After we miss a few fake out turns on the drive to Anderson Farms in Comer, Benji Anderson welcomes a group of Heirloom staff on a cloudy Monday afternoon. He kicks at the ground and apologizes for the dry, dusty dirt all around. Ironically, we almost cancelled the tour because of a threat of thunderstorms, but the storms keep missing Comer, travelling just south of the farm, but sprinkling more than few drops on us here in Athens. This time of year, Benji hopes for rain to cool things down, especially today. He has a momma pig that gave birth only yesterday and one that he says may begin labor any minute, even possibly while we are here at the farm. It is particularly important that the mommas don’t overheat during labor, as it adds to their discomfort and can cause problems for the babies.
Benji has devoted his career to caring for these babies as they grow into young pigs and live out their life with him on his property. Growing up in Atlanta, Benji spent summers helping on his uncle’s farm near Gainesville. He pursued a degree in Environmental Science in hopes of becoming a biologist. After moving down that path for a few years, something inside him drew him back to farming. Benji called up his friends at Riverview Farms in Ranger, GA, one of the largest and oldest certified organic farms in the state, and began working with them, learning from them how to properly care for his animals in the best possible way. Benji has been farming full time since 2006, and bought this property in Comer in 2009. He lived here in a small trailer at the front of the property for the first few years, but he and his family now have a house in Winterville.
Anderson Farms is about 45 acres of land that curls over and around a hillside. The pigs that are kept for breeding or that are in their early years and still living with their mommas, live on the front side of the hill. Just steps away from the front gate we run into the day old piglets burrowing in the grass and running all around their momma. The other momma, hours away from giving birth, spends most of her time in a big mud puddle, dubbed “the spa,” or under a few trees, trying to stay as still and cool as she can be. While it would have been amazing to see, the babies don’t come while we are there. Across the dirt driveway that runs through the middle of the property, two females and a male trounce around all day. They will breed soon and these two ladies will become the next mommas.
As we walk up the hill, past a herd of fainting goats, we encounter some older babies playing in the woods while their mommas rest under a structure to keep them out of the weather. The babies will stay with their mommas until they are eight weeks old. At the top of the hill, there is a fence that separates the pig families from the older pigs. We walk through a lightly wooded area, where the pigs have found a few different areas to root around under the trees until there is nothing but dirt remaining. They then move on to the next delicious patch. These days, the pigs prefer to roam in the field at the bottom of the hill. They aren’t used to seeing people besides Benji and they run for the treeline when we approach. There are young pigs just taken from their mommas all the way up to some 250 pound pigs approaching 7 months old, close to the end of their lives.
After watching the pigs flee from us each time we approach, we wonder how Benji ever gets them to go where he wants. The answer is food, the ultimate motivation. The pigs love to eat Benji’s leftovers from his own dinners; they forage around in the fields and woods for grasses, plants, and nuts, and then he supplements their diet with organic feed on occasion.
The pigs at Anderson Farms are a combination of Berkshire, Duroc, and Tamworth. Duroc is an American breed, known for the fat marbling in the meat. Berkshire and Tamworth are much older breeds, brought from England, and both have a darker coloring to their hides. They are meant to be outside and not cooped up in confinement. Tamworths are a reddish color and make good mothers, Berkshire are known to have delicious, firm meat, with a lower pH resulting in a reddish tint to the meat. While most of the males are castrated in their first week, Benji keeps a few for his breed stock, and he doesn’t worry about keeping them purebred. The characteristics of these three breeds combine to make an amazing product.
While Benji doesn’t spend as many hours a week on the farm as he had in the past with a newborn baby at home, he gets up at 6:00 am each day and heads out to the fields. Each Monday, he takes about five hogs to his processor, averaging about 250 pigs per year. He picks up the meat to deliver on Thursdays. Anderson Farms is Animal Welfare Approved for humane certification, as is his processor. Both are inspected once a year to ensure that the animals are properly treated. Benji sells his pork to us at Heirloom, to 5&10, and The National, to a few places in Atlanta, and through the meat CSA at Community Meat Co. You can also contact him directly if you have a freezer big enough to hold a whole hog, cut into primals, of course. When he isn’t driving back and forth to the processor, he spends a lot of time checking on the pigs, feeding them, and fixing equipment on the farm. He says he is constantly having things break because everything is old. Pig farming certainly isn’t the easiest life a person could ask for, but Benji seems happy and tranquil surrounded by these fields and these animals, and that is more than many people can say about their workplace.