Sweetening the deal

by Steve Krut
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Small Biz
Sugar Mountain Farm traces its roots to a pig production operation and eventually the company began processing and selling pork at its Vermont-based facility.
 

When he was just 15 years old, Walter Jeffries resolved that he wanted to be a farmer. It was then that the operator of Sugar Mountain Farm in West Topsham, Vermont, began taking his first steps in a long journey into the meat business. The story of how he moved on to become one of the most unique meat processing operations anywhere has been a tale of thinking logically and acting naturally.

“I knew that being a farmer meant you had to have land and equipment and produce something,” Jeffries recalls. “I had nothing and realized that I would have to get money together if I wanted to do anything to realize my dream of farming.

“I worked as a computer programmer and as a chemist and even began inventing things to earn money. When it came time to buy land, I found very inexpensive land...1,000 acres of it...in the central part of the state, with lots of sugar maple trees on the mountainside.”

Being situated in the central part of the state meant being able to focus on a 100-mile radius as his market. He had two uncles who had farmed and raised cattle and chickens. Knowing that everyone was trying to do the same thing, Jeffries thought about which animals could offer the greatest return.

“I did the math and found that the answer was mice and pigs,” says the 54-year-old Jeffries. “The gestation period was shorter for mice but raising mice for laboratories wasn’t my calling, so I focused on pigs. Everyone loves bacon.”

To stay within his income limitations, Jeffries raised some crops, primarily vegetables and fruits, and worked a large stand of sugar maple trees for syrup. When a major storm destroyed many of his trees, he began raising sheep and pigs. When he turned the pigs into the pasture areas with the sheep and some chickens, he noticed that the pigs followed the sheep and began to forage on the mountain pastures. That was a light bulb moment when he realized maybe he didn’t have to buy expensive grain.

The time came when he began planning how to bring the pigs to market and Jeffries’ logic gear kicked in again.

“I realized 30 percent of the cost came from getting the piglets. Feeding pigs was another 30 percent plus the cost of slaughtering, and then there was the 10 percent overhead factor,” he explains. “The trick to making money is taking on those steps. Actual processing and adding value at that step was something I felt I could do to realize a good return.”

His next step was trying to get a processing facility. He looked at one for sale that was 46-years-old and in need of major updates, so he decided that he and his family could build their own.

The end-product turned out to be one of the most unusual appearing but efficient facilities imaginable.

“We built the butcher shop by making six giant molds in succession, installing all the electrical work and filling it with concrete,” he explains. “Then we poured concrete to create a pest-proof, highly durable, high-thermal mass unified structure that requires minimal maintenance. The result was like six nested Russian Matryoshka dolls, one inside of the other with a blast freezer at the center.”

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