One family’s quest to save the farm and go whole hog

AS A CHILD, SUSAN ORTLOFF DID NOT dream of being a pig farmer. When her family settled on a thirteen-acre walnut farm on the edge of Dundee, her parents didn’t rush out to buy livestock. Neither did they plant wine grapes like many of their neighbors. Their only goal was to establish a stable home after years of traveling the world with the U.S. Navy.

Ortloff was in junior high when they made the big move, and farming was never part of her plan either. Instead, she grew up outside of agriculture and left for Switzerland, where she established her career as a translator, met her husband, Wolfgang, and had three daughters.

In 2007, Ortloff ‘s parents told her they planned to sell the property. Heartbroken at the prospect of the farm leaving the family, they decided to make a bold move: leave their urban lifestyle behind and start a new adventure in the Oregon countryside. Wolfgang grew up in Germany on a farm with pigs. “We wanted the kids to see that, although farm work is hard, it’s ultimately satisfying,” Susan Ortloff says.

In 2007, the Ortloffs bought Worden Hill Farm from Susan’s parents. The following year, they found a breeder who sold them a couple of piglets. Ortloff began calling local restaurants to see who might be interested in buying farm-raised, antibiotic-free pork.

It didn’t go well. Restaurants, she discovered, wanted meat now, and they needed it every two weeks. If the family wanted to be successful pig farmers, they were going to have to go whole hog.

Today the Ortloffs have fifty pigs—a mix of Berkshire, Duroc and Hampshire breeds, that they get as two-month-old weaners. Over the course of the next eight months, the pigs eat their way up to their ideal slaughter weight of 300 to 350 pounds.

“So much of farming is logistics,” Ortloff says as she leans against a fence, crossing her green muck boots in front of her. The farm dog, Heidi, sits next to her, and a tabby cat appears, clawing its way onto her shoulder. “People who grow things talk about field rotation. For us, it’s mud management and making things as right for the animals as possible.”

The pigs have round-the-clock access to Worden Hill’s pastures, as well as a hay barn, fresh water and lots of food. Paulée, a local restaurant, saves fruit and vegetable “slop” for them. In turn, Paulée gets pork and pig manure, which they use in their gardens. Neighbors share surplus apples and pumpkins. In the fall, pigs forage walnuts that fall from the farm’s trees. A nearby hazelnut grower brings them the delicacy of unshelled nuts.

The pigs’ diet is topped off with grain and whey from Briar Rose Creamery, a nearby goat cheese manufacturer. Twice a week, the Ortloffs make a quick trip up the hill to the creamery. Wolfgang has rigged a system of hoses that make it easy for him to get the liquid out of its storage tank and into his pickup. “German engineering at its finest,” he says as the cloudy liquid flows into a barrel.

Back on the farm, the pigs hear the truck coming and rally around their trough, grunting in anticipation. Into the trough goes the whey and the pigs with it, submerging their front hoofs in the liquid and slurping with satisfied snorts.

“All the pig adages are true,” Ortloff offers as she watches the pink and black passel. “They’re going hog wild.”

The Ortloff kids have adjusted well. Kate, 11, is the most enthusiastic and is often helping with chores or riding Cruzon, the one sow that’s become a pet. Hadley, 14, and Mia, 10, enjoy watching the butchering demonstrations the Ortloffs host in their kitchen.

“We like teaching our children where bacon comes from,” says Ortloff. “So many kids don’t realize that if you’re going to eat meat, you have to kill an animal. We eat less meat now than before we had the pig farm.”

When the Ortloffs do indulge in meat, bacon is a favorite. Wolfgang uses the leg meat to make schinken , a cold-smoked cured ham similar to prosciutto.

Ortloff says an unexpected byproduct of raising pigs is snow-white lard. “It makes the best pie crusts,” she says. Her favorite cut is a roast, eaten warm or served chilled in pork sandwiches.

“There are days when I ask, ‘Why isn’t everyone a pig farmer?’” Ortloff muses.

Pork production is not massive in Oregon, says Gene Pirelli, swine specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service. The state has never sent as many pigs to slaughter as, say, Iowa and Illinois, the top two producers in the country. In 2012, Oregon farmers marketed 169,000 hogs at a value of $18.8 million. “There are states with counties that do more than that,” Pirelli says.

For a big production of hogs, it takes a big, nearby source of corn and soybeans—two staples of a pig’s diet. Further, Oregon has seen most of its large-scale slaughterhouses shuttered over the past twenty years. Plant owners couldn’t get a consistent supply of hogs and faced costly upgrades to their aging facilities.

Pirelli sees the recent demand for natural, humanely raised meat as creating a niche market that’s easier for small farms and local butchers to fill. “Small producers can step into that system pretty well,” he says.

Worden Hill is one such small producer for farm-to-table restaurants in the Willamette Valley. “Pork is very versatile,” says Paul Bachand, chef and owner of Recipe in Newberg. “There are a lot of different cuts, so you can cook it a lot of different ways. My favorite thing is that it’s very wine friendly.”

Bachand recommends milk-braised pork osso bucco, an Italian dish typically made with meat shanks and vegetables, paired with a Reisling from Trisaetum Winery or a dry Pinot gris.

David Padberg, executive chef at Portland’s Raven & Rose, likes to make pork shoulder with spätzle and chestnuts. Padberg combines chestnuts, apples and sultanas to make a rich sauce. This dish fits well with his philosophy of reintroducing people to forgotten ingredients and cooking techniques.

“I prefer the cut known as the coppa roast for this recipe,” he says. “It’s basically the shoulder end loin section of the pork butt.” It’s important not to overcook the pork, he cautions, because it dries out easily.

Jeff Strom, executive chef of Koho Bistro in Eugene, is a two-time Oregon Iron Chef. He calls braised Berkshire pork coppa with spiced apple butter his take on a perennial favorite— pork chops and applesauce.

“Locally raised heritage pork doesn’t need much help,” he says. “The flavor is so much better than that of commercially raised pork. Get to know the farmers and learn where your food is coming from. Put some real thought into what you want to do with that pork loin tonight, and you’ll taste that effort tomorrow.”

Photos by Talia Filipek tell the story of Susan and Wolfgang Ortloff, who saved the family farm, and along with their three daughters, raise heritage pigs – Berkshire, Duroc and Hampshire breeds – on thirteen-acres on the edge of Dundee. 

Sophia McDonald
Contributing Writer | + posts