Young man in Addison thinks big when it comes to pigs
ADDISON — Ethan Gevry is scratching a big tan and pink hog behind the ears — one of the more than 800 or so grunting, squealing, snoozing, eating porkers being raised in the barn Gevry’s outfitted for his hog operation in Addison.
“I like pigs, and I love farming,” says Gevry.
He certainly does. At age 20, Gevry is Vermont’s largest hog producer.
According to Gevry, he raises close to 2,500 hogs a year, almost all of which he sells to Black River Meats in North Springfield.
Gevry’s Champlain Valley Farms is one of six producers for Black River’s heritage pork line of products. Other farms include Kimball Brook Farm in North Ferrisburgh, Spring Brook Farm in Reading, and Deer Run Farm in Danville.
“Ethan’s kind of a phenomenon,” said Lynn Coale, director and superintendent of Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury, where Gevry took ag and business classes in high school.
Coale credits Gevry’s success thus far to his drive and his combination of entrepreneurial talents.
“He is the definition of entrepreneur,” said Coale. “He had a laser-focus vision — but a lot of people have big dreams. Ethan was able to break those dreams down in incremental parts. And then he sought out whatever he needed to seek out to gain the knowledge to be able to fulfill those incremental parts. And he was never afraid.
“Every entrepreneur I’ve ever seen that just kind of builds themselves from ground up has had those kinds of qualities.”
By the time Gevry graduated, he had already developed a couple of different agriculture-related business plans. He took extra classes in things like welding, so he’d be able to construct what he needed on the farm. He took extra classes through the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Youth Agriculture program. He even negotiated for close to a month away from school to get an auctioneer’s license.
“I’ve always loved farming,” said Gevry. “Ever since I was little, I used to go to my grandparents’ barn a couple days a week. When I was little little, I used to go to the barn and feed the calves and whatnot. After my grandfather sold the cows, I worked for other farmers.”
Although neither of Gevry’s parents are full-time farmers (his mom’s an accountant and his dad runs a trucking company), Gevry comes from a strong farming background. His grandparents just across the road ran a dairy farm until Gevry was about six, and Gevry and his father do some haying together.
Gevry went into meat production at around age 11. He bought two Holstein steers, raised them, and sold them to family members. At 12, he got a few pigs and started raising about six a year and selling them to family and friends.
At Vergennes Union High School, Gevry took as many agriculture and business classes as possible. And as a junior he entered the Sustainable Agriculture program at Hannaford.
Coale remembers Gevry’s drive to create his own farm business from the moment he began at the career center.
“I go around and I ask kids the first day of school why they’re here, and I remember Ethan saying, ‘My grandfather has this 10 acres and a barn that he doesn’t use and I want to raise stuff in it.”
At the career center, Gevry met Sean Buchanan from Black River Produce and Black River Meats in North Springfield. Buchanan — who believes passionately that good work includes skilled jobs you do with your hands — had come to talk to students about working in Vermont’s food and agricultural sector. At that time, Black River Meats was just starting to expand their product line and were actively looking for hog suppliers.
Gevry, just 16 at the time, jumped on the opportunity.
“In my junior year Black River came to the career center and said to Mr. Coale that they were looking for someone to maybe start raising a few pigs for them,” said Gevry. “I met with (Buchanan) first, and then they came to me at said, ‘Do you want to grow a few pigs for us?’ and I said, ‘Sure, why not.’ I started out by growing 10 that year.”
Gevry’s gumption was recognized by the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN), which awarded him the 2013 Student Entrepreneur Award, noting that Gevry’s Champlain Valley Farm was already listed in that year’s local producers directory.
Those 10 pigs grew to 40 or so the next year. After graduation, Gevry found a job selling cars at G. Stone Motors and increased his herd to 60. Then Black River again approached him and asked if he was interested in ramping up.
“They said, ‘Hey we really need a large-scale producer. Would you be willing to take that on?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, not a problem.’ So I went full-time hog farming and got my first load of pigs, my first load of 200, in May of 2015.”
Each farm that raises pigs for Black River is its own, independent entity; then Black River buys the pigs once they’re delivered to its processing plant in Springfield. In order to go into production full-time, Gevry approached the U.S. Farm Service Agency and asked for a loan of over $100,000.
Asked how an 18-year-old kid convinced the FSA to take such a risk, loan officer Jill Thomas of the FSA’s Middlebury office had a straightforward reply.
