Let’s take a little trip to Sugar Mountain Farm in West Topsham, a rural area in Central Vermont, just a bit southeast of Montpelier. It is there we find the pioneering thought process of Walter Jeffries at play and sizzling in the skillet.
The 54-year-old Jeffries looked at the economics of raising pigs on his 1,000-acre spread. He raises sheep in the woodland pastures, along with chickens, guineas, ducks and even a stray goose or two.
Because of the economics and abundance of inexpensive land, he was sold on the concept of natural farming. But his obsession was that pork was a much better return in an area where animal agriculture isn’t the dynamo that powers the economy.
“I was noticing that when I let the sheep out to pasture and added some pigs, the pigs would follow the sheep and enjoy the grass as well,” Jeffries explains. “It was then that I realized that they really enjoyed foraging in the grasses. When it came time to process the pigs, we found that the pork bellies had similar marbling. The fat actually had a sweeter taste than those raised on commercial feeds. After all, the fat is where the flavor comes from in bacon.”
Sugar Mountain Farms uses a dry rub of maple sugar, salt and pepper, celery salt, cherry powder and nutmeg to impart flavor in its pork bellies. They contract with another nearby firm to smoke the product. In the future, they'll have on-farm smoking to bring the bacon home.
“I really believe that if we could raise enough pigs, our bacon would be our biggest selling product,” Jeffries contends.
“To perfect our bacon my family had to endure a lot of suffering through the first 28 pork bellies. Our dinner table was the experimental lab, research and development department. When we finally hit on the idea of adding celery salt and cherry powder, we knew we had a winner.”
The swine diet is augmented by hay in the winter, and the animals can chomp on “garden gleanings” such as pumpkins, squash, turnips and corn from the garden corrals that dot the grounds. At times, they are also treated to milk, cheese, cottage cheese and occasional bread snacks.
Because of the economics for the fledgling butchering business, Jeffries decided to give customers an opportunity to take part in the final processing by baking the “spiced pork bellies” at home for about four hours to reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees and then slice it as thick as they choose.
He once toyed with the idea of using liquid smoke on the bacon, but felt his customer base would deem it to be an artificial ingredient. That decision helped propel the product’s popularity.
Although the processing business operates under Vermont state inspection, Sugar Mountain contracts with another processing firm to do the slaughtering. Jeffries explains that butchering is the most expensive part of the process, so taking that on first helps pay for the next phase of construction.
And, in the “we’re all neighbors” environment of Vermont, Jeffries sells most of his product to restaurants and stores, but delivers finished product to customers within a 100-mile radius of the plant. Many are even willing to meet the delivery truck en route to help keep costs low and get their meats in a timely manner during the harsh Vermont winters.
For more information, check out their website at SugarMtnFarm.com.