Chances are if you see a pig walking the streets of Smithfield, Rhode Island, it belongs to Ann Marie Bouthillette. “They like to go out for a stroll occasionally,” Ann Marie jokes. The truth is, these American Heritage Berkshire pigs are very inquisitive, and while they might enjoy a night on the town, they have plenty of opportunity to indulge themselves at Blackbird Farm.
American Heritage Berkshire pigs are mid-sized, weighing around 200 pounds at market weight, and standing knee-high. The pigs at Blackbird Farm live in a ½ acre wooded lot, with sheds for shelter, and plenty of room to run and play. On our tour they also seemed to be enjoying a game of hide and seek with us- a few of the younger pigs hid in the trees, darting out now and then to come almost close enough for us to touch them.
Ann Marie believes in allowing her animals to live in a natural environment, treating them humanely, and with respect. Yes, many of these animals will end up at the Blackbird Farm farm stand, or at a local restaurant. That is more reason to “let them live a nice, happy life.” Happy pigs and cows produce better meat, but there is more to it than that; it is a matter of conscience.
The cows, pigs, and chickens on Blackbird Farm deserve to be treated well. All animals deserve to be treated well, but Ann Marie is very clear about the rarity of this philosophy. There is a distinct frustration in her voice when talking about the living conditions for animals of industrial farming.
“A lot of these big farms keep their chickens indoors, with artificial lights. Normally, chickens go through stages, like molting, where they are not laying eggs.” Keeping them in a controlled environment for their entire life eliminates these cycles, allowing for greater production. This might make economic sense, but it doesn’t make ethical sense to Ann Marie. “I just tell my restaurants that I won’t have eggs for a couple of weeks.”
This same quality of life ethic applies to the Blackbird Farm cows. “We have 42 cows, but they’re not all here.” To ensure that the cows have plenty of space to graze, some of them live on rented pasture in other parts of Rhode Island. Even though they are not all at Blackbird Farm, they are all “Rhode Island raised.” When you buy meat from Blackbird Farm, it is guaranteed to be born and bred in Rhode Island, and it is also guaranteed to be 100% heritage Black Angus Cattle. In fact, Ann Marie follows the processing so closely that she can tell you exactly where your steak comes from.
Out in the pasture, a dozen cows graze under the blue skies of late spring. A dense thicket of pine, oak, and maple frames the field. From within the trees, a bull is keeping his eye on us. As we walk back along the gravel and dirt road, I ask Ann Marie if she feels successful. “You’re out in the fresh air, in nature. It is a lot of hard work, and it has taken years to be noticed for that work. But at the end of the day, I can open a beer and watch the sunset. There is nowhere else I would want to be.”
We are proud to work with Blackbird Farm. Our breakfast sandwiches at Ellie’s are made with eggs, sausage, and bacon all from Blackbird, and we are always excited to get Blackbird beef at Gracie’s. It seems pretty normal to us to work with local farmers and producers, but an afternoon on the farm helps us remember how special that working relationship really is.