“Well, we are the lender of first opportunity, and we are the risk taker for beginning farmers,” she said. “Ethan obviously fit the beginning farmer criteria. He definitely has farming in his blood and grew up in farming. He has very, very strong family support. And he has a strong work ethic. That’s a big part of it; you’ve got to be able to work hard. And he knew how to put together the numbers. It’s not only the brawn. You’ve got to have the brains, too, to make your plan work.”
Thomas further noted that Gevry fit their criteria because he knew animal husbandry and passed their farm visit test by having good, healthy animals. He was able to provide a record of sales of the beef and pork he’d already produced. He knew how to set up things like a feed rationing schedule. And he had a ready market.
Gevry used the loan to rent and outfit a nearby barn more suitable for larger-scale hog production and to buy pigs, grain, supplies and heavy equipment. Gevry was also supported by some equipment and resources from his family, said Thomas, and that was also important.
HOW IT WORKS
Gevry brings in 200 piglets a month, raises them for about 110 to 140 days until they reach a target weight of 280 pounds and then trucks them to Black River’s facility (run by Vermont Packinghouse).
The pigs are a “heritage mix,” Gevry said, and come from what he describes as an antibiotic-free, humanely raised, out-of-state source (which he declined to disclose, saying only that they’re not from Pennsylvania). He feeds them on a mix of corn and soybeans he grinds himself, adding minerals. He buys his whole grains from Phoenix Feed and Nutrition in New Haven. The grains, he said, likely come from the Midwest.
Asked about purchasing local grain, Gevry said, “You can get the volume but it costs you a lot more.”
Gevry keeps each “age cohort” of pigs together in their own part of the barn. He said his pigs have around 16 square feet per animal.
Every morning, he arrives in the barn at around 7:30 a.m.
“I go around and check the pens and make sure everybody’s looking good,” he said. “I make sure the hay is still really dry in every pen and all the pigs are comfortable. As soon as that’s done, I check all the grainers and see what ones I have to fill.”
Gevry’s installed heavy-duty grain feeders, each holding 8,000 pounds. He reckons he goes through 35,000 pounds of feed a week.
“After I check the grainers, if there’s an alley that needs to be scraped I’ll scrape it out with the skid steer every two days. But my cousins do most of the cleaning. I have plenty of other stuff to do. They move all the pigs around and scrape it all out.”
Gevry said that the pigs get new bedding — he uses hay and straw — every other day. And once a week, he and his cousins run the skid steer, scrape out all the bedding, and apply all new bedding.
Natural light pours into the barn. Gevry keeps the lights on at night so that his pigs will eat more and grow faster. He has adjustable tarps all around the barn so that he can adjust the flow of fresh air into the barn. The stainless steel waterers are heated, so that pigs have constant access to fresh water winter and summer. And the ongoing chorus of grunts and squeals is intermittently punctuated with the slap of the waterers’ stainless steel lids, as pigs reach in and drink and then remove their snouts.
Once a week, Gevry weighs and sorts the animals to see who’s ready for the packing plant.
“Monday nights, I sort and weigh the animals up in the old milking parlor,” said Gevry. “I take a bunch, weigh ’em, mark ’em if they weigh a certain amount, and then sort them into pens. There’ll be 40-50 in this pen Monday night. And they hang out there until Tuesday afternoon when I take them to Springfield.”
Gevry plans to expand to 3,000 hogs per year by 2017 and will planned to start building permanent hoop house structures at his grandfather’s farm this summer. He plans to have all of his pigs in hoop houses — which he says will provide more space, more light and more fresh air, and give pigs a concrete paved area outside — by the start of 2018.
Last fall, Gevry and Black River won a Value Added Producer Grant to expand Black River’s line of cured meats.
According to Black River’s Buchanan, Black River sells its meats to food co-ops, Hannaford supermarkets, Price Choppers and restaurants in Vermont. Around the Northeast, Black River Meats distributes in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. All of the six heritage pork producers listed on its website are from Vermont.
For Buchanan, that trip to Hannaford is an important part of reaching out to bring young entrepreneurs into agriculture. He praised the hands-on approach at Hannaford that helped Gevry get started and contrasted it to prevailing trends in secondary education.
“I feel like our education system is less hands-on, is afraid of blue collar work, is afraid of agricultural work,” said Buchanan. “We want to white-collarize all these jobs. And I just don’t agree with that.”
Buchanan continued, “And Ethan was one of those early on who just said, ‘I’m going to be a pork producer for you guys, this is what I want to do,’ and we said, ‘You know, let’s start off small. Let’s raise a handful of pigs and see if we can do it,’ and he’s just done it every step of the way. And I don’t think it’s an anomaly. I think there’s a lot of young kids who have great spirit and great desire to do incredible entrepreneurial things.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
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