Kellie and Ben Deen own and operate Savannah River Farms in Newington, Ga. They specialize in raising their livestock naturally to produce better tasting and healthier meat. The Deens will speak at the 18th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Recipe for Change: Better Farms, Better Flavors, which will be held on Feb. 20-21, 2015, at the Classic Center in Athens, Ga. We talked to the Deens about the benefits of raising animals outdoors and what they have learned about raising hogs.
Why do you think it’s so important to raise hogs naturally outdoors?
Hogs are very social animals, and when I see pictures of hogs in crates it makes me sick to my stomach. They are such smart animals and to keep them in those crates is a fate worse than death. We feel that they are so much healthier living outdoors in the fresh air and mentally, the rewards are amazing. The meat quality is much higher than swine raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as all they do is stand there and eat, whereas our hogs and pigs run and play and take mud baths and really enjoy life. We do not butcher small pigs for our restaurants as we want them to have a life of enjoyment before their end comes. People really underestimate the intelligence of a hog. We handle ours very quietly when moving them from pen to pen and loading them to go to slaughter which is only a few hundred feet as we slaughter on our farm. You just use the right body language to get them to go where you need them to.
How is raising hogs outdoors profitable?
Raising hogs on the dirt for us is profitable because of the price that we can charge for our products. One thing is for certain though, most hog farmers raising naturally are not going to get rich but they can make a comfortable living, working along with their family and being proud of the meats they are producing.
It is a niche market right now, and the customers are definitely seeing the difference in our pork versus the pork that comes from hogs raised in confined animal feeding operations. More people want humanely raised meat, and I believe that is going to continue to get more popular in years to come. I do not see this as a fad at all. That being said, it is true that CAFO can raise a market hog in four months. It takes us eight months of feed to raise a hog to that size. We are very blessed in the fact that we have a huge restaurant base and we work very well with our chefs. Most of the chefs met us through farmers markets as we do not cold call on restaurants, and we found early on that the chefs that we took samples too and catered to did not become great customers. It was ultimately the chefs that came looking for our kind of meats and came out to the farm to see how we do things, and they are a large part of our business. Because we process our own meats every week they can get fresh meats and get exactly what cuts they want. Chefs want you to make it as easy as possible for them.
What makes hogs so popular among chefs and why are they in demand?
Chefs want good meat from good hogs. Have you ever seen the kind of pork meat that comes from US Foods and Cisco? It doesn’t resemble our meat at all. I think that a lot of people that go to restaurants are tired of the same old steak, and with a hog a chef can make so many different dishes. Hogs are very popular with chefs right now, and I pray that it stays that way for a long time. Hogs are just very versatile when it comes to cooking with them, and the chefs are now using parts of the hog that used to be thrown into sausage or even into the garbage and the customers are just loving it.
As for demand, you have to be able to be consistent with your meats, and this is where some people fail in working with restaurants. Be honest with the chef and tell him what you can provide and how often and grow from there. If you want to work with restaurants then you have to work with the head chef, so start off small and get to know the guy and his likes and dislikes. Offer a small sample or two. Invite them out to your farm, small or large…simple things like that go along way with potential customers.
How did you become involved in the local food movement, and what have you learned about raising hogs naturally?
We became involved with the local food movement absolutely by chance. We had been raising calves for the commercial market for years and we were starting to get very sad every time we loaded the calf crop to go to the sale market. I remember sitting in the recliner looking for things that could be done on 100 acres of land, and I ran across an article about raising animals naturally and humanely without antibiotics. Though we were already doing that, we were just selling them a different way. I read about how people were really wanting to purchase free roaming chickens so the next day I went to the USDA local office and starting seeing what they had in ways of loans for a starting farmer. That day I ordered 500 biddies. After raising them, I got a contract with Destiny Organics in Atlanta to provide them with whole chickens and proved to the farm service agency that I was ready for a farm loan.
We already had cows, so we moved into hogs. We were lucky as Ben raised hogs with his father for about 20 years commercially so he knew a lot about hogs. How we were going to raise them, however, was completely new to him. Anyone could do what we did the way that we did it if they want it badly enough. We didn’t inherit land or animals. We did it the old fashioned way with late nights and hard work. We went from 500 chickens to over 300 swine including pigs and then we built and opened our own USDA slaughter and processing facility here on the farm in less than four years.