By Sue Henninger
At age 31, Devon Van Noble has already managed to pack a lot of ag-related education and experience into his life.
A Florida native, he attended Cornell University (graduating with a degree in Biology and Society) after which he relocated to Vermont where he received his master’s degree in environmental law. Along the way he discovered that impacting communities at macro-levels wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life.
“I wanted to work locally,” he explained.
Interestingly, Van Noble didn’t initially envision himself working on a farm, especially in animal husbandry.
“I had no real sense of the possibilities of farming,” he admitted. “I was lucky to have found the things I did that led me to where I am now. This doesn’t happen to everyone. I have lots of gratitude for people in the farming community that help total amateurs.”
Returning to Ithaca, he volunteered and worked at Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming. Groundswell offers relevant programs, courses, and special events designed to educate and bring awareness to the Tompkins County community about local food and farming. Van Noble took advantage of their Sustainable Farming Certificate Program and came out of the class with increased knowledge about agriculture and the business side of running a successful farm. He also emerged with a robust support network and a business plan that formalized his ideas and included his goals and value-setting for the farm. After gaining more hands-on experience with animals through working at The Piggery, a family-owned farm and butcher shop, Van Noble got down to the business of establishing his own pig farm.
Though the young farmer has an affinity for all animals, he quickly discovered that pigs aren’t low-maintenance. They like to escape through their gates or when his electric fencing goes down. Additionally, they need to be fed most of their calories in specific, expensive and protein-filled rations. Van Noble observed that bringing all the pigs’ food onto the farm results in more manure on the land, over-nutrifying the soil. Based on these discoveries, he’s come to the conclusion that a mono-stock farm probably isn’t the best option for him.
“You can’t just run a pig farm and expect it to be sustainable,” he concluded. “You need other species like goats or sheep, and other crop systems, like vegetables or hay.”
On the more positive side: “There’s a market for pigs!” Van Noble explained enthusiastically. “Pork belly is a big one.”
Additionally, he gets immense satisfaction from working outdoors and spending time with his pigs, putting the animals’ lives in order by providing them with clean pens, fresh food and water, and social interaction. Van Noble Farm is currently home to 55 animals, five of which are boars that he admits should be culled since they are unfit to eat.
“You’re not supposed to keep them around once they’re done breeding,” he acknowledged. “But I can’t kill them just because they’re no longer useful. I want them to age out.”
Though he tends to get attached to the sows too, the market pigs, who are raised specifically to be slaughtered and eaten, are more like numbers to him. Over time, Van Noble has gained both the skills and the confidence to manage the pigs and move them properly.
“Now I’m working with them as opposed to just taking care of them,” he said.
Though his dedication and will to succeed as a pig farmer are strong, it has not been a simple endeavor by any means. The general public may not understand the reality of starting up a farming business, Van Noble noted. Small farmers face many challenges, particularly around marketing and regulations.
“Even with a good market for pork products, it was very hard to get my farm started and keep it running,” he said. “I’m a small guy with a sustainable farm that sells (meat) to my community. I try to do a good job with all the financial restrictions, but it’s an uphill battle to do what I’m doing.”
Van Noble provided a recent example of this. He was leasing farmland on Enfield Center Road East in Enfield, but really wanted to buy his own acreage. When he found some nearby land for sale on Podunk Road (also in Enfield) he was thrilled. However the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s financing branch, the Farm Services Agency, wouldn’t loan him the money for the land and house quickly enough for the seller.
“My mom stepped in to be my cash-flow bridge,” Van Noble said. “She sees how hard I work and she believes in food systems, food security, and the ways and practices of small scale farming. She wanted me to have a meaningful job I care about.”
Van Noble Farm is currently in a state of transition. Along with shifting from leasing to owning farmland, and building new structures for his equipment and animals on his Podunk property, the young farmer is focusing on developing new markets for his pork products and growing his catering business of pop-up pig roasts. Van Noble’s goal is to have retail pork products from his farm available in Tompkins County by 2018. Currently he collaborates with Bici-Cocina, a Columbian bicycle food cart business in Ithaca, along with supplying whole pigs (from suckling to 250 pounds) for weddings, parties and other events. His website contains photos, along with pork pricing and weight options.
Van Noble’s advice to other farmers who are just starting out is to find a balance in their work.
“Your strength may not come from trying to do it all on your own but rather from working with a strong team of people who are like-minded,” he said adding, “Be part of a community of farmers who are working together to be successful.”