‘We haven’t left the farm together in seven years.’
AG-IRONDACK: Couple provides pork and beef to local homes and restaurants
SUGARBUSH — It’s 12 degrees below zero, and Sara Burke is counting pigs. Several dozen of them have stampeded to the fence for feeding time, and she can barely be heard over their squealing.
“I count so that if one turns up missing, if it’s sick or doesn’t come for food, we can find out quickly,” she said. The pigs are separated by size and age group into different pens, and they charge around with an endearing cheeriness, sniffing out the feed they like best: One pig cleans up a bunch of bananas while others go for grapes. Sara feeds the pigs out-of-date fruits and vegetables from local grocery stores, saving money on feed while providing a fresh diet.
The whole Burke family is involved in feeding time: Dustin, 11, and Brooke, 9, go in the chicken house to feed chickens and collect eggs while their father Dan fills the water buckets for the animals.
Even in subzero weather, the chickens lay eggs. The eggs will freeze if the hens don’t sit on them, but when you get an egg out from under a hen “it’s nice and warm,” said Dan. “You can hold it in your two hands and feel the heat inside it.”
There are two horses, around 65 pigs, and 25 cows at Atlas Hoofed It farm in Sugarbush. All the animals have sturdy shelters to protect them from the weather. Since Sara and Dan bought the farm 11 years ago, they’ve put all their profits back into it.
The farm has an old Atlas missile silo in the center, which they haven’t yet figured out a good use for, but thanks to the military engineering of the site, the farm roads are exceptional: wide and flat. The Burkes took inspiration for the farm’s name from the missile silo, and from the novel by Ayn Rand. According to their website, “Atlas Shrugged” is one of their favorite books.
They didn’t start with a plan when they bought the farm 11 years ago. Sara, a chemist, is currently pursuing a nursing license through North Country Community College. Dan is a carpenter and all-around fix-it guy — his system for keeping the water hoses from freezing allows them to disconnect the hoses from the taps quickly, and store them on the side of the fence so that the water drains out. In the future, they hope one of them can stay home to work on the farm, but for now they both keep working.
“The horses were our gateway animal,” Sara said. Chores over, the family relaxed in the warmth of the woodstove inside the farmhouse.
“The idea started as a homestead. We bought two pigs and named them Pork and Beans, and friends were like, ‘Hey, raise me a half a pig.'”
“We thought piglets were extraordinarily expensive, at 40 bucks,” said Dan.
“We bought four more that first summer,” said Sara. “It’s just kind of grown from there.”
“Pat Clelland sold us his Highland cow herd from up in Duane,” said Dan. “We were like, ‘If we’re feeding pigs, why not feed cows?'”
“It went from a homestead raising meat for friends and family to now,” said Sara. Their CSA (community supported agriculture) has about 25 active subscribers and offers a monthly minimum share of $50.
“You get to pick what you want in the CSA,” Sara said. “It’s non-traditional. We do mostly beef, pork and eggs. We ask people to limit taking things like bacon — that’s in the fine print. You can take what you want, but leave enough for others.”
Another non-traditional aspect of the farm is that the Burkes deliver the meat to their customers, rather than having them pick it up at the farm.
“I play meat lady and Dan plays meat man,” said Sara. “It’s quicker to drop off than have people come out –then you have to stay home on the farm all day for when they can come.”
Like the other young farming couples profiled in the Enterprise’s Ag-irondack series, the Burkes work all the time. They love what they’re doing, and they’re committed to bringing up their children on the farm. Raising livestock, they’ve found that their products are in high demand. They don’t advertise, and they’ve never had enough free time to go to the farmers market on Saturday morning. “Mostly, people come to us,” said Sara.
Caring for the animals ties them to the farm. Not only is there regular feeding and watering to be done, but a crisis can erupt at any time. Once, a moose walked through the farm, taking down seven fences in one day — which freed most of the animals. Although they have friends who could, theoretically, do chores so they can go on vacation, they’d have to train them how to do everything.
“We haven’t left the farm together in seven years,” said Sara.
However, unlike crop farmers, raising livestock carries an emotional risk. Before they got the pigs, Sara was a vegetarian. If they were going to eat meat, they wanted to make sure it was raised in a humane manner, and the farm stays true to that value.
“We try to make sure the animals have good lives,” she said. “And we say ‘thank you.’ We thank the various animals when it’s dinner time.”
One of their breeding sows, Josephine, is 16 years old. Although they name some of the animals and get attached to them, they don’t skirt the reality of farm business. When they had to end the career of a favorite boar so they could introduce more genetic diversity, “I had tears in my eyes when I dropped him off [at the butcher’s],” said Sara.
And although they try to make sure every animal on the farm contributes, it’s no longer clear what the horses do for their keep, since the Burkes have been too busy to keep using them for logging. It’s a hard life, but not all of it is hard.
“I like it when the animals have all been fed. The chickens are in, the pigs are pig-piled, the cows are fed. I like to see the animals at peace,” said Dan.
As part of the Wild Center’s Saturday features of local farmers, Sara and Dan Burke will give a presentation at the museum in Tupper Lake from 1 to 3 p.m. on Jan. 6. They’ll serve sausages from Atlas Hoofed It farm.