Fishing with Polywire: It isn’t for amateurs

At Firefly Farms, we all wear many hats. Today’s blog is brought to you by Dugan aka The Farm Manager. We have learned that best laid plans rarely happen when it comes to anything farm related.

We use some really great tech to make this farm hum. Nothing is more important nor more a pain in the butt than our trusty fencing reels for polywire in our temporary pastures. These reels are like ginormous deep sea fishing reels that hold electric fencing rope. They are awesome! Each light weight reel can hold ¼ mile of string. That is the potential for sixteen hundred and forty feet of ever loving NIGHTMARE. Here is an analogy of what happens all too often, and I tell ya folks, I am TIRED of it.

Ever been fishing? You should do it, it gets you off the farm every once in a while. I suggest pond fishing. A Zebco push button reel that has a closed face, an aluminum lounge, a cooler of beer, or box wine, or hooch, a bobber and a few hooks to put a little chicken liver and cheese on. This is fishing. Fishing is not going out with a bait casting reel when your thumb is a little too light on the pressure and you over spool the line and end up with a birds nest that consumes half of the 300yrds you just spooled onto it this morning. 300yrds is a long way, but only half of the grazing reel. See the reels are not as sophisticated as even the dollar store Zebco reel that no one over the age of 5 would be caught dead with. I would walk more miles for a fence reel like that!

The beauty of a fishing reel is that the cool ones have inset spools so that the line cannot get between the spool and the frame, they have level winders, drags, locks and freewheeling at the touch of a smooth acting button. We have a wire spool and a handle. There is a quarter inch on either side for that cursed twisty string to get all manner of fahjigitty. The spool lock is gravity actuated so if the spool leans to the side… well you didn’t really mind if the cows wander into the neighbors garden did you?

These things are a great idea designed by someone who works in an office with no windows to see the outside world where they are used, and they darn sure have never used them or gone fishing! Any fishing reel can be easily disassembled into its many parts for servicing or rinsing out of weeds or salt. Grazing reels… well you probably have guess that the best way to get them apart when that rats nest evolves is to grab a beer, the charcoal lighter a wiener and set the thing on fire. I wish I were not a cheapskate and was brave enough to do that, or rich enough that every time it FUBAR’ed I could gently place it in the trash where I put the rest of the garbage. If I want to fix it and it is good and jammed, and the stubborn part of me won’t let the sensible me just cut the mess out (I mean it does have 1640 feet… I can afford to lose 150…), I need pliers, a screw driver to bastardize as a blunt chisel, and small hammer. PUT THE HAMMER DOWN, it is used to FIX this cursed thing, not do that! Why would we have gotten the pliers if we were going to do THAT?! Yeah, so now we gently have to get this funky toothy sharp springy washer thing off that holds the frame together rather than something sensible like a lock nut. Don’t lose that thing, it is very springy and leaps long distances. Don’t do this in the grass or you will be crawling around for hours, and no you cannot get one at Home Depot, they thought of that and that’s why this odd thing is there, not to make you happy!

I know that we farmers are a cheap and frugal breed. We don’t spend money, unless it is on tractors. Yeah, 250k tractors… Ahhh, with GPS and auto steer, and a built in greaser, and, and, and… So do you think we might pay for a well designed reel? I know I sure would! Heck if someone made a reel like a bait caster and it cost twice what I pay now, I would have saved the difference in labor not mucking about! Maybe this cool imaginary reel would have something to apply tension to the polywire so that it is always tight on the spool, because lord knows it isn’t always tight on the fence! Just so no one thinks I am picking on any reel, I have several of 3 different brands. Every dang blasted one of them does this. They are all the same. It is like every kid in the class was cheating of the same paper and it had a wrong answer!

The first person to deliver 6 of these heavenly designed beauties will be my guest at the very first all you can eat bacon buffet from Firefly Farms.  I will cook it in your kitchen and bring the piles of smoked salty goodness to you in bed with a cup of coffee and the newspaper!

Cheers, Firefly Farmer


The Myth of the Mini Pig: They do not stay small forever

When we first started Firefly Farms, we had people tell us that we should bypass the normal pigs and start a mini pig business. Apparently we missed this Paris Hilton/Honey Boo Boo inspired fad and looked blankly at the speaker. A quick Google search later and we found that people were selling piglets at 4 lbs for upwards of $2,500. Quick math… that is $625/lbs which is WAY better than the market value of any fully grown hog and requires a lot fewer resources. What’s more who wouldn’t mind working daily with all those cuties and know that they were going to a good home once they were weaned? I am not sure what kept us from going down this path, but it faded away pretty much as soon as the web browser was closed.

Fast forward to today and we have a new litter of piglets from one of oDSCN2197ur Guinea Hogs. You remember them? They range between 100-300 lbs when fully grown. The piglets are currently about 1 lbs each and they are indeed mini, but that is because they are supposed to be, they are BABIES! Even when Mulefoots give birth, the piglets are about 2 lbs which is still tiny. However, given three years they will reach a grown weight of about 400-600 lbs. They get BIG! Even potbelly pigs, which gained popularity in the 90s, can grow upwards of 200 lbs if they are not kept fit through diet and exercise. Some even max out nearer to 300 lbs.

This is where breeders are still getting people to purchase their piglets. Most people have no idea that even when large breeds of pigs give birth, their piglets are small with a huge potential for growth. People want a teacup, Juliana, dandies, mini/micro pig and so they believe what they see rather than all the stories of everyone else who wanted the same thing and got a real pig. Some breeders will even show the parents to support their claims that their piglet will only grow to 20-30-40-50 (pick your weight category), but the purchaser is looking at a juvenile who yes can breed, but is no where near their adult size.

Pisa was 2.Pisa Nursing5 lbs at one month when he came to live with me. His growth had been stunted by the infection he was fighting and he was also a runt to start. All of this lead him to being micro and able to live in house while demanding regular meals every 2-4 hours. By the time he went to the farm, 5 weeks later he had sextupled in size and was a much healthier 12.5 lbs, but even then he was smaller than his siblings and on par witDSCN1910h his Guinea Hog buddies.  These days my “mini” piglet is a healthy 300 lbs pig and comes to just above my knee. When he leans into one of his shoulder scratches he can easily push me around. He is still incredibly cute as you can see in his current photo, but by no means is he a tiny pig.

