Date April 30, 2006 at 10:00 PM
On this northern New Mexico acreage studded with pines, uphill from the tiny village of San Geronimo, Marla Sorrels spent her childhood. They raised cattle back in those days and the whole family helped out. But eventually, Marla grew up, moved away, got married and was making her living as an accountant when her mom offered her "a deal I couldn't refuse," as she puts it, to come back and farm.
So Marla, her husband Mike and their two daughters took her up on it, returning to the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos beneath Hermit's Peak to give the cattle their best shot. The continuing drought conditions finally forced Marla to reconsider her options; she ended up selling off all the cattle, and now SorDoc Farms is home to a few goats, a hutch full of rabbits, several dogs, a cat-and hogs. Fifty head of hogs.
The idea for the hogs came from one of Marla and Mike's daughters' 4H projects. That hog, a big sprawling mama named Friend, is still here-she's about six now and is considered a family pet who expects her ears scratched whenever any one walks past.
"Hogs do tear things up quite a bit," Marla says, chuckling. "They're communal animals, they have a pecking order. In the coldest part of the winter, they'll make a pile of hogs to keep warm, and this guy here was at the bottom. He had a thousand pounds sitting on top of him and it broke his shoulder! But he's all right now."
Hogs have no sweat glands; they're also susceptible to sunburn. So when the weather gets too warm, they'll make themselves mud pits, heaving grunts of pleasure as they wallow around cooling off.
"This one time we had about a week's running where, every time one of us came out here, we'd find this faucet turned on. We couldn't figure out what was going on-it was five days before we caught on that it was Gertrude. She learned how to push the handle with her snout. We had to put a pin through the handle to make her stop."
"Most of our animals enjoy themselves here," Marla continues. "Hogs wag their tails in contentment, just like dogs. When a baby starts squalling, all the mamas come running to see what's wrong. It's important that they're where I can see them in case someone gets sick or hurt."
Corporate hog farms have given hog raising a terrible reputation; with their practice of packing large numbers of them into tiny pens not much bigger than themselves, with cement floors that tear up their feet, breathing the ammonia stench of their own excrement as they eat and drink, these Mc-Farms ruin the environment of any neighborhood they spring up in.
Marla's hogs, some of them the size of fat, wide ponies on squat legs, live outdoors, sleeping in straw-lined shelters with access to dirt where they can root around, scratch their backs against the trees, wallow in mud when the weather gets too hot and wander at will when let loose. "There's no sloppin' the hogs," Marla says with pride; they're fed quality cereal grains and milk, not table scraps or garbage, no animal by-products, growth promoters, commercial protein supplements or broad-base antibiotics. With this diet and the composting system Marla's rigged up, in which the waste drops through the dirt and straw to a recycling pile which terraces out into the meadow beyond as a rainwater catchment system, the pristine environment around SorDoc Farms remains completely unspoiled.
Recently, Marla introduced some American Berkshire boars to her hog population because of their superior rich, lean and marbled texture. "But it's harder to bring them through the wintertime, outside," she comments, "and the name of the game is not to do in your animals while you're trying to raise your animals versus just using them up and dumping them. So cross breeding is where I'm kind of thinking we're going to stay. Our regular stock is a good animal that's adaptive to the environment."
As another way of "not using them up," Marla staggers the breeding of her sows; with four sows having a new litter every two months, she can split them each to a new pen, and these (males, mostly) will become the butcher hogs that are sent out to be slaughtered up north in Mora, the carcasses returned to be made into all-natural sausage, bacon, hams and pork chops.
"We have a commercial licensed kitchen right here on the premises," Marla says. "It's a small operation-just me and my daughters doing all the work. When we're processing the pork, making the sausages, for instance, it encompasses the whole world. We're talking 60 to 80 hour weeks, especially when we were first learning how." She laughs. "I had no clue at the beginning-I just jumped in here and decided to do this. We make twenty different kinds of sausages, which we can do because there's such a huge diversity in the meat, so much better of a yield from pork than from beef."
SorDoc Farms is at a turning point now. Marla plans to expand the pens out to the road, make new runs and barns for each set of about seven hogs so they'll feel contained but not confined.
"And we need to change our marketing," she adds. "We put so much capital, time and energy into this business. We need to find a way to make it all back, with a profit."
She makes the farmers' market circuits-Taos, Los Alamos, Albuquerque and Santa Fe-but those require commutes of between 90 and 120 miles. And although Marla considers the other markets worth her travel time, she's having second thoughts about Santa Fe's. "It's a crafts food bazaar! With all kinds of rules-one hundred percent of what I sell has to be made by me. They have no clue or concept as to what it takes to make this operation work. I'm a small producer! My animals are staged for different growth cycles, so in order to have a continuous supply, I have to supplement with hogs from other neighboring farms. But according to the Santa Fe Market's rules, I have to have raised every animal from a baby. Sausage hogs take four years to develop and grow. I have the animals now, but I won't again four months down the road. I could raise less and charge more," she adds with a frustrated shrug of one shoulder, "but that only gives me enough to cover expenses."
She's currently pulled out of the Santa Fe Market and is dealing only with those in Taos, Albuquerque and Los Alamos, where the rules aren't, in her words, "so unfair to our growers"; she's also started getting invitations this year from markets all over the state, such as Corrales, Los Ranchos and Pojoaque. And with her interactive website, she's hoping to attract commitments for her beef, pork and sheep partnership with consumers themselves.
"New Mexico is an agricultural state," Marla says with fierce pride. "I come from five generations of farmers in Clovis-my great greats were doing this. I grew up here, I'm continuing the tradition, and I want my kids to have that option as well. But anymore, you can't count on farming, not at the small family level."
Are we unintentionally phasing our small New Mexico farmers out of the running with unreasonable rules and expectations? Marla's mission statement is: "I absolutely believe that it is cruel to deny any living creature access to fresh air, water and sunshine." Will statements such as these from those we entrust with the growing of our food become increasingly rare?
Marla hopes not. "If the community of Santa Fe knows the real situation, the community of Santa Fe can change it."
The meat products from SorDoc Farms can be purchased at the farmers' markets listed in the story, or the Sorrels can be reached directly through their website at www.sordocfarms.com.