Organic Broadcaster

Mentor program gives farmer confidence to raise pastured pigs

By Hailey Melander

The MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program has proven to be more than just impactful at the farm level for Dayna Burtness, who owns Nettle Valley Farm in Spring Grove, Minn., with her husband, Nick. “My confidence, my peace of mind, and my quality of life have just really improved knowing that my mentor Eric [Kreidermacher] is only a phone call away,” Burtness said.

“I was totally a suburban kid. I hadn’t even mowed a lawn until I was 19 and worked on my first farm,” Burtness said. She interned at a farm while she was in college, and “totally fell in love with it.” She started a student-run garden and, after graduating college, managed several market gardens in the Twin Cities.

Her mentor had quite a different start in the farming industry. “I grew up on a conventional confinement hog farm,” Kreidermacher said. “Now my wife, Ann, and I have two organic farms.” They raise heritage Red Wattle hogs on pasture and in Swedish-style deep bedding. They also have heritage cattle that are completely on pasture.

“My wife is the one who spearheaded the idea of us organic farming back in the early 2000s,” he explained. “We were starting to make a personal lifestyle change that focused on healthy food and healthy soils. My farms weren’t big enough to farm conventionally, and going organic really gave us the opportunity to farm again.” He currently has 400 acres, and raises hundreds of hogs and cattle under the family farm name Pork & Plants.

Over a decade after first getting her hands dirty, Burtness now owns 67 acres and raises pastured pork on a smaller scale than Kreidermacher. This is her second time participating in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program; her first time she was mentored as a vegetable farmer. The experience has been “fantastic from the get-go,” she said, although she had healthy reservations at first.

Dayna Burtness takes a break with her farming mentor, Eric Kreidermacher. Burtness enrolled in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program to learn how to add pigs to her operation.

“I hoped that he would take me seriously,” Burtness said, noting that she has experienced a great deal of what she calls “benevolent sexism” as a woman farmer. “When I was getting farm insurance, a guy that I was talking to called my business plan ‘cute’ and ‘amusing,’” she said. “It’s been a theme. It’s annoying, and it really takes the wind out of your sails.”

In addition, Burtness feared that the disparity in size between their two farm operations might make the mentorship difficult. “I’m super small scale – this year we’re only finishing 25 pigs – so I was worried when Harriet [the MOSES organic specialist who runs the program] matched me with Kreidermacher, because I knew his operation is very, very large for a pastured pork producer,” Burtness explained. “Plus his pigs aren’t on pasture all the time.” Ultimately, however, the difference in size has been beneficial, she added.

“Some of the infrastructure that works on his scale can be scaled down and still be applicable to mine,” she said. She feeds her pigs certified organic feed that is corn-, soy-, and fishmeal-free, and struggled with her pigs wasting it. Fortunately, Kreidermacher had a feeding system in place that would work equally well on Burtness’s smaller scale. “He helped me think through [the issue], and we actually did a joint purchase of feeders to save on shipping,” she said. The feeders were delivered to Kreidermacher, and since Burtness doesn’t have a loading dock, he drove them to her farm.

Burtness’s herd struggled with some health problems in the cool, wet spring. Kreidermacher was available to help with those as well. “He’s seen everything; he’s been doing this for so long,” Burtness said. He even brought down supplements to help Burtness with the health problems the pigs were having. “He made it very clear he would take calls day and night if anything was going on. He’s the best!” she exclaimed.

Kreidermacher and Burtness share what she calls a “holistically minded” approach to animal welfare. He offered advice for using minerals, supplements, and apple cider vinegar to help Burtness stabilize and maintain her herd’s health.

The 25-head herd that Burtness currently raises spends all of its time on pasture, which is ideal for her farm where only 2 of its 67 acres are tillable.

Despite feeling the typical uncertainty of a relative newcomer to raising livestock, Burtness has a deep-rooted passion for her heritage-breed pigs and for raising them organically (though uncertified) on pasture. “Everything that I’ve read and experienced in my life has led me to believe that organic is totally the way of the future. It’s the best for your bottom line; it’s the best way to farm for your health; and, it’s the best tasting food. It hasn’t occurred to me to try other methods,” she said.

Even though she is strongly in favor of growing and consuming organic food, her pigs are not certified organic. She has no current plans to pursue certification. Pastured pigs are better suited to her farm’s topography, she explained. She personally finds this approach ideal for pig welfare.

“I think when we look at our food system as a whole, one of the ways that pigs play a valuable role is that they can eat so many different things that are still healthy for them but might not be certified organic. They can turn it into really high-quality meat while on pasture. That doesn’t always work with organic certification,” she said.

Kreidermacher also has his own reasons for not certifying his animals. “The animals we don’t certify organic; the land and crops we do,” he said. Kreidermacher and Burtness both deal in a local, direct market; they have personal relationships with their customers, who are able to visit the farms and don’t feel the need for certification.

“If I was going wholesale and beyond the local market, I would need that paperwork to make my product stand out in the marketplace,” Kreidermacher said. “I raise organically, and everything is consumed internally, so it’s a closed-loop system.”

Animal welfare was a concern of Burtness’s before beginning the MOSES mentorship program. So she was pleased to find Kreidermacher shares the same mentality. “He just really, really cares about his animals, and really cares about the health of his land, and his family,” Burtness said. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”

Burtness still has some time left in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program, and hopes to continue her relationship with Kreidermacher as she slowly grows her farm in the coming years.

“We started with 3 [pigs], then 10, and this year we’re doing 25. So, even though we’re still very small-scale we are growing,” she said. “In the next five years, we’ll increase the number of pigs we’ll finish on the farm, and then, in the next decade, we’ll consider whether we’ll want to move to a full farrow to finish. When I was a vegetable farmer I definitely grew a little too fast, and that led to health problems and burnout, and this time around I’m trying to take it very, very slowly.”

Kreidermacher mirrored Burtness’s sentiment. “[The mentorship] is never going to stop,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll always stay in contact. We’re so alike in philosophies. And, she’s got a knowledge base that I want to tap, because she’s certified in permaculture. So I want to pick her brain.

“I really want to make sure that we advance and help this next generation,” he said, expressing the sentiment behind the MOSES mentorship program. “The new farmers are our future, and we need to make sure that we help them as much as possible.”

Hailey Melander is on the MOSES communications team.

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