This is the kind of thing that happens to many unsuspecting and frequently uneducated pig owner. They think having a pig will be fun. They are promised they are as easily trained as a dog. (I’ve managed to teach Pisa to sit but that is only when he deems the treat worthy of such work). They are told they are incredibly intelligent. Most of all they are promised, oft times in the purchasing contract, that they will have a small nay mini pig.

None of this is wrong initially. Pigs are fun. They like to play. They make interesting noises. They have adorable pushed up noses and curly tails. They are intrinsically cute. Training can happen and most pigs can be housebroken, taught to walk on leashes, and more, but they are also harder to train if they do not see the point. This is where their intelligence can be a drawback. They have to be highly motivated to do lessons that a dog would happily do for a “Good dog” or ear waggle. One of the best methods to motivate a pig… offer them a treat they cannot refuse.  Pisa and Co will sit repeatedly for Boston Cremes. Offer them a carrot and they have better things to do like try to eat my boots.

Pigs LOVE food. There is a reason we say “pig out” when we eat way too much of a good thing. The mini pig breeders promise that if you feed your pig 1/2 cup of food in the morning and another at night they will stay under the promised weight. That is like telling a teenager that all they are allowed to eat through a growth spurt is tofu and celery and even then only in small quantities. These piglets are literally being starved in to smallness. Their developing bodies do not get the nutrients necessary for them to build healthy bodies. Their skeletons are small and deformed, but their organs grow at the normal rate. This means their internal structures cannot support their own bodies. What’s more, the pig is miserable. It is hungry. It is angry because it cannot understand why it is not being fed what it needs. Imagine being hangry all the time and then having someone asking you to do what you perceive as meaningless tasks. It would end badly. In my case, there would be bodies.

If the owner continues to stick to this regime of withholding food, the piglet will cry all the time.

The piglets in the video are being nursed and are in no way malnourished, but this is their way of saying “Mom, stop walking around so much and provided some nibblets!” A piglet who is actually starving will do this sound all the time, but with more volume, gusto, and need. Say the owner finally goes online and does some quick research and discovers that they are in fact making their pet miserable and begins feeding their baby what it needs. Now the mini pig is having mixed grains, greens, and a medley of nutrient rich foods. It finally has every thing it needs to grow!

This is a great time to introduce two pigs: Esther and Kito. I use them as examples because they have happy endings. Both were promised as mini pigs. Kito was sold to his human as a teacup piglet with a promise that he would never exceed  45-55 lbs. His dad did all his research and came to realize that the diet that was recommended by the breeder would stunt Kito’s growth/health and instead opted to feed him a balanced one. Kito at two and half years was 140 lbs of healthy pig. He was also trained to be a service pig and is the “son” his dad always wanted. Not a bad life.

Esther came to her family in an even more unusual way. Her dad got a FB message from an old high school friend asking if he would take her 6 month old piglet that was more than she could handle with new twins and a dog who did not like the piglet. She had remembered him being an animal lover and she was hoping he could help her out. He was also promised that the piglet was supposed to stop growing around 70 lbs. so would be possible for her to live with him, his partner, their two rescue dogs, and cats in their current house. Esther came home and promptly began growing. Their vet pointed out that her cropped tail was usually some thing done on commercial farms and that there was a very good chance they had adopted an industrial pig. Even knowing this, they had fallen in love with Esther and decided to wait and see. Esther stayed true to her breed and now weighs 670 lbs as of January this year. Wonderfully enough, her family decided to keep her, sold their house in Toronto, and now run an animal sanctuary/farm. Esther gets baths and massages much to the delight of her fans. You can find her FB, Fan page, website, and youtube videos with a quick search.

These are two instances where extraordinary families kept their pigs even after realizing that they had been fooled regarding their teacup status. The sad truth is that most people never plan to have a full sized pig living in their house or apartment. Most are not willing to childproof their living space indefinitely to keep a pig from getting into everything. So what happens to all these pigs?

First the numbers. Since 1998, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of mini pigs in the United States and Canada. Numbers used to be about 200,000, but  today there are perhaps as many as a million. What if about half of those turned out to be animals who are going to hit 200 plus pounds. Then of those who do reach those number the small percentage of people who are going to keep their pigs despite their size. Most of them however become nuisances, BIG nuisances. Most owners will at least attempt to find them a sanctuary like the one set up by Esther’s dads, but a large number are euthanized. This is because the sanctuaries are literally swamped with calls by panicked owners trying to find homes for their pigs. In 2009, there were an estimated 300, 000 rescues which has only increased with each year. “These poor inbred and half-starved pigs are inundating sanctuaries,” says Richard Hoyle of the Pig Preserve. “Probably 90 percent of the so-called micro pigs will either be dead or in a sanctuary before they are two years old.” Why are so many dying? The prescribed diet is responsible for some, but also in an attempt to get smaller and smaller pigs, unscrupulous breeders have been inbreeding. It is so bad that some times pigs are even born without anuses!

Now for a little bit of good news so you do not walk away feeling like you need to go hug a pig (you still can) or hide away from humanity. In response to the increased number of non-mini pigs there has been an increase in the number of shelters and sanctuaries able to take them in and hopefully find them new homes. They are doing their best to deal with a huge problem which includes housing and funding so many pigs. Their best advice is if you still feel like you want a pet pig, please go to a sanctuary and adopt one from there. Not only does it open up one more spot for another rescue, but it also means they can fully explain the commitment of being a pig owner. After all a happy healthy pig of any size can live between 15-20 years.

Surprisingly enough, Paris Hilton kept Princess Piglette, her teacup pig, who turned out to be a full blood Vietnamese Pot Bellied Pig. I hope that more people will keep their giant teacup pigs and others will see the before and after pictures of  Princess Piglette to realize… there is NO such thing as a mini pig!

Guinea Hogs: The Fuzzy Pug Ewoks of the Hog World

Today from PisaSo my Mom claims that I am the cutest pig at the farm and that she adores me above all others, but I understand that this is because I am ‘her pig’… and that really the crown of the cute pageant goes to the Guinea Hogs. How could it not when she describes them the “Pug Ewok” pigs?

So what is it about the Guinea Hogs that makes them so darn adorable?

