm I ever worked at was New Leaf Organics in Monkton, helping Jill Kopel start her farm, and I’m still indebted to Jill for what I learned there.”
Gusakov’s list of mentors is a long one.
“Rick Thomas and the Sterling College draft horse program opened huge doors for me. Jay and Janet Bailey at Fair Winds Farm in Brattleboro hosted me as an apprentice for six months, and introduced me to rotational grazing, among other things. I lived with and learned from John Hayden at The Farm Between in Jeffersonville for a year before moving back to Lincoln, and my gravity-fed watering system is almost a carbon copy of John’s. I’m inspired by Will Stevens (at Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham), Erik Andrus (at Good Companion Bakery in Ferrisburgh), Eugenie Doyle (at Last Resort Farm in Monkton) … the list goes on. There is an incredibly supportive network around this state for small farmers of all persuasions, not to mention organizations like Rural Vermont and the Vermont Grass Farmers Association.”
The Bristol Farmer’s Market, at which Gusakov has been selling his pork for the past three or four years, has also been a great means of support.
“It’s been going great,” he said. “We moved to Saturday mornings from Wednesdays, and we have five or 10 more vendors than last year. And I can’t quite raise enough on this land to keep up with just that demand.”
Though many folks in the Bristol area have been bringing home Gusakov’s bacon, he realizes that his farm is still operating on an incredibly small scale.
“It’s never going to make an income because I’m always going to try to suit it to this piece land, and it’s a really wet piece of land,” he said. “I’m not trying to push it for profit, but it’s the lifestyle I want.”