Farm Profile: Sweet Briar Farms
Ask Keith Cooper what he would say to young people who are thinking about entering farming and he will put it to you simply: "You really have to like it. And it's what I've always wanted to do. Some people are musicians; it's who they are. Some people are artists. I guess it's just my lot in life to be a farmer. When I was a little kid I started growing beans in coffee cans. They'd grow up and die, and I'd plant more. People always asked me what I wanted to be, and I'd say, "A farmer and I'm going to plant beans. A hundred of them." He never got into the bean business, but since 1984 Keith has been raising pigs outside of Eugene, OR, in a business that grew out of his kids 4-H projects.
One pig became two, then a few, then eventually a business. Keith grew up on a farm where his folks raised sheep and cows, but when he tried to get into that side of agriculture as a young adult he realized that without inheriting a farm, he would never have the means to make that kind of operation happen. The pigs, though, are working for him.
Sweet Briar Farms raises just 25 pigs at a time. Over the next few years Keith will be finishing a new barn and remodeling his current barn; these changes will allow him to double the size of his production while also creating indoor/outdoor access for all the animals. While "free range" is a popular concept with consumers, and good for the animals, Keith admits that when he started raising pigs his herd was free range by default. "I didn't know any better! I didn't know they were supposed to be confined to crates!"
Along with expanding his herd, Keith is also working on opening up new markets for his business. Keith markets all his meat through direct outlets; besides selling on LocalHarvest.org, Sweet Briar also sells at eight farmers markets a week in the warm season. He would like to make his pork available to local restaurants and select grocery stores.
Unlike most farmers nowadays, Keith works closely with his local butcher on specialty cut meats and products. Small scale butchers are becoming a rarity. Rather than supporting small meat processors, the national tide is moving toward a burdensome level of regulation, and consequently many smaller businesses have gone out of business. Keith estimates that now there are 1/100th of the meat processing facilities as compared to 1950. This is not good for local economies, for family farmers, or ultimately, for food safety.
Given all this uphill work, what does Keith love best about farming? "It's just a different way of life." And given the smile in his voice when he says it, it sounds like it's a life that works for him.