  1. Guinea Hogs are small in stature and quite stout making them look like little fireplugs. A fully grown Guinea weighs typically between 100 – 300 lbs which is tiny considering a fully grown Mulefoot is between 400 – 600 lbs. This small stature made them perfect for backyard homesteading since they take up little space but really pack on the pounds.FF Baby Guinea 2
  2. Guinea Hogs have smooshed upturned noses and long facial hair which lead to the nickname “Pug Ewoks”. When begging for treats they also have the ability to turn puppy dog eyes on high which makes this a winning combination. Some thing this piglet is well on his way to perfecting.
  3. They are super friendly and social. There is a good reason why they are the welcoming committee as you enter the farm. Their small stature makes them nonthreatening and their belief that they are wasting away makes them very vocal and friendly towards anyone they believe might be hiding a treat.

Three excellent reasons for you to come and make their acquaintance.

DSCN2197Aside from their cuteness, Guinea Hogs have numerous other admirable qualities as a breed. They are unique to the United States. Also known as the Pineywoods Guinea, Guinea Forest Hog, Acorn Eater, and Yard Pig, the breed was once the most numerous pig breed found on homesteads in the Southeast. Today there are fewer than 200 which puts them on the American Breed Livestock Conservancy’s threatened list. When Tilly Foster Farm (their Guineas came from Sullbar Farm in New Hampshire) decided they needed to find a good home for their small herd, they asked Firefly Farms if they would take over stewardship which we did gladly. Our second little herd came in the middle of winter in the forms of Zeus, Persephone, and Athena. Three cuter hogs is you never did see!

Continuing with their history… They were a favorite homestead pig in the Southeast and are excellent foragers with a voracious appetite. Voracious is exactly the word to describe them. They will eat rodents, snakes, and anything else they can dig up. That is one of the reasons they were found on almost every homestead… they kept pests away from the house. When homesteading stopped being a common lifestyle, the Guinea Hogs fell out of favor and almost disappeared completely. It was not until the 1980s that they were reestablished as a breed and once again became used for homesteading.

Guinea Hog ownership has lead to some interesting learning curves. Like when we Poppa Guinea 4got the original herd, our boar Papa Guinea was so fat that he could not preform his boarly duties thanks to his very large waistline. (Seriously, that is the politest way I could put it.) He had to be put on a strict regime so that his waistline would shrink enough so that the breed could continue at the farm. We knew that weight was impacting the boars’ ability to cover, but what we only recently learned is that weight has been a limiting factor for our litter size. The largest litter we had was three babies. Now even the girls are on controlled rations in addition to whatever they forage from their run and this lead to the largest litter yet… 8 babies!! On the American Guinea Hog Association website, it says that an average litter is six, but that the range is between 1-14. Even the large Tri-Heritage girls get worn out by 14 piglets, it is hard to imagine a little Guinea girl keeping up.

Finally, the exact origins of the breed have been lost as ‘guinea’ was used to refer to any pig with African heritage and any animals that was smaller than the standard. DSCN2378Through adaptation and crossbreeding with Appalachian English pigs the American breed was created. They are incredibly hogs for hams and fat which makes them excellent for cured meats. When rendered their lard is wonderful for anyone who is a pastry chef and is starting to create a little niche.

Come visit some of the cutest hogs ever, but save the treats for me!

The Culture of the “The Other White Meat”

It is the catchphrase that everyone knows especially if you are a kid of the 80s “Pork- The Other White Meat”. Ad campaigns ran on TV and in the grocery stores. Pork was hailed as healthier than beef with its bright red coloring and fat and even rivaled chicken for its leanness. The growing American fear of “fat” was creatively played on to the point that today most Americans no longer realize that pork used to be a marbled RED meat just like beef.

So how did the US become so bamboozled? Once upon a time, pork was the food of everyone. Pigs have an amazing ability to change anything they foraged into meat, but as indiscriminate omnivores they will pretty much eat anything and everything if they are hungry. As you can imagine that left some folks squeamish about eating them, but for those who needed protein and had limited means, they were the perfect animal. What’s more anyone who has had a nice slice of prosciutto can tell you that salted and cured meat can only get better with time. In the pre-refrigerator in every house days, it was crucial to have the means of preserving meat. Pork was the perfect option since fat preserves.

If you ask someone from outside the US, ‘what is the meat of America’ you will most likely be told beef. After all, we are a nation of cowboys right? Historically though, we have been a country of pork eaters. Beef was too expensive for most people and did not keep as well. It was only when more and more people began leaving rural areas and moving into the cities that this slowly began to change. With the advent of refrigeration, people could purchase more beef and store it for longer. With the growing concerns about fat, they switched to chicken. So what did that mean to the pork industry? They needed to make changes to their pork in order to bring it back into popularity.

Through the help of the government, universities, breeders, and other organizations, they came up with the perfect pig that would produce lean meat in record time and be able to do all this on a very different diet than before. One side benefit was that not only was the meat leaner, but it also was pale and would visually link it to chicken which was considered to be healthier. It was around this time that a study came out linking an increased risk of heart disease with red meat scaring people further away from fat. What the study failed to address is there are beneficial and harmful fats and that the human body has been designed to consume animal fats in moderation.

Once considered the best part of the pig for its multiple uses not ONLY as a food product but for its other lubricating properties, lard became a bad word. The fatty meat that preserved better was no longer being purchased in bulk to be fed to sailors, miners and slaves. At one point, the meat was considered less important than the lard which could be used as an industrial lubricant or cooking oil. Instead, canned food, refrigeration, and plant based oils became all the rage. Plant based oils simplified the process of getting oil since all you had to was raise the plant and extract the oil rather than feed the plant to a pig and THEN extract the oil. Pig breeders saw the trend and began breeding pigs for their meat rather than their fat which lead to increasingly leaner and leaner pigs.

