Cloonybreen Farm: Where Happy Pigs Come First
Located on a beautiful and quintessentially “New England” mountainside overlapping the Massachusetts-Connecticut border, not only are Cloonybreen Farm's settings picturesque but so too are the relationships shared between the farmers and the animals who call it home. It is clear this farm operates much differently than its counterparts who offer similar products, reshaping previous norms and expectations of what defines a pig farm. At Cloonybreen, you’ll encounter clean, fresh air, and often a calm breeze, providing a serene backdrop for a population of happy, free-roaming pigs—all free to explore and graze its many fields and forested lands as they please. Once these remarkable feelings of freedom and tranquility have washed over, another unexpected feeling arises: one of hope. A sense of optimism, upon recognizing this ideal place you’ve witnessed is not just an illusion, but rather completely real. Their dedication to sustainable farming practices and the happiness of their animals ought to set the standard for what other traditional pig farms should strive to be.
We were eager to jump on this opportunity to meet Cloonybreen Farm Manager Kevin Barbeau and his drove of pigs. He showed us first-hand exactly why his farm is a pig’s paradise, revealing his many secrets to success through simplicity, sustainability and responsibility—all key factors in building a family farm that strives to connect people to the food they eat above all else.
Q: How were you inspired to start the farm using humane and sustainable methods?
A: We all know the poor condition of our food supply in this country. We’re so disconnected to how our food is raised, which made us exhaust ourselves searching for truly locally produced products—sustainably raised and humanely raised. It made us start exploring ways in which we could utilize the land that we had here to begin raising livestock—primarily pigs—to meet a need that we felt for our own selves and in the greater community around us.
Q: What kind of pigs do you raise and how are they different from those raised on other farms?
A: Probably the thing that led us first to [the large black hog] is that we did our research into types of breeds that would be able to nurse themselves on grasslands and wood lots, which we have plenty of here—the ability to forage and virtually sustain themselves in the fields and the woods through their foraging and an ability to gain nutrition from the things that are already on the farm. When we first began searching, we thought, “when everybody thinks of prosciutto, I think we’re all thinking of Italian-style hams. There must be Italian hogs,” so we first started focusing on Italian-style breeds. Come to find out, in Italy, we came across a lot of these large black breeds. This breed likes to be raised outdoors year-round, so providing them comfortable shelter in the summer—and warm, dry shelter in the winter—is pretty much the full-time job of the farmer. People are surprised to learn that the pigs live outside in the cold winter months and snow, but this is how they’ve survived for generations before we started domesticating the pigs. They’re also capable of managing their own nutritional intakes to sustain themselves and grow.
Q: What kinds of nutritious foods do your pigs enjoy to eat here on the farm?
A: The pigs enjoy a really good mix of clovers, brassicas, turnip tops and root vegetables that we grow right on the soil that they unearth all during the year, in addition to the grass. The farm was formerly an apple and nectarine orchard. We’ve been able to strip away a lot of the invasive species that have grown here over the last 75 years, and for that purpose, they are able to enjoy chestnuts, walnuts and acorns, as well as the various apples grown on the farm. We feel about 75-80% of their nutritional intake comes from the grasslands, the woods, the roots, the bugs and things they unearth from the ground; the chestnuts, walnuts and acorns are obviously seasonal, but a lot of those go uneaten during the fall, so come winter into spring they tend to want to dig those up and grab those from the ground. The apples and pears that we get add some nutritional value. Then, probably the second input we provide on a daily basis, we have a great local farm in Lee, Mass that provides us with Jersey Cow cheese whey. It’s super high in protein. The farming practices at High Lawn Farm in Lee are ones that we can really embrace. We have a lot of similar goals for our animals, and the health of our animals. I think that the nutritional value and the probiotic value of the whey serve the pig really well for great gut health, which allows us to run antibiotic-free here on the farm. (Although we have a healthy relationship with our vet, he pretty much knows when they arrive that they won’t be administering any antibiotics. It’s really a routine that we’ve gotten into with the vet because we want to have a relationship with them should we need them for anything serious that comes up). So then, we supplement all that with some non-GMO grain from fields just down the road, in Somers, from Pleasant View Farms. They pelletize that for us and we feed it to them to give them some minerals they don’t get from the land.
