Making the turn from pastured pigs to pork at Nettle Valley Farm
Nettle Valley Farm in Spring Grove, Minnesota, ran by Dayna Burtness and Nick Nguyen in their sixth season of raising pastured pork, is entering its final stage of the season.
Editor's note: This is the second part in a series on Nettle Valley Farm. Click here to read the first part.
SPRING GROVE, Minnesota ― Dayna Burtness said pig season at Nettle Valley farm is the fastest season.
In late June this year, 75 pigs arrived to the Spring Grove farm, said Burtness, all weighing around 40 pounds. In mid-September, she said the heaviest pig was 280 pounds.
"So we're sort of in the homestretch now," she said.
The next stage will come at the end of September, she said, when the pigs will have their "one bad day," when they're sent off to be processed.
"Then we'll bring our 12 biggest pigs into Burts Meats in Eyota, each week until we don't have any pigs left," she said.
Burtness said like all their previous seasons, they are all sold out for pig reservations this year and have already started to pre-sell pigs for next year.
"Our pork is very unique, and the price reflects that," she said. "So I'm super grateful that we have customers who are willing to pay the real cost of what it takes to raise pigs like this."
She said most of their customers are in the Driftless area surrounding the farm, but customers are as far away as the Twin Cities, Madison and Iowa City.
Joseph Klingelhutz, 27, of Iowa is one of those customers, and he was at the farm on Sept. 10 to see how the pigs were being raised.
"Last year I bought half a pig, and this year I bought a whole pig," he said. "I just freeze it, eat it throughout the year, so I don't have to buy meat for a long time."
Klingelhutz said the quality of the meat from Nettle Valley Farm is "incredible."
"You can absolutely taste the difference of this meat between the generic, store-bought meat," he said. "The fact that I see the pigs, I know Dayna, and I know all of her practices as a farmer, the flavor tastes different to me."
Nettle Valley Farm pigs have been fed thousands of pounds of organic culled vegetables from its partner Featherstone Farm.
"Each year we trade a whole hog for their employees in exchange for all of their pig-grade vegetables," Burtness said. "They do a really good job sending the very best of their veggies to the their customers, and then the seconds all get sorted out and go to food shelves, and then things that really aren't cut out for humans to eat, they save for us, and we feed it out to the pigs, and they just love it."
Burtness said that every year raising pastured pigs has its ups and downs, but overall this has been a "very good season." She said raising pigs during a drought is actually easier than raising pigs in a very wet season.
"It's been a drought, but we've gotten a few shots of rain right at the right time to keep our pastures from floundering too much," she said. "And so the pigs have lots of really lush, beautiful pasture to eat.
In the last couple of years Nettle Valley Farm has made the successful transition from being a fully pastured pig operation to more of a hybrid model.
"We were finding that it was just really tough to provide the level of pig comfort that we wanted," she said.
Burtness said that instead of having the pigs' food, water and shelter out on the pasture and then moving the entire setup every week, they now have a barn where the pigs sleep at night which has their food and water in.
"Then we have a laneway that then connects them out to whatever pasture I want them to graze that day," she said.
Burtness said at Nettle Valley Farm, their philosophy for farming is simple and has a lot to do with pigs deciding what they want to do throughout the day.
"A pig, for the most part, knows how to be a pig better than I do," Burtness said. "So especially when it's nice outside, they're in charge of their schedule."
That means the pigs wake up at first light, and wander out to graze and eat breakfast out on the pasture for a few hours. Then they all wander back as a herd, Burtness said, to spend the rest of the day during the warmer hours sleeping, snuggling, eating their organic pea and barley feed and drinking water.
"Then usually when it starts cooling down again, around 5:30, they come back out onto pasture and spend the rest of the day grazing and hanging out here," Burtness said, as two pigs wrestled with each other playfully behind her. "We really like this model because it does offer more flexibility."
For example, Burtness said, if it were to rain for five days straight (which it hasn't this year), she could confine the pigs to their barn into their "deep bedded system" where they are still comfortable.
Burtness is a farmer who enjoys being transparent about her struggles on the farm via social media, but when they lost a pig suddenly this summer, she decided to take a different approach online.
A veterinarian came to do a post-mortem on the animal, and it was discovered that it had died of torsion, which means part of its intestines wrapped around each other.
"Our vet said there really wasn't anything I could have done differently," she said.
Burtness, who said she deals with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, said sharing the experience online made her rethink what it was doing to her mental health.
"I was feeling this need to share every single bad thing that was happening on the farm, but for some reason I didn't feel the same need to share every single good thing that was happening," she said. "And my anxiety and depression was sort of telling myself that if you don't share every bad thing that happens on the farm, you're a liar, but if you do share it, people are gonna think you're a bad farmer, or a bad person."
She decided to draw some boundaries on social media, and share only the good things that were happening on the farm. Because why not?
"And you know what, since I did that, nothing bad has happened," she said.
Although the experience of losing the pig taught her a valuable lesson about social media boundaries, she said receiving an "outpouring of love and support" from customers, fellow farmers and other followers was a huge comfort for her.
"I think as a society — not just as farmers, but as people, we need to have the conversation about mental health, and support each other when we're drawing boundaries," Burtness said. "Especially on social media, which makes everything messy and hard."
At the beginning of summer, Burtness couldn't contain her excitement to have the pigs on the farm. Now as fall arrives, she's ready for the season to conclude.
"I will admit, this is the time of year where I start getting really tired and start looking forward to the day where I don't have any pigs on the farm," she said. "I'm really excited for their transition into pork, so I get to taste all the flavors that I've worked really hard on throughout the year, and my customers get to taste all those flavors."
"Then I get to just not have that daily stress of having livestock," she said "And then we'll do it all over again next year."