Enter the age of the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) which is a word that strikes horror into farms like Firefly Farms. At another time, we will go into all the dangers associated with this form of animal production. On these “farms” pigs are kept in confinement their whole lives, never see the sun, walk on fresh grass, or get to be pigs and experience normal pig activities. This further affects their already lean meat. Myoglobin is the protein responsible for giving meat its red color and it carries oxygen to the muscles. In an animal who is confined and not moving the amount of myoglobin in the muscles is decreased. That is why on a chicken you have white and red meat, white in the breast since they are now nearly flightless, but red in the drumsticks as they still run around. In a study conducted by Texas A&M, it was found that factory farmed pigs had myoglobin levels comparable to chicken or fish. Take a moment to internalize that. An animal that can easily reach 600 lbs. had the same levels as an animal that rarely tops 10 lbs. Pigs are also rooters and those who are able to root naturally get all their minerals from their environment which includes iron, another contributor to red blood. Pigs at CAFO never have that opportunity which is why the piglets need to be given a huge shot of iron after birth whereas piglets born on pasture get theirs directly from rooting. However, as CAFO piglets age they can develop anemia which contributes to the paleness of their flesh.

The end result of all the breeding and CAFOs is pork that is incredibly pale with almost no fat except for that located on the very edge of the meat. This is the meat they needed to market beginning in the 70s and 80s. One thing that they could not use in their campaign was that this newer whiter meat was in anyway as flavorful as pork’s previous red incarnation. So they didn’t. Many of us have strong memories of super dry pale pork chops on our dinner plates that were only palatable with extra sauce so we could swallow the meat. The term PSE (“pale, soft, and exudative”) began being used to describe some pork given its unappetizing appearance. It turns out that this ‘new’ meat came from pigs who are completely neurotic as a result of their breeding and living situations. And yet, this meat came from leanest pigs, the epitome of the breeding program.

Pork Rating

With an advertising budget that would reach 9 million dollars and figure skater Peggy Fleming as the National Pork Boards’ spokeswoman, they launched their new campaign with the slogan “Pork- The Other White Meat” in January 1987. By years end, the new campaign was a success and ranked right up there with “Got Milk?” and “Just Do It!” In 2011, Adweek wrote that the campaign is “among the most successful rebranding moves in the history of the food biz.” It is a campaign that has had long term effects on the American diet and relationship with food. Even though pork is STILL a red meat as it is mammalian versus white meat which can only be used to describe avian (bird) or fish, it has been successfully disassociated from beef and lamb.

Remember that study that linked heart disease with red meat? In 2010, Harvard did their own study which found no evidence that eating red meats leads to heart disease.[1] Instead the impact on cholesterol levels was dependent on what diet the animal was raised on. In addition, the dark meat of an animal actually carries more nutrients that your body needs than white meat including but not limited to B vitamins, iron, zinc, and selenium. So everything we as Americans have been lead to believe about pork for the longest time is in reality wrong. This includes how well done our pork should be cooked.

We have long believed that pork needs to be cooked to the point of no pink (if there was any to begin with) in order to safely consume it. Anything less than medium was deemed unsafe up until 2011 when the guidelines for pork were changed to be on par with lamb and beef. The previous guidelines were in place for a reason, pork raised in CAFOs rather than on pasture has a greater chance of risk to the consumer because disease could spread so quickly from one animal to the next. The USDA changes though is because the CAFOs claim they have improved their pigs’ diet AND can better protect them against disease because they are indoors and away from wild animals that might spread disease to them. These are the same people producing pigs so anemic, confined, neurotic and stressed that their meat it mushy and gray. Additionally, precautions have to be taken to prevent them from having a sudden shock (even as simple as a loud noise) or they might drop dead.

This is why we shudAngelinas babiesder when anyone refers to our pork as “the other white meat”. Anyone who is raising their pigs on special feed, wild forage, and outdoors wants to distance themselves as far as possible from the commercial pork. It is not just about the taste though that is incredibly important to us, but is about the whole lifestyle of the animal. We want pigs that are happy, social, and getting to do piggy things like wallow and rooting for treats. We believe that what they eat (no fillers in our feed!) and how they live greatly impacts their meat. The only confinement our pigs experience are the portable electric fences that keep out any possible predators and stop unplanned pregnancies. They never develop neurotic issues like ear or tail biting. When it comes time for them to walk the Green Mile, they have their human handlers with them every step of the way giving them treats and scratches to ensure that their last moments are calm and as stress free as possible. All of that translates to the finished product. Our meat is red. It has beautiful fat both wrapping the muscle and intramuscular. Best of all, it has flavor like no other.

The newest National Pork Board campaign is “Pork: Be Inspired”. This is a slogan we can get behind, but for our own reasons and with a slight modification “Heritage Pork: Be Inspired”. We hope that consumers will be inspired to seek out alternatives to the pork found in the grocery store and instead find local farmers raising pigs on pasture. We hope they will even go so far as to seek out Humane Certified pork (and other meats too) to further improve the farming community. We hope that consumers will be inspired to try new recipes to fully experience all the nuances of pasture raised pork. So when you visit us at the Farmers Market compare the coloration of our pork vs. our beef vs. our chicken and you will wonder how anyone could ever confuse our pork for just another white meat.


Dorking Chickens: It’s Not Just a Silly Name

Today from PisaIf you come out to the farm, you can hear the crowing of roosters pretty much the minute you step out of your car. Some times they can be really persistent, but then Hen Solo and Luke Coopwalker like to make sure that everyone knows they are on duty and watching out for their girls. They are good about that.

Hen Solo, Luke Coopwalker and Co. are our resident flock of Dorking chickens. Aside from their odd name, Dorkings are a handsome breed of chickens with their beautiful red combs, bright plumage, and interesting history. One of their easily identifiable traits is that instead of the usual four toes, they have five. Worldwide only four other poultry breeds that share this unique trait. So they are kind of like the Mulefoots of the chicken world. It was for this reason AND their listing as threatened that made them an attractive choice for Firefly Farms.

This is one of those rare occasions were my mom influenced an early decision at Firefly. They were always intending to raise chickens (in fact chickens were our first product), but as to the specific breed that was undetermined. My mom had just begun her own backyard flock and had done some research on various breeds and picked the Dorking as her favorite. She liked that they were a dual purpose bird, very cold hardy, and the hens could lay all winter long with minimal light. Sadly for her, there was a hatch failure at the hatchery and she never got her birds, BUT she did share with Beth and Dugan why she had selected them and it was decided that they would be the bird of choice for Firefly Farms.  Heritage, Threatened (one step down from Critically Endangered, woot!), and Friendly have become the bywords for Firefly breeds.

