All Photos by Larry St Aubin except where indicated
Stone Horse Farm is a small, family run farm in Innisfil, Ontario. I first met Lisa Peterson 2 years ago. She had applied to adopt a dog I was fostering. She gave me the tour of Stone Horse and explained pasture farming. Being a city slicker, I was fascinated. I’ve been going regularly to her farm store with the pugs since.
Lisa began her farm life as a young girl when her parents bought a hobby farm. She went on to have a career in publishing and marketing. However, when the opportunity came to buy a farm, she dived in with a beginner’s enthusiasm. Her ex-husband left and Lisa has has been farming for 7 years along with raising 2 children. A recent pig litter had a piglet that needed to be nursed in the house. I was introduced to the little guy.
When I arrived, Lisa was relocating her chickens. This is a daily process with pasture farming.
Lisa designed and built the coops, based on the large, tractor-pulled ones that the commercial farms use. They hold 30 – 40 chickens.
She starts at one edge of the pasture. You can see the lushness of the grass. Then compare it to the ground when they are finished. They will eat the clover, alfalfa, bugs, worms, snails and even a frog or snake if one passes through.
What is pasture farming?
Pasture farming is letting the animals do what nature and evolution intended – they forage the grass finding the nutrients they need. They get about 50% of their diet this way. They also get non-GMO grain to balance the diet. Their only confinement is the coop. As Lisa says, sunlight and fresh air are just as important to their development. Lisa has an Artisanal Chicken license. She can raise up to 3,000 chickens (a 300 chicken limit does not require a license). However there is an intense inspection process with 190 checkpoints. The license does allow her to sell off-farm which, for Lisa, are the farmer’s market where she makes her money and promotes her farm.
The chickens are processed at 9 weeks when they have reached 3 pounds. The first pound pays for the processing and shipping. The second pound pays for the feed and her labour. The third pound is her profit. The chickens do not weigh as much as the commercial, confined ones but the meat has a higher quality because of the pasture feeding. Lisa plans to give them more time to grow next year. If she can get them to 4 pounds then she will be able to have a highly profitable farm.
Butthead the Goat
Lisa encourages people to come to the farm. She does have a farm store where you can buy directly from her. Prices and availability are posted on her Facebook page. Of course, Butthead the goat will come up to you for a head scratch. On the Facebook page, you will find stories of Butthead and the antics he gets up to. Here he is drinking the chicken’s water from the coop.
Pasture Raised Pigs
Lisa started with chickens but was reading about pigs one day while researching pasture farming. She decided to go into it “whole hog”. I took the pugs with me to visit the farm. Lisa has 2 dogs of her own, Ivan and Rosie.
Lisa started the tour with the nursing areas
Lisa has been growing the size of her operation each year. She now has about 95 pigs; 10 breeders which are mature, full grown hogs, 50 piglets and 35 growing meat pigs. In the nursing area the piglets can roam from one side of the fence to the other. This gives them a chance to socialize with the larger pigs but they come back to mom when they want to sleep. The sows co-nurse so there is no shortage of milk. The larger ones have about 4 acres to forage.
Lisa has been processing them at 7 months but she thinks that isn’t quite enough time. She is letting the November group grow to 8 months. Already there is a difference in size. She started with the Berkshire breed but has recently introduced some cross breeding with Blacks and Herefords. Golda is a large Black. They grow slowly but have a richer, red meat. They take about 9 months to be ready.
Golda just had a litter but does not want to go into the nursing pen for some reason. Lisa has been trying to lure her in by feeding her at the gate. In the meantime, Golda and her brood hang out under the trailer.
Below is the breeding area. Peanut, in the back, comes over to say high. She was the runt last year and I followed her adventures on the Facebook page. When Lisa has a runt that is struggling, she takes it into her house and bottle feeds them. Peanut was being picked on and her ears chewed. However, Lisa eventually introduced her back and Peanut has been accepted into the pecking order. She will be used for breeding next year.
Out in the field is a shed that they will use for the winter. Right now there are about 30 pigs out in that pasture. Lisa will stuff the shed with hay this winter.
The pigs will burrow into the hay, chewing on the alfalfa. Then they go out to dig in the snow. Their diet is supplemented with grain. Someday Lisa would like to grow an indoor pasture so they get their greens all winter long. But it is a big investment needing another barn or greenhouse.
Lisa is not involved in any political or environment causes. She belongs to a Pasture Poultry Facebook group. It has 15,000 members around the world and exists to help each other. There is friction that exists sometimes between the huge commercial farms and the small, independent pasture farms. One example was when a Chinese company bought the largest hog farm in the United States. After that, there were reports of piglets dying from a disease. At first, the commercial farmers tried to blame the pasture farms saying that the outdoor pigs contracted a disease that spread. On the Pasture Pork Facebook group, it turns out none of their piglets were lost. The investigation proved that the disease was brought from China to the hog farm in the States.
Because she could not get piglets at that time, she decided to setup her own breeding program. Her Facebook fans regularly follow her postings when she is up at 3 am providing support to a birthing sow. We see the little ones popping out and get a final count. Then we watch them grow.
One day, at the Barrie Farmer’s Market, a person told Lisa she doesn’t like seeing the animals she is going to eat. After thinking about this for a week, Lisa created a post about why it is so important to see our food, to know where it comes from. It is not just a piece wrapped in plastic at your supermarket. Her post was shared 175,000 times with over 4,000 comments.
One area that Lisa is deeply involved in is the Educational Program at the Barrie Fair. She recognizes the need to teach kids about farming and where their food comes from. This year she brought a sow and piglets and told them all about pasture farming. She has been running it for 3 years.
Golda, above, has large, healthy litters. However, since I visited the farm, Emerald developed a sickness. As Lisa says, farming is a risky business. After birthing last week, Emerald wasn’t quite right. But after a shot of antibiotics she was feeling better. However, her piglets started to dehydrate and then die. Each say she lost another one. The vet was not able to determine a cause. There is only 1 piglet left. Fortunately, she had 3 other healthy litters to cover her farming costs.
What Did I Learn?
There is a little stone horse in the front yard. It is a landmark that let’s a Torontonian know that they are in a special place. There is a swing bench beside it and Lisa and I sat on that while she talked about her life and learning. Even though she has tons of work to do, she took time out to talk to me for this blog.
At then end I really wanted to roll up my sleeve and start cleaning the barn, bottle feed a runt, or pull a chicken coop. I would love to spend a summer up there working the farm.
I admire Lisa for what she has accomplished given what it takes to run a pasture farm. I intrinsically knew this from the visits I’ve made to the farm over the past two years. Reading her postings I’ve really come to understand the concept of Farm to Table. But it was the two hours I spent with her that really made me appreciate what farmers do. At one point in our history, 90% of the population were farmers. Now, it is 1%. That is a precious 1% that we need to support and nurture.
I’m glad I have found a place where I can get out of the city, take the pugs on an adventure, scratch Butthead’s neck, purchase some amazing pork and support a hard working farmer.
I suggest you plan a visit to a farm – either Stone Horse, a farmer’s market or from a website like Harvest Ontario