Jim Westbrook’s pigs like to explore the woods at Cherry Rail Farm in Southern Vermont. PHOTO Steve Schubart
Jim Westbrook raises pigs for Walden on his Southern Vermont farm, called Cherry Rail because of a stretch of cherry trees that lined railroad tracks on a property he purchased in 2007. He doesn’t come from farmer stock—his dad was an electrical engineer—and turned to the profession late in life, after a 10-year white collar career in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For those of us with designs on giving it all up and becoming boutique farmers, it’s sobering to listen to Jim, who knows how much work farming really is, especially when you care for the animals and care about raising them the right way.
“Even if it’s raining out, and I’m getting soaked, and it’s 33 degrees out, I still have to go down and take care of those animals every single day,” Jim said. “Because their welfare depends on me and my diligence. I want those pigs to be happy.”
A lot of farming for Jim is making sure his animals have a warm, clean shelter when they want it, and a place to exercise, root around, and explore. “When they’re in a closed environment and the air smells and it’s dirty,” he said. “That’s when you can get into health issues, respiratory issues. These pigs are never ever restricted to an area … they always have the ability to get into a shelter. But when they want to go to sleep outside in the snow? Fine. They like to go outside and sleep under the hemlocks and pines this time of year, which they can. I was never of the idea you raise pigs on concrete, you know?”
At any one time, Jim has about 280 pigs on hand, ranging from three days to seven months old. He favors the Tamworth breed, which is known for bacon, and he breeds his pigs for big shoulders and hams. Because his farm is partly forested, he needs to purchase hay, of which he clears six tractor trailer loads a year. His pigs are feisty, inquisitive animals and much of his days are spent shoveling hay or manure, fixing the float valves they rip off their whey tanks or chasing down others that sneaked through his temporary fencing. “There’s nothing I plan to do in a day that I ever seem to get done,” he said.
However, for Jim, being a small farm owner, and the sole employee, is more than just physical labor. “I couldn’t do the marketing that I really need to do if I wasn’t dealing with Walden,” he said. “There’s not enough time in a day. I’ve got to sleep.”
Partnering with Walden takes much of the non-farming work out of being a farmer for Jim. And while he still has to run a business, he has more time to focus on his animals with the security Walden members provides. “I need to know that every month I’m taking a set number of pigs to the butcher for Walden. Every month I have to have that or else I couldn’t be in business,” he said.
It’s a lot of work for one person, but it’s clear Jim enjoys what he does. “I love physical labor. I love working on the land. I love pigs, they’re just intelligent animals,” Jim said, despite the demanding schedule and the lack of vacations.
“That’s the one issue. My wife and I go on vacation once every two years, I think one week about this time of the year,” he laughed. “And that’s only because my wife makes me.”