By Phil Dzikiy
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
The first thing you see when visiting T-Meadow Farm in Newfane is the chickens. They walk around, clucking, making their presence known. But when you take a few more steps, it’s clear they’re not the stars of the show at this farm. You start to hear snorting. And squealing.
T-Meadow Farm specializes in pigs, and not just any pigs. T-Meadow deals in rare, heritage breeds: The Tamworth, a reddish pig listed as “threatened” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and the Gloucestershire Old Spot, listed as “critical” by the ABLC. If the Old Spot ever escapes its “critical” classification, it’ll be thanks to the work of Tilyou, as T-Meadow has become one of the most prominent Old Spot breeders in the country.
“We’ve set up almost half of the (Old Spot) breeders in the U.S. right now,” he says. Tilyou estimates about 30 percent of his pigs are sold for breeding purposes, with the rest of the sales going to dinner plates.
T-Meadow is a family farm, run by the Tilyous — Rich, Bonnie, and their sons, John and Paul. They alone care for the 97-acre farm, with about 100 pigs on the property. It’s a lot of work, of course, but it seems even harder when you consider that Rich and Bonnie work full-time jobs during the day.
Rich, who teaches science at Niagara-Wheatfield High School, started the farm six years ago. He was never a farmer, though his grandparents owned a farm years ago, and he was simply looking for a way to manage his large and unwieldy property. Tilyou’s neighbor raises cows, but they were too big and too much work. He wanted something smaller.
“I was always interested in (pigs),” Tilyou says. “I always liked pigs. I didn’t want to mess around with cows.”
He started with three Tamworth hogs, and the farm just kept getting bigger. Tilyou likens Tamworths to Labrador Retrievers in terms of personality. He later added the Old Spots, which he describes as “more stoic.”
While many conventionally-raised pigs live their lives in tight quarters, T-Meadow pigs have room to roam. With rotational grazing, that’s sort of the point. While Tilyou’s pigs are grazing, they have room to walk around, stretch out, take naps — basically, they’re free to be pigs. Once a section of the property has been cleared out, the pigs are moved so the pasture can grow back.
Tilyou ties himself to the locavore movement (for people who eat local food), which is growing in popularity. Last year’s documentary “Food, Inc.” has been an eye-opener for many.
“A movie like that comes out, and (our) phone rings,” Tilyou says. “Knowing where your food comes is basically the message.”
T-Meadow customers should also know the farm doesn’t use hormones or growth additives on its hogs, and antibiotics are only used if deemed absolutely necessary to a pig’s health.
“I am not thrilled with thinking there’s a chemical for every cure,” Tilyou says.
And then there’s the taste. Tilyou claims his pork has more texture and flavor than commercially-farmed pork. When you bite into a piece of T-Meadow pork, it’s hard not to agree with him.
People who have health concerns about their food aren’t the only ones contacting T-Meadow. You can add a few more customers to the list, including a number of local restaurants that serve T-Meadow pork. “People who like to eat,” Tilyou says. “People who like good food. Chefs.”
Tilyou’s demand often outweighs his supply, but there’s a downside. The pigs at T-Meadow are expensive to raise. They’re slow-growing and offer smaller yields than conventional pigs. And to process the pigs, Tilyou must make the long trip to a facility in Pennsylvania.
“There’s a reason they’re so rare,” he says of the breeds. “There’s no room for the faint of heart.”
Tilyou’s heart is far from faint. The family tries not to get too attached to the pigs that are headed out the door, but the breeding hogs that remain on the farm get names. Names like Henry and Boaris, the latter of which saunters up to the fence and gets a head scratch from Rich. “I don’t know if you’ve ever felt a pig before,” he says. “But Boaris is a great guy.” The mighty Tamworth boar Boaris has a rough, scratchy head, as if you’re itching the driest scalp you can ever imagine.
Just up the old dirt airplane runway that used to dominate the property years ago, the Old Spot boar Cosmo calls out, trying to bring a sow into heat. But it’s not clear who he’s targeting.
“Anyone who will listen,” Tilyou says.
You can tell Cosmo is a GOS pig — not just from his spots, but from his name. The Old Spots have Seinfeld-inspired monikers: Shmoopie, Festivus, Rochelle Rochelle, Seven. Somehow, that tradition has even carried on to the farm’s guardian, a llama — yes, a llama — named Loogie.
“That’s the magic Loogie,” Tilyou says.
So, yes, it’s all a lot of work, but the Tilyous are clearly enjoying their time on the farm. Bonnie Tilyou never envisioned waking up early to feed a slew of pigs every day. But now that it’s here?
“We’re just having fun with it,” she says.
Rich agrees. “It has become a way of life.”