Heather Sandford: Farmer Brings Home The Bacon

Heather Sandford is pursuing a three-legged strategy to grow her New York pig farm and meat business, The Piggery.

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Heather Sandford, The Piggery

Heather Sandford (HS) SOT: Are you being a rock star, huh? You showing everyone how cute you are?

HS: I was a vegetarian for 17 years and I was vegan for a while. So it’s been kind of a full circle process for me, but I know that my animals have a good and positive, like, life cycle. And I know people are gonna eat meat, regardless if I close shop tomorrow. And I at least would like people to have the option to buy, you know, meat that was well respected and well cared for.

CARD: Heather Sanford – CEO & Co-Founder – The Piggery – Ithaca, New York, U.S.

HS: We are self-taught farmers and we're self-taught butchers. We made a lot of mistakes. It's interesting 'cause we know exactly how to farm now. And we also know, like, how we can get better and we're always working on it.

HS SOT: Yeah? Where are they?

HS: When I was growing up, I did not wanna be a farmer at all. I did go to Cornell and I graduated with a bioengineering degree. And at that time, I still didn't have any inclination that I was gonna be a farmer. I was actually really interested in music.

HS SOT: What I really need is Andrew to give us more beans.

HS: I met my husband Brad my senior year at college. We were friends for a very long time before we started dating. And we're still good friends now.

CARD: After graduating in 1999, Heather and her husband Brad moved to San Francisco.

CARD: Heather played guitar in an all-girl punk band and then began a career in real estate.

HS: Brad and I started going to the farmers’ markets. We started growing things in the back of this little cottage we rented outside of San Francisco. We started smoking our own meat. We started like, breaking down our own animals.

CARD: In 2005 Heather and Brad returned to New York to try and live off the land.

CARD: They bought a 70-acre farm and began building their first homestead.

HS: We were truly just interested in moving back here and homesteading. In that process in the first two years, we found out that we loved pigs. They're smart. They're cute, you know, we can pet 'em.

HS SOT: This is really nice. This is the stuff that Brad found on Craigslist.

HS: We all fit together in this like, little ecosystem on the farm. You know, I care for these animals, we grow them up just like you plant corn, just like you plant vegetables and at some point you're harvesting it for nutrition. We can talk about they go to slaughter, we kill them, but you know, we are harvesting them for — for protein.

CARD: Heather and Brad raise as many as 600 pigs at a time. They send 30 pigs a week to be slaughtered.

CARD: At first they sold their meat in local farmers’ markets. In 2011 they opened a butcher shop in Ithaca.

Brad Sandford (BS) SOT: This turkey I’m really excited about. I think that’s coming really well.

HS SOT: Me too. GreenStar wants some yesterday.

BS SOT: GreenStar wants it yesterday?

HS: The margins in farming and meat cutting are just whisper thin so we had to work really hard to try to figure out how to cut the carcass every week.

HS SOT: The Irish bacon turned out really well.

BS SOT: The Irish bacon looks nice.

HS: It’s not just the tenderloin, it’s not just the porkchop, and if you’re gonna sell the animal you have to sell the rendered lard, you have to sell the pork cheeks if you can.

BS SOT: Uh, this is our, our, our ham, our deli slice ham we make, and on the far side is actually our bologna, um, and our pâté over there.

HS SOT: Ooh, that looks nice.

CARD: Two years later, they decided to expand again.

HS: We wanted to look at building our business out a little bit further for higher volume and to go into the wholesale market so we could stay in business long term and be a sustainable business.

CARD: They secured over $1 million in loans from their bank, community development programs and an equity investor. They built out a small meat processing operation and applied for a USDA license to sell their meat out of state.

HS: That was quite a big change. A lot of refrigeration. A lot of new equipment that we needed to enter the marketplace and stuff and also build out our new retail room. So there’s so many challenges, so many late nights, so many long hours.

HS: It feels really good now that we've kinda re-launched, and we just got our USDA license. That is a gigantic deal. It's very dense, the amount of, like, paperwork and things that you do need to do to keep your license active. So I have an inspector at my shop every single day, you know. He looks at our facility, to control any possible contaminations or issues. It's very, very intense. We have to be good every day. Every day we have to be good.

CARD: Heather and Brad now have 28 employees. They sell their meat in stores from Maine to Virginia. Revenue is nearing $2 million a year.

HS: Farmers have so many challenges against them and to overcome them over — all the time is — kind of remarkable. All of us joke like, why do we do this? This is crazy. It's hard, it's long hours, none of us make any money. You know. But it's a labor of love.

HS SOT: Hi! Thank you so much for letting us come and see you. I really appreciate it.

CREDITS

Producers – Victoria Wang & Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Cheree Dillon
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Production Assistant – Michelle Ciotta
Assistant Editor – Adam Finchler
Music – Killer Tracks

Posted: April 5, 2016

Nusha Balyan at The Story ExchangeHeather Sandford: Farmer Brings Home The Bacon