By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
The Sommers family raises chickens, both layers and broilers, to supply their family’s needs for eggs and chicken. When COVID-19 hit they decided to create a space for backyard pigs to produce their own pork too.
Dad Jeremiah owns Sommers Brothers construction while mom Pam is a holistic healing practitioner as they raise and homeschool their two children, 14-year-old Ethan and 11-year-old Paige. They live on a micro-hobby farm near Dungannon that is powered by wind and solar energy.
“We had always talked about raising pigs but I made the excuse that we were too busy,” says Pam. “Then COVID-19 hit and while Jeremiah kept working, I had more time.” With goals of saving money and growing food already a part of their family culture, the disruptions to the food chain during the pandemic highlighted the issue of food sovereignty.
Plus, they had space to do it. “We know lots of people who want to do this kind of thing. It seemed kind of crazy not to take advantage of the space … it just all made sense,” says Jeremiah.
Though they had never raised a pig before, the family did know how to do research. Many articles and YouTube videos later, the family learned what is required to raise pigs. They weren’t aware of the 40-page manual called “Small Producers Guide to Pigs” (see accompanying story) being offered by Ontario Pork but were keen to read it after learning about its existence.
Jeremiah knew from experience with their meat birds that it’s easier to purchase animals than find an abattoir to process them so booking an appointment with the butcher was the first thing they did. Then, Jeremiah used his construction skills to build a substantial lean-to on the side of the small chicken barn to offer shade and shelter and protect the pigs from the wind. A hard-sided paddock was built to ensure the soon-to-arrive pigs could be contained which also served as training ground for an interior electric fence. This was necessary as the goal was to fence a quarter acre of hills and bush for the pigs to wander, root and wallow in. The structure is probably grander than what pigs require but since Jeremiah is a builder, it’s just how he does things.
Three Berkshire-Duroc crossed pigs, two females and one male, were purchased from McQuail’s Meeting Place farm near Lucknow and on arrival, the trio quickly settled into their new digs.
“We put a shock fence six inches off the ground in the paddock and they learned how it works in a couple of hours. They don’t go anywhere near it,” says Jeremiah. Pam is pleased. “I’m not nervous at all about them escaping.”
So far, it has been a great project for the whole family. “We find ourselves just standing out there and watching them. Pigs are so funny!” exclaims Pam. Jeremiah says he finds them hugely entertaining as well. “We expected them to be timid and stay away from us but it’s been the total opposite. They made themselves at home immediately and the next day they were eating out of our hands. They are super friendly.”
“We bribe them with marshmallows,” laughs Pam.
With daughter Paige being an animal lover, Jeremiah and Pam made it clear from the start that these pigs were being raised to provide meat to their family with extra to sell. The goal is to raise the pigs to 250 pounds at which time they will be taken to Green’s Meat Market in Wingham to be butchered. The Sommers won’t attempt to overwinter them and are looking to gain experience from this summer’s experiment to decide if they will try to raise pigs and piglets in subsequent years.
It was early days when this interview was done. The family has read how destructive pigs can be. They are counting on the electric fence to protect the paddock and so far, the pigs have not chewed their shelter. As to the rooting and wallowing behaviour that can significantly change the topography of the field, they aren’t worried about that either. They live on a farm of hills and woods and say the pigs are free to muck about the pasture to their heart’s content.
“Honestly, it hasn’t been nearly as daunting as we, and other people, thought it would be,” says Jeremiah of the experience so far. Pam adds that the pandemic has created mental space to take on new projects, as well as time to process how their family wants to live and make use of their property moving forward. So far, the “pig project” has been tremendously rewarding, entertaining and a great learning project for them all. ◊