Now about the actual breed. The Dorking chicken is an ancient breed first developed as a landrace (remember this word from the Randall Linebacks?) in the area of Kent, Sussex, and Surrey counties in England. This area was famous for producing poultry of the highest quality for the table and the five-toed Dorking having been the most sought after of these chickens. It is the town of Dorking, once called Darking, for which the breed was named. It became the policy of Darking never to allow live birds to leave their town for fear that they would lose their monopoly on the best chickens if others were able to raise the breed. At some point that must have changed because how else did they come to the US?

DorkingsPopular history is that the Romans brought five-toed fowls with them when they invaded England in 43 A.D. Curious is the fact that these five-toed fowls were so respected by the Romans for their fine table qualities, but none are to be found in Italy. Dorking chickens are to be found in several colors, the most ancient of these being the Red, the White, the Colored (or Coloured), and the Silver Gray. (We have the Silvery Gray as they are the coloration still most prevalent in the US.) Much older literature speculates that the White Dorking chicken is the original variety, but others believe it was the nearly extinct Red. Exactly when Dorking chickens arrived in America is a bit of a mystery. We do know they were well distributed here before 1840, and were even shown at the first poultry show in America in 1849. By 1904, they were the most popular breed in their native England.

However in the US, Dorking began to fall out of favor when our time scale for maturity was dramatically shortened thanks to the advent of the Cornish cross chickens aka industrial broiler chicken. A broiler chicken is killed when they reach 4 lbs which is some time between 7- 9 weeks. A roaster might live as long as 12-21 weeks which will put it between 5-10 lbs. Up until that point, Dorkings had been considered a quick meat bird, but they require upwards of 6 months before you can even consider having them for dinner. Even then, a Dorking rooster might weigh 9 lbs which a hen will weight about 7 lbs. It was around this time too there was a change in the US regarding preference for truly white skin (the Dorking) versus the more yellow skin of predominantly white breeds.

The Dorking chickens are very fond of reminding the rest of us that they are descended from dinosaurs and if you spend enough time with them you will get roared at chicken style especially if you try to take eggs from under a broody hen. It is particularly hilarious when you take into account that most Dorkings are a fairly large bird on what could be called stumpy legs. This is accentuated when they run over for treats. My mom is fond of laughing at hers (she has a hen ‘Red’ and several crosses including a Silkie/Dorking cross) as they come charging at her since9fb32fc666a8534fc045aac3cd05457a their gait is very lopsided. It is quite comical and always good for a smile.

At Firefly Farms, we are hoping to build up a sizable breeding flock before we begin breeding specifically for meat birds. It is incredibly hard to find good breed stock so the latest 50 additions are much needed and will hopefully lead to meat production starting next year. We are also hoping to begin selling fertilized eggs to other individuals who want to help move that Dorking from ‘Threatened’ to ‘Watch’ and hopefully one day off the Livestock Converancy list altogether.

Our flock is a long term investment for the future of Firefly Farms.


Dear Supporters of Firefly Farms,

This is534 a special entry to say “THANK YOU!” for all the support you have shown since our establishment in 2011. Not that starting a farm is ever easy, but our path has definitely had more detours, trials and tribulations, than most. You know we truly love what we are doing because we never gave up, but instead kept pushing forward.

2However, we could not have1 done it without you! Thank you for showing up to Town Meetings, asking tough questions, listening to farm talk at numerous events, coming to the farm stand/Farmer’s Market, on FB, visiting our website, reading this blog and all the wonderful ways you showed that you wanted us as part of your community. Thank you to all the individuals and restaurants who have purchased our meat so that we can continue to save our amazing animals from extinction.

Which has lead to this….


WE SETTLED!!! *doing a victory dance, pumping our fists in the air, popping champagne, and whooping like mad people*

Firefly Farms is finally free do what we intended to do from our establishment in 2011, but now we can do it without wondering if we will still have the farm tomorrow. We will… and the next day… and the day after that for as long as our family wants to be farmers!!!

Such a feeling of freedom and jubilation.

That’s right, we are here to stay!

Thank you,

The Firefly Farms Gang

Randall Linebacks: More than just a really cool looking cow

Today from PisaGood morning! Pisa here for the second installment of a more in depth look at the various animals you can find at Firefly Farms and why they are in so important to the American farming community.

As mentioned in Heritage Breeds: Heirlooms of the Animal World, 90% of the dairy herds in the US are Holsteins with the remaining 10% is made up of predominantly four additional breeds. Not a lot of diversity and makes everyone think that cows pretty much come in only black and white. Not so.

While black is obviously a favorite breed color at Firefly Farms, the Randall Linebacks sports more colors. They come in three different variations with one distinct trait in common, a white stripe down their backs hence the name “Lineback”. We carry all three coloration of red, black, and blue which is a very cool looking gray. Our bulls were kind enough to line up to show these coloration in this helpful photo below.

Hues 2

As you can see they are incredibly different looking but all have that lovely white stripe so there is no mistaking them for any thing other than Linebacks.

You know how Firefly also like rare? Once a familiar sight in New England, by 1985 only 15 Randalls remained. They are listed as critically endangered on the Livestock Conservancy website with only 500 as of 2015. Even that small number is considered a HUGE improvement and is thanks to the efforts of some very dedicated breeders who recognize not only the genetic importance of the breed, but have fallen in love with them. We have had farming friends who have made special trips just to come and see our cattle because they once farmed with them and have missed the breed. I do not mind so long as they also visit me and bring treats.

From the Livestock Conservancy website, “The Randall Lineback is a purebred remnant of lineback-patterned cattle once common in New England. Though the origins of the breed are not clear, it is likely to have originated in New England from a combination of Dutch, English, and French cattle. Historically, Linebacks were multi-purpose, used for dairy, beef, and oxen, and served as an integral part of rural New England life for several centuries. The population was not formally organized, except for the brief existence of the Columbian breed association in the early 1900s. Most of the Lineback population was lost this century through cBull Herdrossbreeding with Holsteins.”

One of the very few herds not to be crossbred was owned by the Randall family in Vermont. They kept their herd “closed”  for nearly 80 years and thus preserved this breed. When Everett Randall passed away unfortunately most of the herd was sold for meat, but a dedicated group managed to save the rest. One woman, Cynthia Creech purchased the last nine cows and six bulls and began building her herd. It is from this herd that a number of seed herds were created in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and in Connecticut.

