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PHOTO: John D. Ivanko
Everyone could use a fairy godmother, someone who steadfastly and sincerely champions his or her success. For heritage hogs, that advocate is April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range, a Wisconsin farmer who is raising pigs and passion for all things farrow to fork. A champion for rare breeds such as Large Blacks and Gloucestershire Old Spots, Prusia blends a successful diversified farm business with a zest for how education and community connections can inspire thriving rural economies. Including hogs, a farmstay and farm-to-table dinners, Dorothy’s Range provides inspiration for how following one’s heart can cultivate success on multiple fronts.
It’s easy to spot her amidst the 50 acres she stewards with her partner, Steve Fabos: Just find out where the pigs are and Prusia will be there, in the pen or in the pasture. Dedicated to prairie restoration, Prusia and Fabos take care of a diversified habitat including tall grass prairie, upland short grass prairie, burr oak savanna, sedge meadow, a trout stream and a wildlife pond.
“Pigs bring such positive, joyful energy to the land,” says Prusia, an Iowa native who settled back in the Midwest after a stint in California. “What first drew us to consider pigs was nudging from other farmer friends who said, ‘You really should get some pigs.’ They must have seen more in us than we did of ourselves at the time because it worked,” she says.
In 2011, the couple drove to Missouri—where the closest Large Black heritage breed breeder at the time resided—and brought home three piglets in the back of their station wagon. Personal health reasons additionally drew Prusia to raising pigs as she found out she was anemic and needed more iron in her diet. “And so, this former vegetarian because a pig farmer,” Prusia says.
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“Raising heritage breeds is very important to me as we are quickly losing key genetics of pigs like the Large Black and Gloucestershire Old Spots that provide such health and sustainability benefits,” Prusia says. Back in the 1980s, a movement to industrialize hog farming took place and resulted in animals now raised indoors in settings unnatural to them as pigs thrive in outdoor settings in community with other pigs. “This industrialization unfortunately weeded out breeds that did not perform well in factory settings such as these heritage breeds that grow slower and need an outdoor, grazing environment to thrive,” she says.
That passion for bringing back these heritage breeds drives Prusia in what she has developed into a multifaceted business strategy as she sells piglet for breeding stock and feeder pigs along with meat sales of various pastured pork cuts including sausage, bacon, roasts, hams and rendered lard. She currently has five sows; each delivers two litters a year—one in the spring and one in the fall—each with six to 12 babies.
Recently Prusia shifted to exclusively focusing on Gloucestershire Old Spots, an old English breed from the county of Gloucestershire that is white with black spots known for its docile nature as there was a particular need for breeding stock in Wisconsin. “GOS pigs are the choice pork of the royal family,” she says.
For those curious about raising pigs, three is an ideal number of piglets to start with. “Remember: Pigs are very social animals and need community,” Prusia says. “I won’t sell just one piglet to someone unless I know there will be other pigs around.”
Working with a reputable breeder is also important, especially with heritage breeds so you know you have a pure bred that is officially listed in the genetic and herd book. Purchasing from someone like Prusia who is so dedicated to your success also helps tremendously as you have a seasoned resource to turn to. “Farmers who buy from me are always texting me questions, and I love it,” she says.
Diana Murphy, owner of Dreamfarm, produces farm-based organic cheeses directly from her farmstead in southern Wisconsin. “I’ve purchased our spring feeder piglets from April for five years and love how she is always willing to share her deep knowledge with me and truly wants these pigs happy and healthy,” she says. “My primary business is cheesemaking so it increased my comfort zone in raising pigs to know April has my back.” She raises six to eight of April’s pigs annually, feeding them whey from the cheesemaking process and then sold for meat in the fall.
Prusia’s recommendation on basic farm infrastructure for pigs includes basic shelter to escape the rain and elements, a water source and fencing. Pigs tend to root up around the fence so an electric fence works well as a deterrent to digging and to keep the pigs in.
Pigs are known for tipping over water buckets, but they are not being messy. They are just trying to create a wallow, which is like a small pond where they can cool themselves. Be strategic on where you place their drinking water and the pigs will easily create their own wallow.
When selling her pastured pork, especially at farmers markets, Prusia realizes education remains her best marketing tool. “Folks are used to very lean pork via the industrialized system which is not the way this meat naturally is,” she says. “They see the fat on my pork shoulder and think it’s bad for you, so I need to quickly explain the health benefits like being high in omega-3 and vitamin D as well as fat adding tremendous flavor.”
What brings Prusia farmer joy? When someone comes back to her market stand after purchasing a pork chop raving “I forgot what pork tastes like” and how these flavors transport them to another era, back to memories of how their grandma made pork. Prusia definitely sees opportunity for more farmers to raise pigs as the market for local, humanely raised, pastured meats continue to grow. “Our key challenge remains having enough local meat processing facilities to bring these animals to market,” she says.
