In a quiet corner of the Cowichan Valley’s Sahtlam area, Julia Rylands is raising pigs on acreage she calls Muddy Feet Farm.
Rylands and Muddy Feet demonstrate at every step how interconnected Valley farming is with the whole Cowichan community.
It starts with pig feed.
It’s not an organic farm but Rylands is “as organic as I can be. I made a decision that for growing animals it’s not do-able. Well, it’s do-able but it’s very expensive and I’m not sure the value is there.”
For Rylands it’s all about waste.
“I get a lot of recovered food from supermarkets through the Cowichan Green Community [and others] and it’s not organic. Because it’s really important to me to reduce food waste, there’s a compromise here that I have to make.”
In addition to their natural diet, the pigs are fed local products: whey and extra cheese from Haltwhistle Cheese, spent grain from Ampersand Distillery and the vegetables from Cowichan Green Community’s food recovery program.
“I think these guys are so important to our whole ecology and the balance of life. Some people just eat vegetables and that’s fine but meat is something that sustains us. But these fellows are very good at dealing with ground like this and providing really good healthy meat.
“My passion here is to provide good meat to the community and good weaners so local farmers can grow their own. That’s why it’s so exciting to me that someone like Hudson’s [Duncan restaurant Hudson’s on First] or Bill Jones [Deerholme Farm] have brought my meat to their customers. That really confirms what I’ve been doing.”
Chefs and restaurants are delighted to be able to purchase such excellent pork to use in their recipes.
Hudson’s on First has a story to tell about Muddy Feet Farm.
“A chance encounter and an introduction through a mutual friend led us to Julia and her exceptional, happy pigs. The small number of Berkshire/Tamworth cross that she breeds and raises each year are free to roam, engaging in behaviours that come quite naturally to a pig…The result is not just more sustainably and humanely raised pork, it’s also the most delicious pork any of us have ever tasted.
“Only eight of these beautiful animals go to market each year in the spring. Hudson’s gets one of them, which makes its way into our charcuterie, and, very briefly, onto our dining room menu. To eat Julia’s pork, is a celebration of terroir, of sustainability, and of the uncompromising integrity which makes small artisan producers like her so special.”
Bill Jones of Deerholme Farm is known for the exquisite dinners he hosts. He, too, raves about Rylands’ pork.
“Muddy Feet Farm is a wonderful treasure for the Cowichan Valley,” he said. “Julia treats the animals with love and respect and they get lots of room to roam, are fed organic feed and allowed to forage on their own. The result is pork that is clean flavoured with an excellent texture. We have used the whole animal in many of our dishes at Deerholme Farm.”
How Ryland has chosen to raise her swine, which is completely different from large-scale commercial pig operations, follows naturally from her concern for sustainability, and translates into making sure her animals have a good life — both in health and in happiness.
There’s a process before visitors can set foot on the farm. Boots and any other item that could make contact with the animals and their environment are carefully checked.
“Bio-security is really important. There are diseases that get carried from farm to farm. It’s important to isolate anything that comes in. Even a boar that I borrow has to be isolated for a bit before it goes in with the sow.”
The first stop in a tour of the farm was to see her two new breeders, registered Tamworths.
“The Tamworth is a heritage breed and I’m trying to get registered ones because I want to make sure that the line is as pure as it can be. She came from the Island but her line came originally from the Interior. And this one I had to fly in — poor little guy — from Ontario because you can’t breed the same lines.
“The Tamworth is a nice long, lean animal as compared to the Berkshire. They’re also very hardy. The pink pigs, like Yorkshires, don’t do as well over winter or out in the pastures and the woods during any weather that’s wet and cold. These guys, I find them lying out in the snow. I only bring them into the barn if they’re breeding.”
Next up, some piglets, always a favourite sight. Muddy Feet usually has three to four litters in the spring that get sold to other farms, but the breeding season has continued this year.