Mulefoot Hogs: We Hoof it on Hooves rather than Trot on Trotters

Today from PisaFor the next couple of weeks, we are going to be giving you a more in depth introduction to the various breeds you can find around Firefly Farms. This week we are going to start off with the Mulefoot Hogs.

Being a Mulefoot myself, I feel I am rather an expert on the subject. We can start off with easy stuff like…

Why are we named Mulefoot Hogs?

Our name originates from the fact that in the pig world we have rather unique feet. Instead of the usual cloven foot (trotter), we instead have very dainty hooves like what you would expect to find on a mule… or horse… or donkey. When crossbred with other heritage breeds it is one of the traits that typically shows up in the resulting offspring. For proof, my former flame Angelina is a cross between a Guinea Hog and a Mulefoot Hog and she has tiny hooves. (As an aside: She got her name because my Mom said she looks like a ballerina and one of her favorite books as a girl was ‘Angelina, Ballerina’ by Katharine Holabird) When Wally, our red wattle boar, has been crossed with a Mulefoot girl, the babies inherit his wattles, but they hoof it on tiny hooves.Pisa's Hooves

Mulefoot Hog History

We are an American heritage breed with unclear origins. One theory is that we are descended from stock from both Asia and Europe. We share a lot of traits with another heritage breed, the Choctaw hog, which would support a theory that we share common ancestors brought over from Spain. We are most likely to have descended from are the Spanish hogs such as the Black Iberian hog of Iberico ham fame and were brought to the Americas beginning in the 1500s. Looking at a picture of them you can kind of see how breeders might make the connection since we are similar looking, but we also have less visible similarities such as the same intramuscular fat distribution.

By 1900, the Mulefoot had become a standardized American breed. We are valued for ease of fattening and production of meat, lard, and especially hams (think prosciutto). Mulefoot hogs were traditionally distributed throughout the Corn Belt (Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota and sometimes South Dakota, North Dakota, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Kentucky). We were also common along the Mississippi River Valley, where farmers ranged their hogs on the islands in the river, putting them out to forage in the spring and collecting them in the fall. In the early 1900s there were two Mulefoot breed associations and over 200 herds registering purebred stock. Sadly as of 2006, there were less than 200 registered purebreds annually. These days though, Firefly Farms alone has 100 and is growing!

For a unique glimpse of our breed history, you can check out Sinn’s Mulefoot Swine Booklet from 1919. It talks about how Mulefoots are going to be the next big thing and also gives a very accurate description of our personalities and vital statistics.

That is the general history of the breed, but Firefly Farms’ original Mulefoots herd came from Parma, Michigan and consisted of five boars and ten sows. Presiding over all them was King Louis who still has some of the most enviable tusks on the farm. Van and Dugan have some fun stories about getting them safely home which included the herd deciding that the dividers in the trailer where inhibiting snuggles so tore them down. It is from these fifteen that all Firefly Farm Mulefoots can be traced including myself.

KissWhat do we look like?

Now if you came to the farm how would you be able to recognize a Mulefoot without necessarily seeing our feet? We are dark black in coloration and tend to have very thick coats especially in the winter. Some times these coats lighten up in the sunshine and can give an almost buffalo look. Some of us have little pink spots on our noses which has been dubbed a ‘kiss’. Others might sport white socks of varying lengths. Throwback

On very VERY rare occasions, a mom gives birth to a ‘throwback’. These babies look nothing like the rest of us and the first throwbacks took place about two years ago when a sow gave birth to two. One baby was a fawn color and the other was silver and both had dark markings down their backs and shoulders. The rest of their siblings were typical Mulefoots, but these two looked more like our wild ancestors. For the second time though, we have a new throwback thanks to Angelina. He is the cutest little button and is a fawn color with stripes and patches of white and black. These throwbacks are the result of recessive genes making a reemergence. Speaking of babies, most Mulefoot sows typically give birth to litters between 6-8 piglets, but occasionally a sow can have as many as 12.

It is really our size that will help differentiate us from all the other ‘black pigs’ at the farm since we are on the larger side with a weight range between 400-700 lbs. The Mulefoot boars are frequently the heaviest, but every once in a while there will be a sow that gives the boys a run for their money. At one year old, I am on the smaller size and am about 300 lbs. My mom points out that while that is not huge when I start to lean into her scratches she can get pushed around. Hard to believe that when I first met her I was was a whopping 2.5 lbs.

So why Mulefoots at Firefly Farms?

The original reason is that the farm wanted to specifically raise critically endangered breeds which we most certainly are. The other two heritage breeds listed as critical are the Choctaw and Ossabaw Island Hogs, but they are smaller in stature and while they can be tamed, tend to be a little more wild in nature. Not ideal for a family farm in New England. Mulefoots on the other hand love attention, treats, and scratches. We are intelligent and quick to learn things like the electric fence smarts when you touch it or that the best days are when our treat delivery arrives. My mom has even managed to train a number of us to ‘sit’ when bribed.

We do hope that you will come out and visit us some time and learn a little more about why we are so fantastic!

Heritage Breeds: The Heirlooms of the Animal World

Now some of you might be wondering what does ‘heritage’ mean when it comes to farm breeds?

Perhaps you have been to a plant sale and noticed a lot of farmers who are advertising heirloom seeds and plants at their booths. These plants have cool names like “Black Krim”, “Striped German”, and “Sun Gold” (my Mom has been planting tomatoes recently). If you ask what the difference is between them and the plants you might find at Home Depot, you will be told that these are some of the original strains and have been passed from one generation to the next as saved seeds. Their seeds have not been treated with neonicotinoids which would make them toxic to bees and not good for you. They are non-GMO, hybridized, or engineered in any way and are usually from lines predating 1951. If you were to time travel back to the age of the Victory Garden these are the plants you are most likely to find growing. They are ‘old school’.

Mulefoots, Guinea Hogs, Randall Linebacks, and Dorkings are the ‘heirlooms’ of the animal world. A heritage breed is defined by the fact that we are the breeds that predate the industrialization of farming. If you ask a kindergartner what a cow looks like they will most likely say white with black spots (Holstein). If you ask them what color are pigs, their answer will be pink (American Yorkshire). How about a chicken and the answer will most likely be a rooster probably red with green feathers (Rhode Island Red). None of their answers would be incorrect as 90% of all milk produced in the US comes from Holsteins with 19 million registered in the US alone.The American Yorkshire hog is the industrial standard for commercial farming and gets pink because they sunburn easily. The standard egg layers are either Leghorns (a white bird) or Rhode Island Red and are the breed displayed on Kellogg’s Corn Flake box. (To clarify, a rooster is not a hen and will at no point be laying an egg. Watch Chicken Run, it is the best) Sadly, this does not lead a lot of genetic diversity when it comes to our industrial farm animals.

