|These not-so-little piggies go to market|
|Wednesday, August 15, 2012|
Wedge Oak Farm makes a treaty with their hogs
“Woo, woo, woo! Here pigs!” hollers Karen Overton. It’s feeding time at Wedge Oak Farm.
In a matter of seconds, a small herd of pigs come trippy-trotting along eager for lunch. Today’s menu features overripe produce like tomatoes, lettuce and water melons.
“We like pigs. We’re pro pig,” said Overton, who lives on the family century farm about 4 miles south of Lebanon.
These pigs are no ordinary pigs, and Overton, along with her mother Anne and partner Brian Ferrell, are no ordinary hog farmers.
These snorting, curly-haired swine are Mangalitsas, a Hungarian lard-type breed, which are raised no where else in Tennessee. A fattier pig than most, the Mangalitsa delivers a unique flavor, according to chefs.
Karen, Anne and Ferrell have made a pretty swell trade-off with their herd of 60 hogs, which include about 30 Mangalitsa (several have names: Big Mama, Mia, Ingrid, Lampley, Bruno and Shasta).
“They will have a good life on our farm, and in the end they will be processed, but they have been treated well and not confined,” Karen said. “Brian and I really do believe it is a deal we make with them, that at 300 pounds you go for something else.”
“It’s easy to get attached to them. They take up with you exactly like a dog would. They know you very well,” Ferrell said. “Seeing them day by day, you develop a strong bond with them. They’ve been some really good pigs, and we miss ’em when they’re gone. It’s always tough when it comes time to process because you get to be friends with them pretty much, but there’s that agreement that it’s a self-sacrifice.
“We go out of our way to make sure they have a good life while they are here, and I think that comes through in the quality of the meat. We give them a wide-open range, plenty of good food and look after them every day. I think that’s why chefs gravitate toward it. They really see the difference. They say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but that’s really quality meat.’ That makes me proud.”
Their pork sells quickly, almost exclusively to upscale Nashville restaurants including the Capital Grille, F. Scott’s Restaurant, Flyte World Dining and Wine, the Mad Platter, Margot Café & Bar, tayst Restaurant and Wild Iris Restaurant as well as The Inn at Evins Mill in Smithville.
“The Mangalitsa pig is not the kind of pig you want to cut up and throw on the barbecue,” Autrey said. “If I am gonna be making sausage or bacon or jerky prosciutto ham, that’s where, in my opinion, it’s most effective. The shoulders have so much fat that we actually save some of the fatback instead of mixing it in. On Mangalitsa it’s much higher, 60 percent to 40 percent (the fat compared to other breeds). The fat is so creamy and so white. It adds a lot of flavor.”
The chef finds it reassuring to know exactly where his meat comes from and how the porkers are raised.
“Having that chef-to-farmer relationship allows me to understand the husbandry that goes into the animal, plus it allows me traceability for Karen’s products,” he said of Wedge Oak Farm meats. “She approached me when I was at the Mad Platter about her chickens. As I’ve gone on to do my own thing, I’ve stayed with her. She puts a lot of care into her pork and is very proud of it. It’s a very tasty product. I’ve been to the farm, so I can go out there and see it.”
Nothing fancy, Wedge Oak Farm proves comfortable to the nostalgic eye with its white, two-story farmhouse, a century-old barn, a pole barn, smokehouse, washhouse, chicken shed and a couple of log structures gracefully losing their battle with Father Time and Mother Nature.
“My grandfather bought the farm and kept adding parcels until they got up to 300 acres,” said Anne, 70, whose grandparents William Madison Turner and Ida New Turner raised seven children in the farmhouse.
“He brought a sawmill onto the property and cut trees, and neighbors helped him build this house in 1904. Grandpa worked the farm into the 1950s. He grew corn and hay. They always had dairy cattle, so they milked cows. They had hens for eggs and raised a large garden.”
In 1960, Anne moved with her father and mother Van New Turner and Nancy Moore Turner and two siblings into the home where her dad grew up. Her father lived here until he died in 1981. After moving to Nashville, Anne taught eighth-grade English at Mt. Juliet Middle School for 22 years between raising four children (Shan, Turner, Virginia and Karen). She moved back to the farm in 1988.