“The litters I have later in the year are for pork because it’s much better to raise pork pigs over winter because they don’t put on as much fat and the meat has a better texture,” Ryland said. “They don’t put on the fat because they’re burning it off to keep warm. I have two at the moment, they’re a Berkshire/Tamworth cross, and then six at Glen Eden Farm, which is an organic farm just down the road. So I move them around on those pastures. Then by the spring/early summer they then go to the slaughterhouse to get ready to go into people’s freezers.”
A Berkshire sow, Coriander, and a boar brought in to service her are already working on the next generation.
“She, now, hopefully is pregnant. So in about three to four months time, she’ll have her babies and they’ll go to farms. Most of them are up Island in the Comox/Courtenay area. I have three farms up there that buy from me. This litter over here is going to Keating Estate. They raise them and then sell them in packages of pork. They’re doing some amazing work there.”
Rylands is picky about where her young weaner pigs go.
“I make sure I go and check the place I’m selling to because I don’t want to sell to people who just keep them in the barn or just keep them in one area and don’t want to move them around. People sometimes have pigs on a small, square dust bowl and they don’t enjoy that. Then they get bored and want to get out. They don’t have anything to root. They’re natural rooters. I want to make sure they have a good life. And then they’re happy pigs when they go to market,” she said.
At Muddy Feet Farm, she tries to keep the operation “as free range as I can make it. Everybody has to manage their land so that it’s sustainable and that’s the important thing for me, that I don’t ruin the land I’m on. I have only four acres, which is why I have to restrict my enthusiasm on getting too many pigs.”
Rylands does her best to develop a good relationship with her animals “so that even as they get older they respect me and know that I’m OK and that I’m not going to do anything nasty to them. They will just follow me, so I can move them around the farm without any difficulties.”
Moving them around the farm is key. She has divided her acreage into different areas that she rotates the pigs through.
“I try to make sure that the land has been left for at least six months before they get put back on it. So it has time to recover. Otherwise, they end up trashing the land and it doesn’t recover.”
Ryland says moving the pigs around also helps to keep them healthy without resorting to pharmaceuticals.
Some people will keep a pig in a small area until the ground is bare and muddy.
“It’s really bad for their feet, it’s not good for the animal at all. In fact, I have refused to sell to people who have their pigs like that.”
“[Moving them around] keeps them from picking up anything. If you keep them in a confined area, they can get parasites and worms….Parasite control is a big issue with me, as well as making sure the pigs are not bored.”
“You have to keep them occupied. The older ones sleep quite a lot of the day but the period in the morning and the evening when they’re up and about and want to do stuff, they root and play.”
One particular sow, who comes from another farm, was a teenage pregnancy. There was concern that the piglets might be too big for her to deliver safely, so she came to Muddy Feet Farm, where Rylands has a bit of reputation for dealing with these difficult situations.
“I gave in and took her on. She had eight piglets without any help, one was breach. She did really well,” Rylands said.
She likes to keep the piglets with their mother longer than most industrial and commercial breeders will.
“These little guys have about two weeks left before I separate them from their mum. They’re six weeks old now. I keep them for two months. Again, some people will sell them at five weeks, which doesn’t give them a good enough start in life. These are pretty much all on solid food, hardly taking any milk from her. In an industrial environment, they are usually separated at four weeks but that is entirely different.”
Another point in favour of holding separation off a bit longer is that the piglets build up more antibiotic resistance against any diseases with the help they have been getting through their mother’s milk.
“The other reason for pasturing them, especially at this age, is that they get all the irons and minerals from the soil whereas if you keep them in the barn you have to give them injections against disease, and you have to give them iron injections and a whole lot of other things, which are wholly unnecessary if you keep them as natural as possible. And, their behaviour is so much better when they are out because this is their natural environment.”
In a fenced area, a pair of sows are hanging out together.
Ginger is a Tamworth, and Rosemary is the granddaughter of one of the original sows Rylands started with.
One of them is pregnant and the other will go in with Rylands’ boar when he comes back from a visit to another farm.
“Pigs are very intelligent. They have personalities. They’re family.”