In the heritage world, we come in all shapes, sizes, and colors!

FF Baby Guinea 2 FF Red and BlackFF Goofy Boys  FF Red Wally Ff Snow Munching

Firefly Farms favors shades of black when it comes to their hogs since both Mulefoots and Guinea hogs are black with occasional white socks, but Sir Wally is a Red Wattle, and our original Tri-Heritage breeds come in black, black and white, red, and golden with black spots. Occasionally we get a throwback baby who is fawn, silver, and stripped. If you start exploring the rest of the heritage swine world you come across the Mangalitsa which looks like someone crossed a pig with a sheep. You have Red Wattles who have little wattles hanging from their throat which resemble those you find on turkeys. Mulefoots are unique because they have hooves instead of trotters. The Herefords look like their cattle counterparts with red and white coats. Guinea Hogs are pretty tiny and have cute fuzzy faces garnering themselves the nickname of the Ewok Pugs of the farm. Most of us are critically endangered with less than a 1,000 in the world because we lost out when farming became industrialized. We typically have smaller litters of babies and take a longer time to grow which are not desirable traits for large scale farming. We also do not handle confinement well.

Hues 2

The Randall Linebacks are pretty awesome with their three different color variations of red, black, and blue (in the animal world ‘blue’ is usually a shade of gray). They look very different from the Highland Cows of Scottish background. Those guys look like large red mops! Then there is the one that comes as a bit of a shock to us especially with our Texas connections. The Texas Longhorn with its amazing horns so distinctively displayed on college swag is on the critical list alongside the Randalls. Many of them instead of being good at just one thing like producing milk or beef are all rounders meaning they are good a both, but not EXCEPTIONAL at one. The modern world has decided that specialization is the preferred trait so today you are either a dairy cow or a beef cow with no inbetweens. The heritage breeds can be a bit wily… we have one girl who has decided she does not want to be a cow but is really a champion jumper trapped in a cow’s body. She has been clearing a lot of fences.

While there is massive amounts of diversity in both the hog and cattle world, nothing can prepare you for the colors and shapes when it comes to chickens! Our coop is home to a Dorking flock which is characterized by its additional toes and can be White, Colored or Silver… we have Silvers. They were once the favorite chicken of the Romans and are named for the town of Dorking which for the longest time would not allow live birds to leave their town for fear of losing their monopoly. In my mom’s flock you can find a huge variety of heritage breeds; Dorkings, Chantecler (‘to sing’ in French), Buckeyes (only breed entirely created by a woman), Brahmas (fuzzy feet), bantam Cornish (pure white), Dominque (black and white), Orpington (buff and big), Plymouth Rocks (partridge which means reddish brown and black), and Golden Wyandottes (gold feathers trimmed in black). She favors birds that are good winter layers, have small combs to better deal with the cold, but are also dual purpose birds should the need arise. Some of the heritage breeds are exceptional egg layers, others are really good meat birds, then there are the dual purpose gals, but they all have different quirks and preferred living situations. Some are really just meant to be pretty. Faverolles have beards and are super friendly where as the Russian Orloff love the cold, but can be rather stand offish. Depending on what you are looking for, they have it all.

The big thing about heritage breeds is that we still have very unique characteristics which are hallmarks of our genetic diversity. When they cut the pig herds by 50% and only bred the remaining 50% to each other, they lost the strength of health that is brought by a larger gene pool. What if there was a bovine flu that specifically targeted Holsteins (weirder things have happened) and we lost 90% of our dairy herds? Where would the replacements come from if they are all gone? Right now avian flu is greatly impacting the laying populations in numerous states to the point where whole farms have been wiped out. Some major grocery store chains like HEB are starting to impose egg rationing because they are seeing an egg shortage.

Heritage breeds to the rescue!

With biodiversity comes a greater likelihood that we will be unaffected by those illnesses that can devastate our more overly breed counterparts. You can take the stunning laying ability of the Leghorn and cross it with the Russian Orloff to get a bird who can withstand cold while still laying an egg almost every day. If you cross a Red Wattle with a Mulefoot, you can get a hog that has the unique marbling of a Mulefoot but the size of the Wattle (you will also probably get the hooves and wattles- dominant traits are cool!)

To round it out, the title ‘heritage’ implies a connection our past. The heritage breeds are the history of not only farming, but of Americans. Our breeds can be traced to Asia, England, Spain, Russia and more! We are directly linked to movements of pioneers striking out into the interior or the change in trade routes. Heck there is one breed of goats that is managed by the United States Navy! We are as unique as the people who make up this great nation and need to be protected and cared for so one small part of what make us special does not vanish forever.

And if that doesn’t tie into the wonderful celebrations we had this last weekend for the 4th of July, I do not know what will!

Our NEW Profile on the Certified Humane website!

This is a BIG deal! Firefly Farms is one of only 33 farms profiled on the Humane Certified website and we are the second farm in Connecticut to receive this honor (both with our certification and profile). We are FEATURED on their Certified Humane homepage, have our own official press release, and have our Firefly Farms profile on their website. How cool is that??!?!?

So you might be asking yourself, what is is Certified Humane and why do we make such a big deal about it?

The Certified Humane Mission

Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) is the leading non-profit certification organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter.

The goal of the program is to improve the lives of farm animals by driving consumer demand for kinder and more responsible farm animal practices.

When you see the Certified Humane Raised and Handled® label on a product you can be assured that the food products have come from facilities that meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment.

We felt in 2013 that we were at a stage where we could apply for our certification as we met almost all the requirements for Certified Humane and could easily change to meet the remaining few. We had already made it our mission that our animals were going to live the healthiest and happiest lives we could provide based on our own actions so it was just a natural next step to take. After a stringent application process, we had a farm inspection which covered every thing… we are talking from food the animals eat, to where they sleep and live, from birth all the way to death. No detail was overlooked. In April of 2014, we became officially Certified Humane and began selling our products with their label. Now in 2015, our farm is all over their website.

