Meet Your Farmers: Jen Small and Mike Yezzi, Flying Pigs Farm in New York

"We realized we had to do something with the land and settled on pigs...This year, we'll finish somewhere between 500 and 600 pigs, along with 2,500 meat chickens and 1,500 laying hens."


[Photograph: Craig McCord]

Names: Jen Small and Mike Yezzi
Farm: Flying Pigs Farm

How many acres? 200 acres


[Photographs: Erin Zimmer]

Your crew: Blake, Andrew, and Erin work with us on the farm. Peter, Daniel, and Jonathan work with us at the Greenmarkets in New York City.

What you grow: Rare breed pork on pasture and in the woods as well as chickens and laying hens raised on pasture. We raise rare breed pigs (Tamworths, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Large Blacks) because they are more moist and have better flavor and texture than modern hybrids or conventionally raised "Heritage breeds." It may seem odd to use rare breeds for pork, but they will not survive unless a market can be created.


Our animals eat grains, vegetables, fruits, grass and other plants that grow on our land. They have plenty of room to roam outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine. The animals help us manage our land. Using their snouts they help us reclaim pasture from brush. We rotate their areas so they stay healthy and fertilize the land without damaging it.

Be careful how people trying to sell you meat use labels. Our pigs are "rare" because there are only a few hundred registered in North America according to the census conducted by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. "Heritage" means a breed established a long time ago but it does not necessarily mean rare.

For example, Berkshire (aka "Kurobuto") and Durooc are Heritage breeds, but there are hundreds of thousands of Berkshires and millions of Durocs raised every year in the U.S. A Heritage or "pure bred," pig raised on a factory farm is just factory farmed pork. The meat we eat is the combination of genetics, what the animals eat and drink, the environment they are raised in, and how they are treated.


"Boston Butt."

Hours: On non-Greenmarket days, we start at 6:30 a.m. when our 3-year-old wakes us up. We like to have breakfast with our 3-year-old and 5 year-old and after they are dressed, fed, and on the way to preschool, we head outside. Then we stop again at about 5 p.m. to spend time dinnertime with the kids. After they are in bed at 8 p.m., we do a few more hours of paperwork and one last check of the animals. We usually go to bed at about 11 p.m.

Jen's day is a combination of farm work and her off-farm job for a non-profit. We each work about six-and-a-half days a week, reserving much but never all of Sunday for family. The animals need to be cared for everyday.

Greenmarket days are different. On Thursdays, it's crazy around here getting ready for the market. After the truck is packed, the usual routine includes Mike eating a quick dinner with the kids, then drives the 200 miles to New York City, stopping at Blue Hill at Stone Barns on the way for a late Thursday night delivery. It's about a 5-hour trip in the truck. He gets into the city between and midnight and 2 a.m.

Friday mornings start at 6 a.m. when Mike sets up the stand at Union Square, then leaves to make his restaurant deliveries: Telepan, Gramercy Tavern, Mas, Il Buco, Savoy, Back Forty, and Marlow & Daughters have standing orders. After deliveries, he ends up back at Union Square for the afternoon.

On Saturday mornings, Mike sets up the stand at Union Square, then drives to Brooklyn for the Grand Army Plaza market. When GAP ends, at about 2 p.m., he drives back to Union Square. He'll stay until 5 or 6 p.m. and gets home at 10 or 11 p.m on Saturday night. We both keep the same Greenmarket schedule in the fall, our busiest season.


Your customers: Are the greatest people in the world. They share their food, homes, cooking tips, and more. No matter how difficult the week may be on the farm—even those weeks when everything goes wrong—when we show up at the market, people are so appreciative and friendly that it makes it all worthwhile. It keeps us going. We go home every week with renewed energy.

How you got into farming: We never imagined that we would be farmers. When we were in graduate school, an old farmstead that Jen cared about went up for sale and was sold to a developer. We couldn't stand to see that happen. Why destroy that special habitat and landscape? Where will we grow food if we pave over the best soils?

So we bought it from the developer. It was a very difficult thing to do financially. Just finishing graduate school, we had no savings and took a huge leap of faith that somehow things would work out. We realized we had to do something with the land and settled on pigs, in large part because they required little up-front capital investment. We started with three pigs in 2000. This year, we'll finish somewhere between 500 and 600 pigs, along with 2,500 meat chickens and 1,500 laying hens.

Where did you learn to farm? Through 2003, it was difficult to find information about raising pigs in the way we thought animals were supposed to be raised, outside with plenty of room, good food and fresh water. Our local extension agency was completely focused on dairy operations and the current research and textbooks focused (and still does) on raising pigs in confinement settings.

There were a handful of books about keeping a few piglets in your backyard, but we couldn't find anything in the middle. How do you raise enough pigs to make a living outside on pasture? Oftentimes, the best information we could find were early 20th century agriculture books I picked up at auctions or used book stores. Mostly it was all trial and error. We made mistakes, and some were expensive.

Your farming philosophy: We work to preserve the land through our actions for future generation of farmers. We work to preserve rare breeds to save these great breeds from extinction and improve our bio-security through biodiversity. We work to promote other family farms to help preserve farmland in our region so more people can enjoy their world class products. It is through cooperation, trust, personal responsibility that we all do better.

Why do you farm? Our primary goal is to keep land in agriculture. We work to preserve the land we live on as a family farm, to help keep the farms from which we buy piglets sustainable, and to be a part (a small part) of supporting the local farming infrastructure, feed dealer, farm supply, hardware store, etc. without which farming would be difficult or impossible for all farms in our area.

The best thing about farming? Best offices in the world: Shushan, Prospect Park, and Union Square.

The worst thing? Everybody loves a chicken dinner, skunks, weasels, foxes, fisher cats, etc.

Most important lesson you've ever learned? Never put an egg in your pocket.

What's the most important piece of advice you'd best on a young would-be farmer? Be prepared to go with the flow. No matter how well you plan, half of your day will be spent doing something completely unanticipated.

There is no home run in farming; we have found we need to sell a variety of products, through a variety of outlets, restaurants, farmers' markets and mail order.

The future for good food? Very bright. Just as we have seen a renaissance in baking and brewing in response to Wonderbread and Budweiser, we'll also see more and more people buying local, sustainably raised fruits, vegetables and meats and refuse to eat tasteless, unhealthy, month-old eggs and produce, and factory farm produced meat sold in the supermarkets.

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