Range rovers: Pastured pork niche fits Pennsylvania family

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JACKSON CENTER, Pa. – Driving across the country road just east of Jackson Center, Pa., you’ll see pigs wallowing in mud pits or litters of piglets trailing their mothers across a pasture before disappearing into a patch of tall grass.
Their owner, Bill Brownlee, isn’t the least bit concerned about corralling his hogs or getting them back into the barn where they belong.
In fact, there is no barn.
Sunshine, hutches, mud pits and piles of pigs are the hallmarks of Wil-Den Family Farms.
History. Bill and Denise Brownlee and their five children started this operation near Jackson Center just a few years ago. But they didn’t come into this blindly.
“In school, my ag teacher told me to do something different from my dad, and that was beef,” Bill Brownlee said. He liked hogs, but ultimately chose dairying.
After graduating high school, he went to Maryland to work on a dairy farm.
His next stop was a 200-sow operation on Maryland’s eastern shore. There was a huge demand for herd managers in the industry and he soon outgrew the job.
He moved to a 500-sow operation and managed it and a 700-sow facility in southeastern Pennsylvania for nine years. But he wanted to be his own boss.
“I wanted to farm on my own, and I bumped into a guy who was pioneering the outdoor hog industry in Kentucky,” Brownlee said.
A little information from him and tours of pastured pork farms in Oklahoma and Georgia, and Brownlee was committed to his startup operation.
Bottom drops out. The Brownlees started their own 60-sow pasture operation near Lebanon, Pa., in the midst of a housing development and golf course and on the sow confinement farm Bill was managing.
The neighbors didn’t complain; the pigs on pasture didn’t smell like your traditional hog farm.
“First, we were going to do feeders. Of course, the prices always look better in the newspaper than they do in real life,” Bill Brownlee said.
Feeder prices fluctuated 10 cents to 20 cents on sale day, and the risks were too great. With just one load of feeders out the door, they switched to farrow-to-finish.
Over the next three or four years, the Brownlees watched the hog market’s floor fall out. Twenty-pound roasters dropped from $45 per head to $2 per head. Finished hog prices dropped to 8 cents per pound.
In April 1998, things hit rock bottom on the confinement farm. A disease outbreak dropped nearly 700 head of sows and piglets almost overnight.
By Easter, there were only 100 pigs left. The Brownlees took them to feeder weight and practically gave them away.
“We really decided at that point this was nuts and we had to do something different,” Denise Brownlee reflects.
Going west. In August 1999, the Brownlees moved to Mercer County. It was time to get out of the confinement hog arena and go more deeply in this pastured pork niche they’d discovered.
Denise and the five children – Bill, now 22; Lauren, 21; Jay, 20; Kelsey, 15; and Ethan, 12 – built fence on their New Lebanon farm while Bill stayed in eastern Pennsylvania with the animals.
When the farm was ready, Bill moved the shelter huts and his herd west. Here, they would continue to raise the pigs, but also had an opportunity to dairy.
Within three months, the cows were sold, and in March 2000, the family was moving again, too. They moved into town, and the hogs moved onto the current farm site.
They had moved their entire farm twice within a year.
Starting here with rented strip mine ground, a solar-powered fence charger, and a pond for water, the Brownlees have never looked back.
Pasture paddocks. Today, there are 60 sows and handfuls of piglets in the Brownlee pastures. That number is down from the 170 sows the family managed when they first started here a few years ago.
“When we realized the time and effort we were putting in, we scaled back. We make up for it in marketing,” Denise Brownlee said.
“We market one-third of what we used to, but still make close to the same amount of money,” she added.
The Brownlees have hundreds of followers of their homegrown Wil-Den Family Farms products.
It seems they have become personal farmers for hundreds of suburbanites from the Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas.
In 2003, what they call their first “real” year of marketing their pastured pork, they sold meat from 80-some head under their label. In 2004, they marketed 193 head.
The demand is there. They say their pastured pork tastes better and their face-to-face marketing connects with consumers who care about how their food was raised.
“People feel good about eating a pig that was happy. A lot of people just don’t trust the grocery store or are afraid of meat,” Denise Brownlee said.
She’s even got about a dozen former vegetarians as regular customers.
Their eventual goal is to market 900 to 1,000 head – all the piglets they can produce –

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Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009.

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