The philosophy of pig farming / Paige P. Parvin 96G
When Emile DeFelice 87OX 90C was a student at Emory, majoring in French and philosophy and working at The Carter Center, he envisioned a future as a diplomat working in global politics. He did not picture himself as a pig farmer in South Carolina.
Yet, nearly twenty years later, that’s just what he is. And he gives President Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer, a little credit for that, too.
As a Carter Center intern in 1990, DeFelice studied politics and agriculture in Haiti, where the two are bound together in a climate of violence and unrest. And at the University of South Carolina, where he earned a master’s degree in international relations, he continued to study agriculture, this time closer to home. Somehow, his goals began to shift from global politics to South Carolina soil and seed.
“I started with nothing, two acres and a hammer,” says DeFelice. “I remember my first day on my own farm.” From the beginning, DeFelice was determined to farm with an overarching philosophy of sustainability. On his small farm in Lexington, South Carolina, he started by growing flowers and organic herbs. Instead of fertilizer, he bought chickens, guinea fowl, ducks, and lambs and designed a system in which gardens were fertilized and tilled by moveable pens of small animals.
But producing some 150 products quickly lost its charm. DeFelice began to develop a new business plan based on two basic concepts: have a simple focus, and run a lean operation. He decided to specialize in livestock, and pigs rapidly became the front-runner. “Every time I grew a pig, it grew so fast I never even noticed,” he says. His parents owned two hundred acres near Columbia, half of it unfarmed pasture and woods. “Driving down the road one day, I thought, holy Christmas, that’s a pig farm,” he says.
DeFelice now uses about sixty acres for his heirloom-breed hogs, producing about 350 a year. The pigs roam freely through field and forest, foraging for acorns, worms, and whatever natural food they might find. But DeFelice also feeds them organic tofu, milk, and nuts leftover from the local Earth Fare grocery chain; spent barley from the local brewpub, the Hunter Gatherer, which in turn serves DeFelice’s pork; and grains from the nearby mills. The pigs live in a natural, stress-free environment, with no medication or unnecessary confinement. According to DeFelice, this makes for happier, healthier, and better-tasting pigs.
“A sustainable system is three-legged: economic, social, and environmental,” he says. “It’s good for the farmer, the consumer, and the environment.”
Using a nearby meat-processing facility that he helped equip with an imported humane kill system, DeFelice supplies fresh pork to several fine restaurants, including some as far away as New York and California. But his ideal customer is the average family consumer, which makes up some 80 percent of his customer base of about a thousand.
“The pork flies out the window,” DeFelice says. “There is this whole food and farm and health craze sweeping America, which is just a super-positive social event. It’s bringing people back into the home and the kitchen to prepare food together and inspiring a desire to know where food comes from and what that means.”
DeFelice’s philosophy infuses more than his farming methods. He is a staunch supporter of local farmers and says he prioritizes local above organic foods, which he believes is better for the local economy and the environment. Two years ago, he ran for Commissioner of Agriculture on the campaign slogan “Put Your State on Your Plate.” That July 4, he, his wife, psychologist Allison DeFelice 89C, and their two children, Louis, ten, and Lydia, seven, declared “food independence”
and made a commitment that everything they ate between then and the November election would be from South Carolina.
“There was nothing we got tired of because there was always such a plethora of things available,” he says. “It takes more time, but it’s family and educational time so we thought it was well-spent. It’s all about local for me. I want my customers close and my money to be spent nearby.”
DeFelice may have lost his political bid, but he’s not
short on things to do. He plans to quadruple his farm business during the next two years.
“This is a life mission for me,” he says. “Probably more than anything else, food impacts our quality and length of life. The tools of revolution are a knife and fork. We can eat our way to a better world.”