PIG WRANGLING, HOTCHKISS STYLE con't
“People come along the road in their cars and when they see the pigs roaming around, they just stop and stare. They get pretty excited”, says Toby McPartland. McPartland is the “Owner and Lead Pig Wrangler” of Colorado Pastured Pork, which occupies 32 acres along the Gunnison River just outside town. And he’s changing the model for raising quality pork in the North Fork Valley.
Toby didn’t start out to be a pig wrangler. He’s from San Luis Obispo and studied economics and cultural anthropology in college. A tour with the Peace Corps in Senegal working with peanut farmers was what steered him in the direction of agriculture. He came home to work with several educational and non-profit organizations in California, mainly concentrating on urban farming. He also developed his entrepreneurial skills, setting up his own contracting company that incorporated edible landscaping. Years of devastating drought in California made him re-think his direction. “The water situation made me realize that if I wanted to do anything in agriculture, I had to get further up the watershed”, he says. On a trip to Colorado to “play in the West Elks”, he believed he had found his place.
McPartland met several local ranchers and convinced one of them to let him stay at his place and show him around the area. “I wanted to see where ‘over yonder’ was”, he says. He looked at farming property with the idea of growing market vegetables, but changed his plan when he realized that no one was raising pastured pork, something he had seen a friend doing in Northern California. “Pigs do well in this environment”, he says. “They’re the most economically viable livestock here.” He decided to buy in Hotchkiss because of the town’s proximity to Aspen’s upscale market. The locals welcomed him, giving him advice and encouragement and loaning him equipment as he got his operation started.
Pastured pigs roam freely and harvest their own food. Toby purchases piglets in the fall and keeps them with their mothers in Delta, where the winter is milder, until they’re weaned and ready to move to Hotchkiss in the spring. Before his new pigs arrive, Toby and his ranch hand Hayden Kessel plant 12 acres of root crops like turnips in the pasture. When they turn the pigs loose, there’s a piggy smorgasbord for them to feast on. The pigs don’t roam all the acreage at once. Toby and Hayden rotate them through portions of the pasture and the adjoining 20 acres of cottonwoods every 14 days. There’s no need to use antibiotics on their stock, because the 14-day rotation keeps the animals ahead of any pathogens that develop in the area and ensures that the pathogens die out before the animals occupy that section again. And the pigs are happy, with room to roam. “We give them the opportunity to express their pigginess”, Toby explains. “And the quality of the meat reflects the quality of their life.”
Clients in the Roaring Fork Valley, including Aspen’s Little Nell, have been enthusiastic about Colorado Pastured Pork. Toby travels once a week to the Roaring Fork to deliver his pork to a growing number of restaurants. He also works with Farmrunners, a business that aggregates and delivers products from the North Fork Valley to Crested Butte and other markets. He’s been pleasantly surprised by the interest from local residents in buying whole pigs. “Right now I sell more locally than anywhere else”, he says, although he believes that will change, given the extent of the untapped market for quality meat.
Toby McPartland got a lot of support from locals when he arrived in Hotchkiss, but he was on his own when it came to setting up a pastured pig operation. He had done extensive research and attended educational seminars, but when he got on the ground, “There was nothing to copy”, he says. “We had to have a solid business plan and build the best systems right from the beginning. We have to make the best decisions for the business every day. It’s been totally worth the risk. I’m living my dream in this beautiful place. And nothing’s better than that.”
Colorado Pastured Pork: coloradopasturedpork.com