Return to Heritage

By Lillie Eisenbeis | Feb 9, 2017

The following article was featured in the Freeman Courier in November 2016 as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

Six years ago, Kyle and Polly Waltner had a decision to make

Having newly acquired a farm of their own, they could either continue the Waltner family line of business — dairying — or they could blaze a new trail. Some may have scratched their heads when in 2011 Kyle and Polly chose to convert 80 acres of cropland to paddocks of grass, but the low-input model of grass-fed livestock fit their vison better than taking out big loans for a dairy operation. They were diverting from the conventional norm and blazing their own trail. The following year, they switched from dairy to beef. Over time they’ve created an efficient herd by slowly breeding out the Herefords and adding hearty breeds like Irish Black and Aberdeen Angus that do well on grass.

Kyle attributes much of his inspiration to go grass-fed to a holistic management course he took three years ago, where he learned that all business decisions should be based on a defined holistic goal. All the possible outcomes of every decision you make are considered, and the decision you choose will lead you closer to your holistic goal. Given that Kyle values making decisions that benefit the land, and in particular soil health, rotational grazing was the right fit. Former rancher Randy Holmquist, who led the seminar, still occasionally drops by the Waltner farm to chat and consult.

Although grass-fed beef continues to be their main enterprise, low beef prices forced them to consider adding other alternatives to their farm. The Waltners have always appreciated the local foods model and wanted to try direct marketing — now was their chance. Since others in the community were already marketing alternatively raised chicken and beef, heritage pork was the clear choice. “For years, I always wanted a large black hog,” Polly confessed. “It sounded so delicious, and I wanted that food for our family.”

One may wonder what’s so different or alternative about heritage hogs as opposed to the standard conventionally raised ones. Heritage breeds were popular before World War II, when pigs were typically raised outdoors on family farms. Their high fat content and more robust diet not only helps them survive winters, but also contributes to the flavor and marbling heritage breeds are prized for. Kyle and Polly’s two sows, one boar, and nineteen piglets roam in and out of buildings on the Maynard Yoder yard that they farm south of Freeman along Highway 81. The pigs are off of concrete with access to grass and are fed a non GMO diet. They’ve been able to harvest and sell 16 pigs already, which are sold directly to customers in halves or wholes. The next harvest date is set for February or March.

The Waltners have three young children — Sam, Estelle, and Elise — so they stay busy juggling their various animals, extensive garden, and occasional work outside the farm. But that doesn’t stop them from getting the whole family involved in the life of the farm. The Waltners want their kids to learn life skills and to know where their food comes from by helping on the farm. They envision the direct-market model of raising heritage pork as something the kids can take ownership of in the future.

Raising good, wholesome food is important to Kyle and Polly, who make time to preserve and creatively prepare the fruits of their labor, whether it’s rendering lard or making jam. That has always been a part of farm life for them, even growing up. They feel it’s important to eat fresh and local food not only because of how it supports the local economy, but for the health benefits as well. That’s the draw of raising heritage pig breeds over conventional ones — the fact that they are raised outdoors and eat grass in addition to grain makes for better flavor and nutrition.

Raising food this way comes with its challenges, though, and the Waltners are still learning the ropes of direct marketing their pork. Thanks to the convenience of grocery stores, many people are not equipped to accommodate so much meat at once. Discerning the most effective marketing platforms has also been a learning curve. A facebook page, postcards, and word-of-mouth are all current methods the Waltners employ to sell their pork. They are exploring some retail opportunities, but while their family is young, they will continue to focus on the lower-input method of direct marketing, and they are appreciative of the local support they’ve already received.

Faith is an integral part of the Waltner Family Farm. It is what motivates their desire to live simply and make decisions that benefit the health of the land and those who live on it.

“We talked a lot about our faith and life meshing,” says Polly. “One little decision can affect many things.”

Faith is part of the holistic management that lies at the center of their farm. When asked what aspects of their farm bring them the most joy, Kyle and Polly agreed — plants growing and animals being born. Nowhere is this joy more abundant than on intentionally diverse and nurturing family farms such as this, and these are the farms of the future.

Rural Alternatives is a monthly feature facilitated by Rural Revival, a local organization that focuses on agricultural sustainability as a way of life in rural America. The author, Lillie Eisenbeis, farms with her husband, Andre.