Now for why we make a big deal about being Certified Humane. We make a big deal about this because it is validation that we are doing right by our animals. They are able to fully appreciate all the seasons while being fed and protected from predators in large runs. They experience the joy of ear waggles, back scratches, and special treats. The food they eat is specially milled for them so that it does not include any of the fillers found in even the very best feed. Their life expectancy is measured in years rather than months. When it comes time for them to walk the Green Mile, there is someone with them every step of the way. They are given extra treats, they stay in the transport until it is time, and some one from the farm walks in with them to make sure that they are not afraid and they are respected until the end. Afterwards, their human caregivers grieve. We know we are raising these animals to save them and give them renewed purpose as specialty food, but this does not mean that their deaths get any easier for any of us. It never will either.

Pisa joining in here. Mom says I can get on my soap box for a little bit…

There have been those who have stated that “humane” and “slaughter” should never be linked together. We at Firefly Farms completely respect those who choose to be vegetarian and vegan, but most of the population continues in their omnivore habits. This means that animals are always going to be consumed. However, there is a choice to be made. People can continue to eat meat and eggs from animals in deplorable conditions as are frequently found in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) OR they can come to farms like Firefly where they can meet the animals, see their lifestyle, and walk away knowing that these animals are not suffering. In fact, they are getting to do exactly what they are meant to do which is be pigs, chickens, and cattle.

My Mom always pets me extra after she has watched one of the Mercy for Animal videos. She has informed me that she can barely watch a minute of any one of them before she wants to throw up since she is crying too hard and because what she is seeing is just too awful for words. She comes to the farm to remind herself that we are living good lives where the animals are not treated as just ambulatory bacon/beef/wings, but as individuals with unique personalities and quirks.

I, for one, am happy. I share a run with two of my siblings and a number of other boys. We are able to root and wallow to our hearts contentment. When we are hungry, there is food. When we are thirsty, there is water. We feel the summer sun on our backs and get to curl up in huge pig piles at the end of the day. Life is good. I only wish that what I consider “normal” was true of all other farm animals.

My last appeal… so even if you choose not to eat meat, please direct your friends who do to support places like Firefly Farms. The continued existence of Certified Humane farms ensures that the word can be spread to more farms, consumers, and retailers who may be looking for alternatives to the anonymous meat and eggs found at the grocery store.

For Firefly Farms, it means that we can continue to save rare heritage breeds nearly on the brink of extinction. There are less than 1,000 Mulefoots in the world which makes me and all the other Mulies at the farm incredibly special. Same goes for the Randall Linebacks cattle, Dorkings chickens, and Guinea Hogs. So not only is Firefly Farms Certified Humane, but it is one of the only farms to specialize solely in heritage breeds. That makes us pretty unique in the world.

Finally, it also means that anyone who purchases products from Firefly Farms can feel pretty good about their choices. They are supporting a small family owned farm in a traditional farming town. They are helping in the revival and survival of heritage breeds. AND they can rest assured that they are buying a product that fits the very stringent and exact requirements of the Humane Farm Animal Care Humane certification procedure. We think this a win-win situation for all parties!

We hope that you will head over to the Certified Humane website to check out our new profile as well as those of other farms, but if you only have a moment to read on….

Founded by the Tillman-Brown Family in June of 2011, Firefly Farms is a 135-acre farm in North Stonington, Connecticut. The family is committed to raising heritage chickens, pigs and cattle in a natural and humane environment.

Firefly Farms has grown from an original herd of five piglets to a diverse number of hogs – Mulefoots, a Red Wattle, Guinea Hogs, and Tri-Heritage. They have a growing herd of Randall Lineback cattle and a flock of Dorking chickens. Each of their breeds is either critically endangered or threatened according to The Livestock Conservancy. None of their breeds numbers more than 1,000 in the world.

“It may seem to be a conflict that we raise these rare animals for meat, but the reason that they’re endangered is that they lost popularity in favor of other breeds when factory farming became prevalent,” said Allena Tillman-Brown. “To bring them back from endangered, we need to give them renewed purpose and raise them for their original intent, food. This makes every animal we raise precious and critical to the overall survival of the breed.”

Firefly Farm animals are all pasture or forest raised. In addition to their supplemented diets, they are allowed to forage for food and are kept in environments natural to their species.

Firefly Farms Cattle
“Our pigs live in large groups in the woods, foraging, sleeping in piles, and enjoying the very essence of being a pig,” said Allena. “Our piglets stay with their mothers until they are naturally weaned, as do our calves. Our cows have a variety of pastures to suit their needs and the chickens have chicken tractors (movable chicken coops without floors) that are moved twice daily to give them access to fresh grass. Except for protective fences, our animals get to live as their ancestors did.”

Firefly Farms also uses rotational grazing, which keeps the animals moving so no one area is negatively impacted by their presence and the animals always benefit from having fresh grazing land to explore.

“A certified forester who specializes in woodland restoration showed us where to create new pasture and how to improve the overall health of the existing forest,” said Allena. “Our pigs have done a wonderful job removing scrub brush and invasive species so native flora and fauna can return. They love to be turned out on new pasture with all the joys of finding new areas to root and wallow.”

Firefly Farms first learned about Certified Humane® from Craig Floyd of Footstep Farm, the first Certified Humane® farm in Connecticut. Dugan Tillman-Brown, Firefly’s farm manager, realized he had already been naturally implementing many of Certified Humane® standards to provide the farm’s animals a stress-free environment.

“It seemed like a natural next step to become Certified Humane®,” said Dugan. “Humane Farm Animal Care’s goals and our goals are one and the same.”

As of January 2015, all four family members work for Firefly Farms in various capacities. Van Brown handles the bookkeeping and correspondences, Beth Tillman works with Dugan Tillman-Brown on Firefly Farms; and Allena Tillman-Brown handles marketing and events. of them, however, have been boar wranglers, mother hens to various babies, and educators for people interested in learning about how to operate a family farm that keeps the health and well-being of the animals as their number one priority.

“Just because these animals are raised for food, doesn’t mean we do not love them, care for them, and play with them,” said Allena. “We are with them at birth and walk alongside them to the end. Our mission is to make sure each animal has quality of life here.”

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