August 2004

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Producer Profile: Willow Creek Farm

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Producer Profile
Willow Creek Farm
Lynn Olson
Member Services Manager

The raves for Willow Creek Farm and their pork products hang from the walls of the modest office where Sue and Tony Renger conduct the business end of their 100 head per year, 100% pure Berkshire hog farm. Kurobuta (Japanese black hog) pork, made from 100% Berkshire hogs and considered by some a niche market, is highly coveted in Japan where consumers pay as much as 40% more than US consumers for loin meat and 20% more for belly and other cuts. Currently, all of the Willow Creek Farm sells their meat in and around southern Wisconsin.

Humane Farming Practices

Just past Plain, along Hwy 23 in Loganville, Wisconsin, this classic Wisconsin farm was well suited for approval by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), a non-profit organization working to promote humane farming practices and stop the growth of animal factories. In the short time since Sue and Tony began raising hogs, their reputation for humane, sustainable meat has made them a favorite among discerning chefs and loyal customers. In fact, Madison’s convivium (chapter) of the Slow Food Movement recently honored the Rengers by asking them to represent local sustainable meat growers at the Terra Madre World Meeting of Food Communities in Turin, Italy this fall. Animal Welfare Institute announced their approval last year. Willow Creek became the first pig farm to earn this approval, which recognizes their commitment to humane pig husbandry standards. Approval requirements include: the sows must be able to build nests and to live in social groups; animal factory practices are prohibited, including continuous confinement of sows in crates in which they cannot walk or turn, restraint of sows using a neck collar and chain, confinement of piglets in cages and removal of pig tails. The routine use of antibiotics is prohibited and farms must “allow for expression of instinctive behaviors, such as rooting, nesting and playing.” Willow Creek Farm pigs not only play, they also run around smelling and exploring their surroundings.

Quality of Life
After being raised on family farm in Iowa, achieving success with an international packaging company and traveling extensively, Tony, along with his partner and wife Sue, agreed on the best course of action when it came time to raise a family. “We had decided that we wanted to live where we wanted to be and then we’d figure out how to make a living from there.” Tony says, “We looked all over the US. We seriously considered Vermont, southeast Ohio. We used to stop by Madison on our way from Detroit to Minneapolis and one time we stopped by at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and we were like, ‘Wow!’ It was May and the tulips were up and it was great! Now here we are twenty years later, and we’re actually making it.”

In 1993, just before the birth of their son, the couple bought their house and 10 acres of land which were surrounded by more land that was once a part of the original farm but had been subdivided and sold off over the years by the previous owners. Over the last ten years, Tony and Sue have been able to purchase the rest of the land bringing their total acreage up to 80. Eight acres and two daughters later, they have assembled their family and the family farm.

Raising Pigs in the Pasture

One of the letters of praise on the wall of their office is from Sue’s Aunt Lorraine who, after tasting the Willow Creek Kielbasa was pleased to write, “It tasted just like my dad made!” in reference to the traditional recipe from her father’s butcher shop in Michigan.

Sue has taken an unlikely route from growing up in Michigan a butcher’s granddaughter, to becoming a farmer. “This has been a whole journey of coming to terms, especially for someone like me who didn’t grow up on a farm,” she says, “When you grow up in the city, you go to the store and you buy your meat and you don’t think about it and it’s not really talked about. This is our first year on the Square, [at the Dane County Farmers’ Market] and it’s interesting to get to those people who see [our farm] pictures and start to think, ‘I wonder if those other pork people are raising their pigs out in pasture?’ So, it’s one of those things where you want people to realize how [their] meat is being raised and come to terms with what’s going on. You can’t just go to the store and buy a package of meat and not think about it anymore.”

Feeding the Pigs
Willow Creek Farm grows its own feed corn using “no-till” (weeds are left to grow between the rows), which reduces the loss of topsoil. Wheat is also grown on the farm and only soybeans are purchased off the farm to be combined for feed. Any fertilizer needs for the fields comes directly from the hogs. The corn grown by the Rengers yields a high oil kernel, is non-GMO and is especially good for pigs as it gives them more energy and is more palatable than other varieties. Tony roasts the soybeans and grinds all the other feed materials to ensure that precisely the right combination of grains. Essential minerals and oils are mixed for the right time in each pig’s life. “When they’re smaller you have a higher protein diet. As they grow older you reduce the amount,” Tony explains, “Their diet is pretty high in roughage. They have the standard corn and soybean meal, but I actually put in soybean hulls and dehydrated alfalfa meal. It fills them up and keeps their weight gain down. What I learned with the Berkshire, and I learned this from trial and error—you’re not going to find a book that says it— but if the sows become too big, the Berkshire breed has the tendency to have fat form around the ovaries and they cannot become pregnant.”

Birthing Practices

At Willow Creek Farm, the birthing process is made easier for the animals in large furrowing stalls where the sows give birth and nurse their piglets. Two-thirds times larger than factory farm beds, a roll bar attached along one wall helps to protect piglets from their mothers as she moves around in the stall. “And in between the stalls, the little piglets can run in between each other’s stalls for a socialization factor, then after the mothers are weaned, the piglets are used to each other and there’s less stress,” Sue says. Tony adds, “Berkshires are really good mothers. If they lay on a pig and hear a squeal, they jump right up.”

This whole thing has been designed to be extremely low stress,” Sue assures. Piglets and sows rest on fresh hay beds and are never poked or prodded. When mothers and piglets are finished in the furrowing house, there are five acres of pasture for them to run, root, explore and play. Tony sums up the issue of organics and the animals, “I’ve never looked into what it would take to be classified organic for pork because we’re more concerned that it’s sustainable and humane. Our philosophy is that we know our animals have a short life but we want them to have a good life. I think a lot of people, if you gave them that choice would pick the short, good life.”

For More Information
For more information, call Willow Creek Farm at (608) 727-2224. You can find their delicious products at the Willy Street Co-op and at the Eastside Farmers’ Market.