Ben Godfrey has found his passion: pigs.
“It’s a strange thing,” Godfrey said. “I’ve done every conceivable job, anything you can think of, at some point I have tried my hand in it and earned money in a lot of different ways.”
But it wasn’t until Godfrey and his wife, Michelle, moved to their Washington County acreage that Ben realized this passion. Ben and Michelle raise pigs on pasture at Paradise in Progress Farms.
“I haven’t ever found anything that I felt passionate about this way,” Ben said. “The pigs are amazingly friendly animals, and there’s something I get about them and they get about me.”
How they got started
The Godfreys were living in midtown Omaha when they decided to move to the Washington County countryside and closer to Ben’s work at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station in the spring of 2012.
They found the home and property, which was originally part of a 1,000-acre parcel just west of Fort Calhoun a farmer had sold and divided for housing tracts. The previous homeowner was not using the land for livestock or crops.
“The ground feels to me like it was basically treated like lawn,” Ben said. “When we bought the place, they were mowing the pastures a couple of times a month. It wasn’t very healthy because it needs more than that.”
Ben and Michelle began reading about how to take care of an acreage.
“I quickly ran across the sustainable community that talked about using pigs as your groundbreakers,” Ben said.
Instead of using a tractor and a harrow to turn the land, Ben was told to let pigs graze on it for a year.
“Let the pigs root it up; let the pigs fertilize it,” Ben said. “So we did.”
The Godfreys got their first two pigs from the Erstwhile Farm in Columbus, but getting them back to their place proved to be a bit of a challenge.
“Larry and Lynette thought we were insane,” Ben said. “He asked me ahead of time, ‘How are you going to be moving these pigs?’ I told him I’d be coming in a minivan.”
Ben and Michelle placed the pigs in the pastures and they did their job.
“They did a lot of what we wanted,” Ben said.
But by the end of November, one pig had died of natural causes and the other was butchered for its meat. It was then the couple realized they wanted more.
“We kind of looked at each other and said, it’s kind of lonely out here now,” Ben said. “We’re not hearing the pigs down in the pasture anymore. So the next spring, we bought eight.”
In the meantime, the Godfreys also enrolled in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension’s Farm Beginnings program, which teaches people to farm.
“We made out a business plan and decided we were going to raise pigs on pasture,” Ben said.
What they eat
Pigs raised in pastures forage for food, including grasses and forage crops.
The Godfreys rotate their pigs between seven different paddocks — some of which is wooded — in their pasture.
“What I do just before I take them off of a paddock is I over seed it, so I go back with a mixture of grasses and forage crops — kale, forage beets, turnips, that kind of thing,” Ben said. “We put those down and the pigs will trod it into the ground and it goes back into what they just tilled up.”
Though a paddock may look bare after the pigs have foraged through it, much of what was growing there will return.
“(The pigs) don’t disturb the mass of a root,” Ben said. “They leave about 80 percent of the roots intact. A lot of what they seem to have plowed up, really comes back and it comes back with a vengeance the next year.”
The Godfreys began their first pasture trial in spring 2013. From April to October, the pigs ate nothing but what was in the pasture. But the Godfreys needed to find a food source for winter.
“We bought some non-GMO feed that was amazing, but it was too expensive for what we’re doing,” Michelle said. “We couldn’t foresee doing that all winter, every winter.”
Ben and Michelle, who are members of the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society and the Alternative Growers Association, used an emailing list to connect with other members to find a solution.
“We put it out there that ‘Hey, we need a food source,’” Ben said. “Something that’s going to allow us to feed these animals inexpensively.”
Within a month, they heard from someone hauling old produce from Whole Foods. He no longer wanted to and offered it to them. Ben hauls more than a ton of leftover produce per week.
“That can be everything from a bruised tomato to juice pulp to coconuts,” Ben said. “There’s hundreds and hundreds of coconuts out there right now.”
The pigs aren’t the only ones eating the coconuts.
“The chickens will even eat them if they’re open,” Michelle said. “They pick at the insides. It’s a feast.”
The leftover produce has led to additional plants growing in the pastures — everything from melons to tomatillos to squash.
Ben and Michelle also get more than a ton of spent grain a week from the Benson Brewery and Infusion Brewery in Omaha and whey from a goat dairy in Iowa.
The added food also gives the pigs a different flavor.
“The flavor of our animals is amazing,” Ben said. “The fat layer is really significant.”
Breeding their own
Ben and Michelle butchered their first set of pigs around a year ago and they’ve sold 10 pigs so far this year. The Godfreys have used processors in Humphrey and Minden, Iowa, and soon will begin using KB Quality Meats in Blair.
The Godfreys sell to one Omaha restaurant, but the rest of the pigs are sold to families, friends and co-workers.
Ben and Michelle currently have 11 pigs in their pastures — four adults and seven piglets.
“Now we have our first litter,” Michelle said. “It’s our intention to raise the pigs from birth here.”
“Our intention has been for a while to transition from buying feeders from someone else to actually farrowing and raising them here and this is our first set that we’ve had successfully born on the farm,” Ben said.
The piglets have just started to eat their first transitional food — hard-boiled eggs. Michelle noticed the piglets were starting to bother their mother when they were trying to feed.
“I just sensed that it was time to start giving them some other food, too,” she said.
Ben hopes to grow their herd, too. He would like to have two breeding sows that would have at least two litters each for about 40 pigs a year.
The pigs behavior is quite different from those of pigs confined to a barn or pen. The Godfreys’ pigs are very social.
“That’s because of (Ben),” Michelle said. “And that’s because they get to do what they want, I think.”
Ben spends a lot of time with the pigs. He’s adamant that the pigs be treated as kindly and gently as they can be for the entirety of their lives.
Ben and Michelle’s daughters, Isabel, 7, and Clara, 6, also help care for the animals, including moving them from paddock to paddock, which they did recently.
“I gave them each a 5-gallon bucket of stale rolls and they walked ahead and left a trail and the three pigs just trodded along behind,” Ben said. “Just like Hansel and Gretel.”
More than just pigs
In addition to the pigs, the Godfreys have apple, pear and nut trees, chickens and bees on their acreage. They hope to eventually be self-sustainable with what they grow.
“They’re doing their thing and we just collect what spins off of that,” Ben said. “And that’s really starting to happen.”