Family Farm Home to Happy Hogs
River Meadow Farm is tucked off the side of Kentucky Hwy. 1 between the roadway and John’s Run, which flows into the Little Fork of the Little Sandy River south of Grayson.
Merlin Heatwole, 29, and his wife Martha, 28, along with their three children Elaine, 4, Kenneth, 2, and baby Charles, share a hilltop home overlooking a stretch of gently rolling bottom land that includes a tidy vegetable garden and a chicken house. A barn is in the process of rising from a newly created hilltop barn, which houses the family’s hogs.
A few years ago, the couple decided they would try their hand at raising hogs and selling the pork from a tiny country roadside store. The store, in a small wooden outbuilding next to their house, is licensed and inspected by the local health department so that it can sell the meat by the pound. Its freezers are stocked with bacon; ham; pork chops; and hot, medium, and mild sausage. The family also sells whole and half hogs to customers with the freezer space. Customers who stop in can hear the happy hogs just steps away from the store.
The Heatwoles are just starting out as hog farmers and admit to “still figuring it out.” The couple, who are Mennonites, met at a bible school in Ohio and married in 2012. Merlin was born in Canada but moved to Kentucky at a young age while Martha was raised on a large Iowa farm. Soon after they married, they bought their little farm and, like most young couples, began dreaming.
“We want to make the farm a place where we can work alongside our children, explained Merlin. “We were looking for the way to use the land. We don’t use it as much… One of our dreams is to include the pasture down there for rotational grazing,” Merlin says looking at his now fallow fields. “There’s just something pretty about hogs on pasture.”
“We do anticipate some income from it, if the Lord turns it into something profitable,” he added, explaining, “We enjoy animals. My wife says if we didn’t have hogs, we would be looking for other animals.”
They started with two sows, Blackberry and Raspberry, and a boar named George for their breeding stock. When both sows have given birth, the couple get about 16 piglets at a time. Right now, the couple is breeding their stock twice a year, for a total of about 30 pigs annually, Merlin said.
Merlin has put considerable time and effort into what he feeds his hogs because, he explained, “I think it will be important to our customers. I was looking for advice on how to do better with the hogs and I was directed to another hog farmer. I called him and through that connection, I learned he also grows corn and soybeans. He was able to mix feed for me, and it has worked well for me.” That farmer lives in Fleming County about 75 minutes away.
The feed is a non-GMO feed of corn and soybeans with a mineral packet, explains Merlin dipping a hand into a large container of the feed and displaying the mix in his hand. “When it’s all hidden in a commercial pellet, you can’t see what is in there,” he explained.
It takes around five-and-a-half to six months for pigs to reach a weight of about 250-300 pounds. “That is what we consider a good weight to slaughter them at. They are more efficient with their feed at that weight, and they have less fat,” Merlin explained. The result is melt-in-your-mouth cuts of bacon, ham, pork chops, ribs, jowls and everything else that humans consume from a pig.
“If someone buys a whole or a half, they may pick (the hog) up at the farm and take them to their own butcher shop. Most people prefer to pay us a small fee to take them down to them and pick them up directly from us and not have to go to the butcher shop,” Merlin explains. “We feel like Jonathan there at Appalachian Meats (in Prestonsburg) does good work for us. That is where we have been going from the start; we have developed a good relationship with him. We know what to expect from them.”
This is also the best option for customers who may want different cuts of meat than is traditionally offered. For example, he said, one customer has requested uncured pork belly and others have asked for the organ meat and tongue, but most customers prefer to leave that behind. (A whole hog translates to about 110 pounds of meat, so a half hog is about 50-60 pounds.)
As the business grows, Merlin said, “We’d like to add a few more things as we learn what people like. We just want people to know they can buy a healthy meat product straight from the farm it came from,” said Merlin.