A few years ago, Prusia and Fabos started welcoming overnight guests to the farm with rentals of a cabin and apartment already on the property. They originally were landlords with yearlong tenants but realized it was financially and personally more rewarding to focus on short-term tourist rentals with people who love and respect being on the farm.
“Our core customers are families and folks from city who seek an authentic farm experience,” Prusia says. Guests are welcome to tag along with Prusia during her pig chores and ask questions as well as purchase meat to take home. She also offers workshops on another area of passion of hers: fermentation.
The growing popularity of agritourism and such farmstay experiences catapulted these rentals to gross more income than the pig side of the business, but Prusia sees this as a win-win all around because these on-farm experiences propel visitors to become heritage hog farm champions.
“Last week was spring break and I flipped the rooms five times with different families coming up with kids to experience the farm,” she says. “And they had the added bonus of being able to bottle feed piglets. You can’t ask for a better opportunity to make these kids pig fans for life!”
Continuing to blend on-farm experiences with her passion for pork, Prusia diversified further in 2017 to host farm-to-table dinners. This involved a new learning curve of navigating state regulations to receive her catering license. Instead of investing in building an on-farm commercial kitchen, Prusia saves money by renting a local café kitchen during its off hours.
“The motivation for doing the dinners again stems from this now obsession of mine to share what pork really tastes like,” Prusia says. She caters some smaller off-site events but primarily hosts seated dinners in her restored barn, offering an authentic farm dining experience. Her dinners always include a tour to take guests truly from “farrow to fork.”
While there definitely is an increasing market for heritage meats, the challenge throughout the country remains a lack of local meat processing facilities, particularly butchers that can process small-scale, artisanal meats that need traditional techniques such as dry curing.
While this lack of processors also burdened April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range, she acted on a larger scale to look at the bigger picture and also help other small-scale meat producers with similar challenges. She formed a team of women farmers including Betty Anderson of the Old Smith Place and Bethany Storm of the Little Red Home(Stead) and they applied for and received a North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research Education Farmer Rancher grant to assess the demand and feasibility of a federally licensed mobile slaughtering facility in south-central Wisconsin.
“We are surveying producers in our area to see what their needs alongside what current facility availability to see what unmet needs and opportunities might exist,” says Prusia, who will be sharing her final report and learnings so that other farmers struggling with the lack of local processors can learn from her team’s research and experience.
“SARE Farmer Rancher grants provide opportunities for farmers to research challenging issues and find solutions that can then be helpful to other farmers,” says Beth Nelson, director of research and education programs for North Central SARE. “April’s project is a great example of how farmers coming together to creatively and collaboratively solve a problem and share information adds up to a stronger future for sustainable agriculture.”
SARE provides a variety of farmer resources and support, including a variety of fact sheets and granting programs. To find out more and which of the four regional SARE groups you are part of, visit the SARE website.
Ask Prusia the key ingredient behind her success and she will quickly give credit to her Soil Sisters, a community of area women committed to sustainable agriculture that meet and cross-pollinate regularly at potlucks. Prusia serves as a founding member of the team that started the Soil Sisters weekend (www.soilsisterswi.org), an annual event every August during which a team of over 20 area women farmers open their barn doors to the public and host a variety of on-farm events including workshops, tours and a Prusia-hosted dinner.
“Having a local group of kindred spirited women that have my back inspires me to think out of the box and try new things,” she says, remembering how it was that a local woman farmer friend who encouraged her to put her idea of serving meals into action. “My first farm-to-table dinner was during the Soil Sisters weekend, and we ended up selling out as well as having a major magazine there to cover it. This really pushed me out of my box to think creatively and my Soil Sisters came out to help that night and make it a success out of the chute.”
Prusia’s farmer hat provides a platform from which she can help others connect the conservation dots to understand that a healthy ecosystem ultimately affects what’s on our plate. “I’ve learned so much from my partner, Steve, on the importance of clean waterways and how ultimately the health of everything else ties back to water,” Prusia says. With a trout stream wiggling through Dorothy’s Range and Steve being an enthusiastic trout fisherman, advocating for clean water hits close to home. Prusia serves as president of Pecatonica Pride, a grassroots group that stewards the local watershed through education and field days where you’ll often find Prusia in gators taking water samples.
“April Prusia provides such an inspiring example of how farmers can share their boots-in-the-field experiences and help others to understand that championing clean water is something we all need to do,” says Kara O’Connor, the policy director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “April’s mission digs much deeper than just selling pork. She wonderfully embraces how farming can be a platform for authentically sharing stories and ultimately advocating for policies that support conservation.”
While Prusia keeps these big picture goals close at hand, her heart always remains with her pigs, treating them like family throughout their lifespan. “I’ve bottom-line learned that happy pigs lead to the best tasting pork,” she says. “It is so rewarding to have created a livelihood where I can experience that whole process.”
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.