Pastured Pork from Wil-Den Family Farms

As you approach Wil-Den Family Farms on Sandy Lake Road in Mercer County, PA, you’re immersed in the pastoral landscape of what most people think of when they think of farms: generous doses of green pasture, dotted by grazing cattle (you may even be lucky enough to spot a bison), dotted by the occasional silo and barn.

Turn the corner onto Limber Road, and you’re suddenly confronted by signs of the changes that have transformed similar landscapes across the nation over the course of the past sixty years: “Lot for Sale!” / “Sold!”

When I arrive at the farm, I mention to Denise Brownlee (the -Den half of Wil-Den; her husband, William, is the Wil-) that I noticed they’d be getting some new neighbors. “Well,” she replied, “Those lots have been for sale for a few years and no one has started building yet.” And when they do? “At least we were here first,” she says. “Plus, because our sows are in pasture, they don’t really let off a smell like the big operations do.”

It was through the big operations that the Brownlees got their start with pork. “Bill used to manage a 1000-sow operation in Lebanon County,” Denise tells me. “Nowadays, that would be considered a fairly small operation, but it was pretty big back then.” Rather than make a career of managing confined pork, Bill decided to strike out on his own.

They began raising their pastured pork on a different plot of land in 1994, and then moved to their current location in Jackson Center in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2002 that they started selling their own product. Before that, they sold their hogs on the commodities market.

When they opted to market their pork on their own, they reduced the size of their operation from a high of 175 sows down to its current 30 [sows are the breeding animals; their litters are fattened and finished to produce the pork]. At any one time, they have 150-200 swine on the farm.

“A lot of people don’t realize how much work goes into selling the product,” Denise explained. “It’s like a whole other job on top of the farm.” Moreover, there’s something to be said for quality over quantity.

By reducing the number of animals that they raise on the farm, the Brownlees have increased the amount of green space on the farm and have made it easier for them to rotate their herd. They’re raising the swine (all various crosses of Duroc (red), Yorkshire (white), and Hampshire (black with a white band)) on old strip mining ground in the process of reclamation, so anything they can do to reduce the extent to which the animals root through the dirt helps the land to recover.

The sows all have rings through their snouts, which makes them tender and decreases the likelihood that they will over-root. Be that as it may, in the spring when the ground is soft, I could see several of them nosing their way through the dirt.

When the piglets are weaned from the sows, they spend six weeks in a nursery area to be trained to the electric fence (”that’s the one stage where there’s sometimes a little bit of a smell,” says Denise, “but as compared to the larger operations, it’s really nothing”). As soon as they respect the wires and know not to touch them, the animals can then be moved to finishing lots, where the food they’re able to root from the ground is supplemented with corn and a soy-based protein feed. “We’re careful not to call our animals grass-fed,” Denise tells me, “But rather pastured. I know there are other farmers out there who do more with grass, and letting their animals root through woodlands, but,” she shrugs, “we do what we can here.”

As I watch the young swine in the finishing lots chase each other across the field, I know these animals have it pretty good. Sure, they’re set to be slaughtered when they reach 250 pounds (about 6-7 months old), but they had the good fortune to be born into a 30-sow operation where they have the chance to run and enjoy sunlight and know what it means to root through the dirt; their cousins in the multi-thousand sow warehouses aren’t so lucky.

The fact that the animals get to exercise means that they’re somewhat leaner than a cage potato animal would be; and it also means that what fat the pork does have is higher in vitamin A D than the fat of an animal that doesn’t see the sunlight (as a result of the animals metabolizing vitamin D when the sunlight hits their skin). The difference is noticeable in the taste (not that I’ve yet cooked any of the several pieces of meat I bought today, but I’ve had the Brownlees’ pork before and it has noticeably more flavor than a supermarket cut). Not to mention the variety of cuts available from Wil-Den: today I got pork shanks. Pork shanks! You never see shanks in the grocery store. I’m so excited, I can’t wait to braise them! Not to mention ribs (St. Louis, babyback, or boneless); chops; shoulders; hams… you get the idea. Fresh, pastured pork.
Wil-Den Family Farms
Limber Road, Jackson Center, PA
(814) 786-7438

  • Photo courtesy Wil-Den Farms

3 Responses to “Pastured Pork from Wil-Den Family Farms”

  1. mom Says:

    You may be too young to remember your Uncle Luther’s pigs and the taste of the pork. He had a small pig farm operation and his hogs ate whatever they could find including the pecans your grandmother was planning to gather up from the ground under the trees (the pigs ate these when they got through the electric fences and out of the pasture). He would turn the pigs out into the sweet potato fields after harvest to allow them to root out the sweet potatoes that were missed. The taste of his pork was delicious. We would notice it especially in the country cured hams he would occasionally give us.

    He sold his pigs commercially and got the best price when they were between 200 and 220 pounds. I can remember the hired hand coming back from market with a couple pigs still in the truck. They were over weight so instead of selling them at a loss, Luther would have them slaughtered for himself. He ate sausage every morning of his life and would sometimes have the whole pig minus the hams and maybe the tenderloin ground into sausage. That was also very good sausage!

    The quality of any meat is directly proportional to the diet of the animal. i guess it’s no wonder that food doesn’t seem to taste as good as it used to!

  2. Fillippelli the Cook Says:

    Just starting to sketch out an op-ed on CAFOs versus small family farms and plan on using a recent Wil-Den pork tenderloin as the lede. All of the pork we’ve had from Wil-Den, and it’s been a lot over the past 2 years, has been fantastic.

    Nice report.

  3. Jo Says:

    I realize one shouldn’t get attached, but the pigs in the picture are quite adorable!

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