Q: Why are pasture-raised pigs more sustainable and how does this lifestyle improve your products?
A: The quality of the product, the sustainability of how we raise the animal, and the local resources we use to provide food for the animals are some of the differences between our product and more factory farm-type animals. Gravity and the hillsides give us some challenges, but we turn those into benefits, too. When we bring food, whey or shelter, we position all these things in and around the particular pasture that they’re in at that moment. We’re big fans of rotational grazing the animals, so when they’re in their particular quarter-to-half acre pasture or paddock if ti’s down in the woods, the food is over here… the whey is over there… and the shelter is over here, so if you give them enough reason to move around, they love to stay active. It’s good for them and not so bad for the farmer because we get our exercise. I think it’s a little healthier of a lifestyle for us.
They’re able to survive on this property with very little intervention from us. They love to be outdoors—they graze really well in pastures and woods on their own. To me, that’s truly sustainable. It doesn’t mean I can go away for a couple of weeks, but it means they can certainly take care of themselves. And again, we just add the little extras that help them grow and thrive in the nature that we want them to grow so that by the time they’re ready to go to market, they’ve lived a pretty full, happy, sustainable and responsibly raised life.
Q: What is 'rotational grazing' and how does it work at Cloonybreen Farm?
A: We rotate the pigs on a 10 day to 2-week cycle, depending on the weather. They’re in-and-out of pastures, where they eat and fertilize the ground as they go about their daily routines. After a couple of weeks, it is pretty much inundated with what we like to think of as “black fertilizer.” It makes sense just to move them into the next pasture at this point, to let them eat that down and gain nutrition from that pasture and allow the pasture they just left to heal and regenerate itself without exposing our animals to parasites and bugs, or potentially get them sick from grazing on the same ground forever. So, we think the rotational process, although it’s time-consuming and creates a lot of work for the farmer, in the end we think it’s a much more cost-effective way and efficient way to raise these animals. And certainly, they enjoy all the benefits of “getting on the other side of the fence.” We like to joke, “it’s always greener on the other side of the fence,” and it truly is when they get to move over to the next pasture.
Q: What do you hope to achieve in your farm's future and how can local support help you reach those goals?
A: I think there’s a growing movement to help people understand the total nutritional value of local—from locally raised products on local farms that are here to support the community with meat, vegetables, fruits—where I think more and more markets like the co-op are trying to help their customers understand that there’s value in nutritional quotients for feeding their families more nutritious foods and not just more ounces or pounds of foods. Changing up how we think about locally sourced food in terms of nutrition value instead of dollar-per-pound value will serve our community really well. Farmers need to make a living, so if they provide good food and good service, I think the community will support it. And I think our community will also, in turn, get great value from supporting those farmers. It’s funny to read a package from a meat product that calls itself “locally sourced” when it comes from Indiana, for example. I think consumers are getting more and more into the whole process and understanding how and where their food was raised—and how long it sits in a container before it gets to their plate—is a huge deal. That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish here on the farm: to continue along with others to help our local communities get truly local products. And, as we grow this farm and try to keep up with demand, the pressure on us to grow more and more can only be accomplished if we’re able to hold to the same [standards]. Can we raise 300 to 400 pigs the same way we’re raising 100 to 200 pigs? To me, if we can’t do that, then we’ve reached our limit when we get to that number, but we have to be mindful of the fact that people want the same product whether we’re raising 100 or 500 pigs.
We are an open farm, but we do ask that people give us a call ahead of time if they want to come to visit. We’re certainly open to having people come and see how the animals are raised and the care that we provide them. I also think it can be a very entertaining afternoon for a family, for multiple generations of family, to come down and see how the pigs are so uniquely different and so enjoyable to live with. It’s pretty fun. The door is open—the gates are open, so I’d love to have people come to visit and also visit other farms that are trying to create products in an environment that promotes good nutrition and good farming.