Inspiration comes in the strangest forms sometimes. For Andrew Crush it was in the form of a pig and some poisonous snakes.
Thirteen years ago Crush, 40, bought a house and 10 acres of land in the small northern Virginia town of Lovettsville, where he works as a paramedic. Working for the fire department meant 24 hours on and then 48 hours off, which left him with a lot of time on his hands. Crush is not someone familiar with the idea of sitting still, so he was always busy with a lot of what he calls hobbies. Because he and his wife Liz weren’t very happy with the quality of meat they found in nearby stores, one of those hobbies became raising chickens and goats. The chickens weren’t too hard, but the goats were having a rough go of it.
“We were grazing a bunch of land with the goats, and we started having problems with copperheads and some rattlesnakes,” he says.
Like most of us, Crush had never had to get rid of snakes before. He quickly discovered they aren’t like other pests: Not only are they deadly, they’re persistent too. You can’t just lay out some traps or poison or call in an exterminator. After talking to the Virginia Department of Game and Fish and nearby animal control officials, he also found out no one else knew how to get rid of them either.
“Then I ran into this old timer named Grady Parker who I’d grown up knowing,” he says. “He told me that a hog would solve our snake problems. I didn’t really understand how that was relevant to it. So he said, in a real North Carolina drawl, ‘Snakes to a hog is like cupcakes to a fat kid.’”
Crush didn’t believe Parker at first, and who can blame him. In a fight between a pig and a rattlesnake—whose venom can kill a person—most of us would pick the snake. We’d be wrong. Turns out the only place a snake can bite a pig and do it any harm is in what would be its armpit, if pigs had arms. Everywhere else the fatty tissue prevents the venom from getting into the blood stream. So Crush got himself a pig, and it went to town on the snakes just as Parker said it would.
With the snakes gone, the couple now had a pig they could either keep for no real reason or use to save a lot of money on their grocery bills. In the fall, they butchered it and immediately saw pork like none they had ever seen before. It had a lot more fat than what you would get in a grocery store package, and it wasn’t white; it was a deep pink color. They cooked up some pork chops and the flavor was incredible. That wasn’t just their opinion either. Their friend Jason Lage, chef at Market Table Bistro, a farm-to-table restaurant in Lovettsville, tried a couple of pork chops and immediately ordered two pigs for next year.
What made this pork so different than what is sometimes called “the other white meat”? First is the pig’s breed. The Hampshire is a heritage breed, not one of the newer breeds designed for high-intensity pig farming, so the color and fattiness is just what you’d find on an old-fashioned pig. The other thing that made it different was what it was fed, and that doesn’t mean the snakes, which were a minor part of its diet. The area the pig grazed in is heavily wooded and has a lot of oak and chestnut trees, so it ate acorns and other natural forage. Supermarket pork, by contrast, is fed corn and soya, which don’t add flavor to the meat.
After doing some research, Crush found out his pig ate the same things the renowned black Iberian pigs of Spain and Portugal eat. The cured meat from those pigs is called jamón ibérico. It is to ham as Kobe beef is to ground chuck and can sell for more than $100 per pound.
Crush knew he had something special here, and he and his wife Liz wanted to make the most of it. They founded Spring House Farm in 2004 to sell their pork and meat from other livestock. Thanks to his chef friend they knew about selling to restaurants. Even as Andrew worked on expanding those sales, he knew that alone wasn’t going to be enough. At first he thought about selling via farmers’ markets, like many small farms do.
However his job at the fire department only gives him two weekends off a month, and farmers’ markets require a big time commitment. They also can be risky in terms of sales; a rain storm can mean no customers and no sales.
“We’d spend two days on the farm and three days on the road going all over the place trying to sell the different products, and it just wasn’t paying off,” he says. “Way too much in fuel and way too much time away from the farm trying to get these items sold.”
That’s why he got involved in community supported agriculture (CSA). With CSAs, consumers sign up for a season and pay a set amount each week in return for a certain amount of meat, poultry, eggs, produce, or vegetables from a local farmer. At first, he saw it just as a way to grow his customer base, but he soon realized it could help him in other ways as well. While restaurants are still the Crushes’ main target customers, selling to them is “a balancing act of first having enough animals and then having enough customers,” he says. He has to raise enough animals so that he can deliver to them consistently.
“But if a restaurant backs out or if we had ramped up production and did not have a customer, then we’d have product and we had to do something with it,” he says. “In other words we’d have to either eat it or find another outlet to be able to move that stuff.” The CSA is that other outlet.
Even after 12 years, Spring House Farm is still very much a work in progress. Cash flow is the biggest problem. To that end, Andrew and Liz hope to open a butcher shop. They are also considering if they should bring in investors.
“It’s constantly a battle with us financially,” he says. “You do well for a while and get a couple good customers, and then you end up with a three-foot snow storm or a broken machine or something like that. We’re getting there, but it always seems like it takes longer than you hoped.”
Crush has no intention of giving up his job with the fire department, but he knows it won’t last forever. “By the time I’m 55 years old, I will probably not feel much like riding a fire truck,” he says. “When I’m at that age, I need to have an additional nest egg, and this business is going to be my nest egg.” To that end, he puts all the money he makes from the farm back into it.
His time as a paramedic has definitely shaped his view of the future—he knows nothing is certain, and you have to expect bad things to happen.
“There’s risk in everything you do,” he says. “I’ve seen people that live to be a 100 years old, and I’ve seen people that, driving down the road at 25 years old, get hit by debris and die. You never truly know what’s going to happen. But one thing that I learned in the fire department very early on is that there are a lot of things you can’t control, and things are going to go bad. To me it’s not really about if it went bad, it’s how can you recover.”