Karen, 40, who was born and raised in Nashville, completed her junior and senior years of high school at Lebanon High and holds degrees in archaeology, anthropology and agriculture. She worked as archaeologist for 11 years before returning to college to do graduate work in museum studies. A world traveler, she lived in New York City for three years, working for a group of artists before returning to Lebanon in the spring of 2008.
“I had interest in living on the farm and trying to utilize the family farm...The way I found to make a living is to do a variety of things,” Karen said, referring to their decision to diversify the livestock.
“We had an organic vegetable garden the first year, 50 chickens and three pigs. The second year we started to get into chickens and pigs more than the garden,” Anne said. She earned a degree in education at Middle Tennessee State University and also trained classically as an opera singer.
“The animals were more profitable. After that we just got bigger into chickens and pigs. Both of these were really carrying us. We sold out of everything every time we harvested.”
Wedge Oak Farm produces Cornish Cross and Freedom Ranger chickens as well as white-breasted turkeys, and they sell about 10 dozen fresh eggs a day to restaurants and bakeries.
The chickens are raised in three-to-four-week intervals, thus 2-day-old brooders peep in one well-lighted stall of the ancient barn. Four-week-olds run around in another stall, and a batch about a week older feed and peck in the old milking shed. When the latter group puts on feathers, they go outdoors. At 7½ weeks of age, they’re ready for processing.
“The old barn is HQ. Everything, basically, comes through here,” Karen said about the poultry. “It’s a beautiful old barn. It’s odd the brooders are raised in stalls that used to be for draft horses and mules. We try to blend our type of farming with the old style.”
Anne lets Karen and Farrell handle the pigs, while she concentrates on the chickens.
“Once they have their feathers, we put them outside on grass. We prefer to have them out on pasture,” Anne said. “It’s good for our land and good for them, and we are not into the confinement of the birds. We use all the fields around here, even the front yard because we want to get them on fresh grass. We keep moving and rotating, so they can find fresh grass and eat bugs and worms and whatever they can find, plus they get a balanced diet of feeds we buy at Edwards (Feeds).”
But, getting back to pigs, “Basically, we raise Mangalitsa (and some Yorkshire and Poland China). The Mangalitsa go a little large, and put on 300 to 350 pounds. They take about 40 to 50 percent longer to grow,” Karen said. She carefully researched the breed before buying a boar, three sows and four feeder pigs last summer in Guttenberg, Iowa.
“These pigs had never been on the ground before. They were raised in confinement and on concrete. We were very much concerned how healthy they would be, but they have really excelled in this environment. They are known for being robust and quite able to deal with extreme temperature variables. There are other people raising them here in the U.S., but nobody else raising them in Tennessee.”
In physical appearance the Mangalitsa are hairy, and their ears cover their eyes. They are shorter in stature, as are many heritage-type hogs.
“We really do hands-on seven days a week, and they are all tame. We like to lead them by their stomachs and not by cattle prod. They put on so much fat because they are a lard-type hog,” Karen said.
She works closely with chefs educating them that, while most domesticated hogs are bred to put out smaller quantities of leaner meat, Mangalitsa are the opposite.
“These pigs are nothing like that. The thickness of the fat and the pure whiteness of the pork is quite different from other pork,” she said. “It cooks up into the texture of something you can bite into, a completely different meat...The people purchasing them want the fat because they believe that gives it that wonderful flavor and texture.”
After studying graphic design and art at the University of Memphis, Watkins College of Arts and Design and Savannah College of Arts and Science, he moved back to Lebanon and did carpentry and painted. He and Karen were introduced by a mutual friend and the talk turned to farming.
“I went to see their farm four or five years ago, and it gradually become my career. Like a lot of people from around Wilson County, my family had farming roots, my grandparents especially. I guess Karen and I hit it off on that part. We see eye to eye on farming the way our grandparents did and the lifestyle they lived,” Ferrell said.
What he enjoys most about working the creatures of Wedge Oak Farm with partner Karen, is “the sense of independence. It’s a throwback to a simpler time in a lot of ways. We’re living a similar lifestyle as did our great-grandparents. They were really rugged and can-do type people. You run into other farmers, and they’re cut from a different cloth. They’re tough and have a lot of heart.”