Hog heaven

Pigs (and sheep) are an integral part of Massa Organics’ ecological farm system

About 75 sheep call the Massa Organics farm home. Note the guard dog, who’s bred to be on duty 24/7.

About 75 sheep call the Massa Organics farm home. Note the guard dog, who’s bred to be on duty 24/7.

Photo by Robert Speer

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Greg Massa and Raquel Krach needed some big eaters, and pigs fit the bill.

The year was 2011. By then the couple had been growing organic brown rice on their farm near the Sacramento River south of Hamilton City for more than a decade. In order to control weeds, they had been rotating their rice crops with such cover crops as wheat, milo, vetch and safflower. Rotation not only adds biomass and nitrogen to the soil, replacing chemical fertilizers, it also disrupts the weed cycle of rice, Massa explains.

But what to do with all their leftover wheat and milo? Enter the pigs.

Massa and Krach both had studied tropical ecology in college, including on-site training in Costa Rica, and were fascinated by the “agro-ecology” practiced by small farmers there. Animals, they saw, were integral parts of small farms’ ecological systems.

For a number of years, during which they made the difficult transition from traditional to organic growing and could then justifiably name their business Massa Organics, Massa and Krach relied on a local hog rancher to make use of their leftover wheat by feeding it to his animals. Then it dawned on them that they could just as well raise their own pigs.

Greg Massa and Raquel Krach started rice farming together 20 years ago.

Photo by Robert Speer

The pigs had to be the right kind, however. Eschewing commercial varieties, which have been bred for size (big) and rate of growth (fast) under conditions that maximize output (penned up and crowded), they purchased only such heritage breeds as Gloustershire Old Spot, Red Wattle and Berkshire.

Their pigs are let loose to forage among the cover crops as well as the leftover rice stalks, using their snouts to dig up roots and worms and enrich the soil with their fecal waste. And, because the animals live in a low-stress, free-range environment, Massa and Krach don’t need to clip their teeth and dock their tails to prevent injury from fighting, common practice among commercial hog farmers, Massa says.

The pigs live outside year-round. In summer they have mud holes to wallow in (the mud acts as a sunscreen), and in winter they are given extra straw for bedding and protected from rain by tarps. It’s a labor-intensive system: The pigs must be moved to new foraging areas every three days. Massa and Krach use moveable electric fencing to keep them from wandering.

It’s also an expensive system. Commercial pigs reach market size in just six months, but these pigs take nearly a year and on average are not as big as their commercial counterparts. The payoff, however, is huge: The meat from these pigs is intensely flavorful. “We wouldn’t eat meat at all unless we knew it had been raised to certain standards,” Krach said. “It tastes so much better.”

The farm has been in the family ever since Massa’s great-grandfather, an immigrant from Portugal, became one of the earliest farmers to take advantage of the silty clay soil of the Sacramento Valley by planting his first rice crop in 1916.

Growing up, Massa had no interest in farming, preferring instead to study biology as an academic discipline. Until, that is, he met Krach, they fell in love and married, and decided to apply what they had learned about ecological systems in the tropics to growing organic rice on the family farm.

Who needs A/C? Just give me some mud.

Photo by Robert Speer

The result, 20 years later, is a textbook example of an ecologically balanced small-farm system in which all the parts work together sustainably to generate delicious organic foods and provide livelihoods for Massa and Krach, their five adopted children and their three full-time employees.

Along the way, they built a new farmhouse using bales of dried rice straw from their fields. They designed the house to keep cool in summer and warm in winter and say they use their single wall air conditioner only during major heat waves.

We sat down recently for an interview at their large family dining table. It was mid-afternoon on a 100-plus-degree day, but the house was refreshingly cool.

The soil on the south 30 acres of the couple’s farm is relatively sandy and has good drainage, so in 2004, Massa and Krach planted the acreage in almonds. Their plan was to manage the orchard as a woodland, with a tree canopy, an herbaceous understory and large herbivores—in their case sheep—grazing among the trees.

We climb in Massa’s Silverado and drive slowly alongside an orchard until he pulls over in front of a flock of about 75 sheep and its single guard dog gathered under a row of almond trees.

For much of the growing season, grasses and clover accumulate beneath these trees. This understory attracts bugs, both “good” and “bad” ones, keeping the latter out of the trees. “We have almost no bug problem,” Massa said.

Then, as harvest time approaches, they plow between the orchard rows and use the sheep to eat most of the remaining grasses. They must be moved every day, however, lest they nibble away the trees’ bark, which can kill them. The almonds are harvested using a $40,000 shaker that deploys a vinyl umbrella around the tree to catch the falling nuts.

There’s no place for small-scale organic-rice farmers in a corporate distribution system, so Massa and Krach have built an alternative system: direct marketing to consumers. Every week Massa Organics is present at a dozen farmers’ markets, from Chico and Sacramento to several scattered around the Bay Area. The couple also market their products online via their website (massaorganics.com). Their business has grown steadily, as customers have discovered just how good their products taste.