By Georgina Schaeffer
“It was my [then] wife’s idea to bring the pigs in. We started with four gilts, little females, and raised them,” begins Craig Meili, as we walk around his farm in Amenia on a brisk November morning. “We got a boar and started breeding. We went up to eight sows, then 16, doubling every year,” he explains of Meili Farm’s local, free-range heritage hog business. Dozens of piglets zoom around the nursing pens, zig-zagging this way and that, their lumbering sows nearby. “Now, we have 45 sows, and that’s where I want to stay because that’s what I can manage myself,” he says. “The most important thing in this business, in any business, is efficiency.” More pens hold weaned piglets and farther in the distance 49 beef cows graze in a pasture. Polka, a black-and-white cattle dog, accompanies us as we walk around the farm. She herds a group of pigs from behind one of the silos, which stores the feed Craig makes from the non-GMO corn he grows on-site. Chickens pop out from inside a coop, while 15 sheep graze in a meadow as we approach the house. “They mow the lawn for me,” he says with a smile. “I’d like to create a larger area for them next year.” Two elder draft ponies, Fritz and Elsa, reside in semi-retirement over the hill.
It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, as we sit down at the kitchen table, that almost everything we discuss comes back to basic business principles: capital outlay, product quality, supply chains and cash-flow. After all, the farming business is in the Meili bloodlines. Craig’s father, Joerg, emigrated from Switzerland in the 1950s and settled in Dutchess County, where he worked as the manager of Bel Aire Farms before starting his own dairy operation. “He bought this place in 1966 and added additional pieces of land over time,” Craig says. Today, the Meili family owns and works roughly 225 acres of farmland that straddles the New York-Connecticut border. This year, the family placed almost half the farm under easement with the Dutchess Land Conservancy, working in conjunction with Dutchess County’s Partnership for Manageable Growth, The 1772 Foundation and the Housatonic Valley Association. “We wanted to see this land protected, as well as survive as an operating farm in Dutchess County,” Craig says. “From a wildlife perspective, I feel this farm is especially important. The Webutuck Creek runs right through here, which feeds into Ten Mile River, and ultimately, the Housatonic,” he explains. “I believe in open space protection. When I went out west for college, I saw their biggest problem is sprawl. We are 100 miles from a major metropolitan area,” he continues. “I think people living here want to see farms stay open and the land protected.” While Craig’s brother, Joerg, continued with the dairy operation until he sold the milking herd last year, Craig focused on the pigs: “I am a niche producer for a niche market,” he says of his Tamworth Berkshire cross stock. “They are very hearty outdoor pigs and do well in the free-range environment.” Craig and his now ex-wife, Sophie, began processing cuts and selling them at local farmers’ markets. “We went to a farmer meet-and-greet at Stissing House and met the people from the Red Devon and they bought our first whole pig,” he recalls. “They called up a few days later and ordered another one. Soon, they were ordering one a week.” This was a pivotal moment for the young couple, as selling whole pigs was always their goal. “Not only do you cut down on production costs, but if you move whole pigs every week you have a steady cash-flow.” And cash-flow, as with any start-up, is essential. “In the early days, we were putting a lot of money back into the farm,” he recalls of his early infrastructure choices, including top-of-the-line wood feeders from Iowa.
The Meilis’ business continued to pick-up steam via word-of-mouth, arguably the best marketing strategy. “A guy from Harlem who was starting a butcher shop came up and looked around, liked how I raised my pigs and ordered two pigs a week,” Craig remembers. “Then a new specialty food store in Brooklyn started with two pigs a week.” In addition, Craig works with Farms2Tables, an online service company in Rhinebeck that connects local farmers with restaurants and caterers. Through this service, he is able to sell his ground beef, produced cuts, as well as whole pigs, to an even wider network of clients. Next year, Craig hopes to start a small free-range chicken operation and sell the meat through the service, as well as for himself.
“I would rather focus on doing a few things really well rather than do a whole bunch of things mediocrely,” he says of his business philosophy. “We are a farrow-to-finish operation,” he explains. (Farrowing is the process of birthing and breeding pigs.) “A lot of people don’t want to be involved with the farrowing, but it’s probably my favorite part of the business.” But before I can think he’s going a bit soft on me with talk of raising animals, he adds: “But in the end, it’s all about the numbers.” And as any businessman will tell you, you always keep your eye on the bottom line.