Roosters strut and crow, chickens cluck and peck, a couple of sleek farm cats rub against my legs, and pigs root about on a hot August morning at Porch Swing Farms in Bigelow (Perry County).
Holly Payne owns the 24-acre farm, which sells its products — pork and eggs, primarily — at farmers markets in central Arkansas and online, but which, during the COVID-19 pandemic, realigned its business model to emphasize delivery and curbside pickup. Her husband, Aaron Baldwin, is farm manager.
Payne, who formerly taught costume design at Hendrix College in Conway, grew up on a dairy goat farm in Berryville. Baldwin, who grew up in Little Rock, is a biochemist who left his job teaching at the University of Central Arkansas for full-time farm work. The pair lived in Milwaukee for a decade and then in North Carolina, returning to Arkansas in 2014.
They hadn’t really planned to farm, but they bought 4 acres and a house near Bigelow almost five years ago and bought some chickens. “You know what they say about chickens,” Payne said, smiling. “They’re the gateway drug to farming.”
They planned to make the most of those 4 acres but then learned “we had purchased probably the only place in Perry County where you can’t actually have livestock” because of neighborhood covenants. So they bought the 24 acres where they could have livestock, pigs in particular. The reason was simple. “My husband really loves food,” Payne said. “It’s just because he has a deep-seated love affair with pork.”
Baldwin experimented with making bacon in the couple’s home refrigerator but was dissatisfied with the pork he could buy. “The real goal was to make delicious pork things — sausages, salamis and all that,” Payne said. So they started raising their own pigs.
Their farm is a “farrow to finish” operation, meaning the pigs are born and raised there and then are sent to USDA-certified facilities in Arkansas for processing. The farm currently is raising about 85 pigs, Gloucestershire Old Spots, to be precise, an English breed that Porch Swing proudly proclaims to be “the same ones served at the Queen of England’s table.”
The Porch Swing Farms chickens are raised only for their eggs, not for meat.
Pork — chops, ham, bacon, ribs, sausage, ground pork — provides the operation’s biggest source of revenue. “We felt like the eggs were a good gateway in, to establish a customer base,” Payne said.
They “had just started doing delivery [of eggs] when the pandemic started,” she said. The pandemic raised interest in egg delivery, and Payne and Baldwin realized their business might benefit from delivering pork as well. Pork deliveries now account for several hundred dollars in sales every week, she said, though egg delivery remains most popular. Customers tend to want to personally examine meat before purchase, Payne said, and in-person purchases still comprise most of the farm’s pork sales.
Payne said she and her husband are still figuring out the business. “The average time people are in the business of pigs is three years within this breed,” she said, because people come to understand just how much work is involved.
Porch Swing is in its third year and is breaking even, Payne said. That’s within the goals of her five-year business plan, which projects profitability by year five.
Inflation has pushed up feed costs 25%-35%, as well as the cost of butchering and processing a pig, which now averages about $250 per pig.
Their investment so far totals about $100,000.
It’s not an easy way to make a living, but as Payne noted, “This is a lifestyle, but it is also a lifestyle where we don’t necessarily have to work for anyone else,” adding, “There is an immense amount of joy when you get here and the sun is coming up… . It’s just a really nice life.”