Valley Bounty: Porter Family Farm
Published April 16th in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
FOR THE GAZETTE
“I got my first team of oxen when I was 8 years old,” says Josh Porter of Porter Family Farm in Ashfield. “I’d get one team, train them up, show them in fairs, sell them, and buy another pair. That was really the start of me getting into the cattle business.”
Porter’s appreciation of oxen hasn’t wavered since, but today they’re not the only animals he and his family are raising. “We have a self-serve farm store where we sell beef, pork, lamb, chicken, eggs, and we recently added goat too,” says Porter. “Most everything is raised on the farm, with a few things from other local farmers.”
“My first passion was dairy farming,” says Porter, who grew up milking cows at local dairies. Eventually he decided the pressure of milking twice a day, every day wasn’t his preferred lifestyle. Instead, while still in high school, he started raising beef cattle on rented land for many years before finally buying 72 acres on Steady Lane with his young family in 2018.
True to its name, the farm is a family endeavor. “My wife Anne is a fulltime schoolteacher but does so much for the farm too,” Porter says. “My boy is 9, and my girls are 7. Most mornings before school we go out the barn and do chores together.”
Oxen remain part of the picture. “We breed Chianina cattle,” Porter says. “They’re originally from Italy, and probably the biggest breed raised in this country.” The farm’s 35 females – which can easily top 2,000 pounds, or 1.5 times the weight of a common black and white Holstein – are bred as a “switch herd.” Half calve in late summer, half now in early spring.
“We have 9 calves on the ground now with 10 still to be born,” says Porter. “Once they’re weaned, we sell them all over New England to be trained as draft animals for logging and farming, pulling competitions at local fairs, what have you.”
Most other animals at Porter Family Farm are raised for food. Unlike the oxen, most of them aren’t born there. Instead, young beef cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and meat chickens are bought from other farms – many of them nearby – and are raised the rest of the way there in Ashfield. In farming, this process is known as “finishing.”
“You only have so much time and room for so many head of livestock,” Porter explains. It’s easier and more profitable for him to specialize, letting other farms focus on breeding and caring for newborns.
Every year, they raise a few hundred animals this way. The beef herd is the largest, averaging around 100 as cattle come and go. They arrive on farm at 6 months old, growing to a final weight of 1,200 pounds over the next 12-18 months. Meanwhile, a couple dozen each of pigs, sheep, and goats are raised each year, coming in spring to spend 6-12 months on the farm. Another 130 meat chickens join the menagerie each summer.
Since these animals spend most of their lives under his care and feeding, Porter explains that the quality and flavor in their meat is consistent. “All the cows, sheep, pigs, and goats are rotationally grazed on pasture in the summer months,” he says. They also feed a mix of hay they cut and spent grain from nearby breweries, both supplementally and during the winter.
When it’s time, animals are sent to slaughterhouses in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. “It all depends on who’s got room,” says Porter, explaining that the lack of USDA certified slaughterhouses nearby poses a major challenge. “For most places, you gotta book out 18 months in advance, speculating that you’ll actually have cattle at that time. It can be very stressful.”
Beef cattle, which take the most time and space to process, are especially difficult to schedule. “I have appointments booked every month at a couple slaughterhouses, and I fill in with other places when they have space,” Porter says. He often relies on slaughterhouse operators with whom he’s developed personal relationships to alert him of last-minute openings. Altogether it’s not ideal.
Quite simply, “we need more USDA certified slaughterhouse and processing facilities,” he says.
For most items, the last stop before customers’ dinner plates is the Porter Family Farm Store. They do sell beef by the whole or half cow, but Porter says most customers buy as they go from the store, knowing it’s open 7-7, seven days a week and offers a wide choice of meats and eggs.
“We also supply Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton with a lot of beef,” he adds, “and we supply a few restaurants, mostly with burger.”
Reflecting on his path, Porter says he has mostly learned by doing. “I am not a reading and writing person,” he says. “I like to get out and see what others are trying, take the pieces that work for me, and put it together.”
Now he’s excited to watch his own children’s fascination with farming grow. “The whole family loves seeing calves born,” he says. Every day when my son gets home from school he asks ‘who calved today? What’s going on?’ He doesn’t want to miss a thing.”
For the first time this summer, they’ll invite other children to experience hands-on farming education in weeklong summer sessions led by Anne Porter – an accomplished horseback riding instructor in addition to everything else she does. Sessions will allow kids to interact with the animals, practice farm skills, and learn more about where food comes from. More information is available on their Facebook page.
About farming, “you gotta love it to do it,” Porter muses. Like anything worthwhile, the joy comes with challenges. “Right now, I’m really looking forward to green grass and dry ground,” he says. But with the first cutting of hay only 50 days away, summer isn’t far off.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms and farm stores in your neck of the woods, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.