2010-09-09 / Front Page

Pat’s Pastured adopts ‘old world’ methods for modern farming

By Geoff Campbell

Patrick McNiff Patrick McNiff Pat’s Pastured farm is more bus than barn.

All but the milk house and the freezer have wheels. The egg-laying houses, portable trailers, are commercial grade. The free-range pens are farm-made and attached to lawnmower wheels, and two former travel trailers serve as home to brooding chicks before they are released to the field pens.

This mobility permits Patrick McNiff, owner and operator of Pat’s Pastured, to take full advantage of every acre of land. His farming methods, based on intricate connections between the land, make the most of the animals’ behaviors and their by-products, which in combination serve to replenish the land.

“The animals have been liberated” back to the fields and the woods, McNiff said. In that way, he added, they are able to express their genetic essence.

Pig snouts are like shovels, he explained, made for digging and rooting in the soil, while chickens are made to scratch and peck. Their nature is not realized in a concrete pen or in being coop-fed from bags of manufactured feed.

Pigs forage through the woods, their natural habitat, on Beaverhead Farm. Photo by Geoff Campbell Pigs forage through the woods, their natural habitat, on Beaverhead Farm. Photo by Geoff Campbell McNiff leases land on Beaverhead Farm, which is owned by the O’Farrells, and is perched between Mackerel Cove and the West Passage. McNiff and his crew of three full-time equivalent employees raise naturally grown beef, lamb, pork, rabbit and poultry.

“High-density short-duration grazing” is an essential aspect to this system of sustainable farming,” he said. Forage for the animals is what is grown on the land or produced locally.

He said his business philosophy is simple: “I want the farm to be making money as a business and leave the land better than I found it.”

Permanent infrastructure plays second fiddle to the land itself. Fences are often portable and electric, only two or three strands of high-voltage, low-amperage pulsating current that reminds the animals of the boundaries.

In a natural setting – a wooded area with dense undergrowth – pigs behave as they were meant to, according to McNiff. The pig’s natural ability to digest thick forest undergrowth and remove soft wood trees promotes hardwood growth, which ultimately benefits the land, he said.

During a recent visit, McNiff picked up an attached rope handle and easily inched the chickens and their pen forward onto unused forage. Each pen costs about $200 to make and McNiff said that they are durable; the oldest pen was constructed eight years ago.

The pattern of the thoughtfully positioned pens is visible from Beavertail Road and offers a clue to the detail that goes into Mc- Niff’s farming system.

The leavings of the poultry provide a rich nutrient that replenishes and restores the grasses, he said.

The sequence of which animal species follows the other – and how long a portion of pasture is allowed to breathe – is among the complex and overlapping variables that are well considered by this self-described “new generation farmer.”

McNiff is quick to remind visitors that this is not “his way,” but an application of “old agriculture knowledge” once lost and now adapted to modern farming. He adds that he “could not farm this way without the generosity and support of the O’Farrells.”

The farm is diverse by design. Pasture-raised broilers, free-range laying hens, grass-fed sheep and lamb, Jersey and Holstein milkers, Black and Red Angus, and Hereford cattle are joined by heritage breeds of pigs, including Berkshire, Large Black and Tamworth. McNiff also raises rabbits, ducks, geese and turkeys. Each species has a role in the treatment of the soil, through digging, rooting, scratching, aerating and fertilizing.

He also said that he wants to breed into his animals the qualities of old-style varieties, whose genetics were accommodating of grasses without the supplements of corn and feed that are typical of industrial farming.

He added that it is vitally important that they be “good mothers,” able to nurture and raise healthy offspring.

McNiff came to Rhode Island via Providence College, then earned a master’s in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University. Without a farming background, McNiff said that he has learned by doing. He also credits his experience as the manager of Casey Farm for four years and his mentors, who include the Mintos and the Neals, both long-time Jamestown farming families.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s farm,” McNiff said. Facebook, websites, blogging and Twitter are integral parts of his marketing and business plan.

He described a multi-pronged, flexible and balanced approach, which he uses to attract and maintain a customer base and to grow his business both in size and profitability during the current recession. He said that his business has grown in the last three to four years, but in the last two, it has “taken off.”

Pat’s Pastured offers membership to a community supported agriculture (CSA), which, according to McNiff, provides him with the cash flow necessary to produce the farm’s products.

Six farmers markets and a similar number of restaurants – including Ocean House, Celestial Café and Chez Pasqual – are also vehicles for distribution of Pat’s Pastured products.

Additionally, McNiff said that buyers’ clubs – where an individual serves as a distribution point for friends and neighbors – are being developed. Currently, three are planned in Rhode Island and one is planned out of state.

McNiff acknowledged that the increased interest in locally grown and fresh food is part of the reason for his farm’s success.

He credits Ken Ayars, chief of the R.I. Division of Agriculture and Resource Marketing, with helping to rebuild R.I. agricultural infrastructure with the addition of the USDA-approved slaughterhouse in Johnston. Profitability is improved when the closest USDA approved facility is in Rhode Island and not Vermont, McNiff said.

While Beaverhead is Pat’s Pastured’s headquarters, there are actually five farm-active locations – two in Jamestown, and three between North and South Kingstown.

“I am always looking for more land leasing opportunities,” Mc- Niff said.

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