Published May 13. 2014 4:00AM Updated May 13. 2014 8:31PM
Waterford — When asked about porkers wallowing in a shady spot at his Miner Lane piggery, fourth-generation farmer Jonathan Secchiaroli explained the theory of convection.
"It's how they cool off," said Secchiaroli. "Pigs have a bad reputation of always lying in the mud, but they have no sweat glands, so that's how they cool down."
After studying animal sciences at the University of Connecticut and working with animals at Pfizer Inc., the 38-year-old Secchiaroli assumed operation of the family farm started by his great-grandfather, Alessandro Secchiaroli, 103 years ago. Since 2010, Jonathan Secchiaroli and his wife, Hazel, have operated the 32-acre Secchiaroli Farm that Jonathan's father, Thomas B. Secchiaroli, believes is the oldest continually operating business in Waterford.
Jonathan grew up around the farm, helping his father and brother for as long as he can remember, but for San Diego native Hazel, who has a degree in psychology, works full time at Pfizer and is pursuing her MBA, her affinity for pig farming developed when she married into the family.
Together, the couple have ushered the piggery into the 21st century.
Years ago, Thomas B. and another son, Tom Jr., were selling most of their pigs at an auction house in Pennsylvania. But under Jonathan and Hazel Secchiaroli, the farm now sells 90 percent of its pigs and pork locally and, in most cases, directly to the consumer.
The Secchiaroli Farm specializes in do-it-yourself pig roasts, providing both the pig and rotisserie for a backyard party. For the timid, they will send someone to do all the work, but have found most people like the adventure of cooking their own swine on a spit or in a roasting box.
They've also established a community-supported agriculture program (CSA), where members can purchase a six-month full, half or quarter share and get monthly allotments of pork products averaging 6 to 28 pounds depending on their membership level every 30 days.
This summer, the Secchiarolis will be selling their chops, ribs, roasts, tenderloins, bacon and more at farmers markets in Waterford, Niantic and Old Saybrook, and recently New London's Fiddleheads Natural Foods Cooperative began carrying their products.
Another option is for individuals or small farms to buy feeder pigs - about eight weeks old and 30 pounds - and raise them themselves, or some customers want a farm-fattened 250- to 300-pound hog to take directly to the butcher.
At the Secchiaroli Farm, where there are Yorkshire, Duroc, Landrace, Hampshire, Spot and Berkshire lineage pigs, they crossbreed to enhance the quality and flavor of the pork and grow bigger and better pigs.
"Some are known for great bacon, some for extra ribs," said Secchiaroli, adding that his favorite is the Berkshire.
But pig farming is not easy work.
Before the sun comes up six days a week Jonathan Secchiaroli heads out to collect food waste from college cafeterias, restaurants, military installations and other commercial kitchens. The Secchiaroli Farm is one of just three in the state licensed to feed discarded human food to swine.
The food waste is collected in 55-gallon drums - about 8,000 pounds every day - and returned to the piggery for processing. U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations require that the recycled food be heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes to kill off any pathogens.
Secchiaroli uses a massive steam boiler and a probe, which he injects into every barrel, to reach the required temperature. It is strenuous, time-consuming work, but ensures the food waste is safe for animal consumption.
"A little rice, noodles, fruit makes the meat tastier," said Secchiaroli, who allows the contents of the barrels to cool before feeding the slop to his pigs in the early evening.
"A full belly of food helps to keep them warm at night," he said.
The farm also gets twice-weekly deliveries of blemished fruit and vegetables from two major supermarket chains containing everything from watermelons and eggplant to broccoli and lemons.
Mature pigs on the farm eat the scraps - a sow as much as 5 to 7 pounds every day and a boar the high end of that - but Secchiaroli said they turn their snouts up at hot dogs, raw onions and citrus fruit unless it's sliced open and they can avoid the skin.
These days, Secchiaroli reads "The Pig Site," which compiles all the latest industry news, every day.
No sign of viruses
Two viruses - PED (Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea) and SDC (Swine Delta Corona) - have been causing havoc at pig operations across the country, although to date Connecticut has not reported any cases.
The viruses dehydrate and kill piglets, wiping out virtually every newborn pig in a farmyard that is stricken. Humans are not affected, and pork is not tainted, but pig farmers are concerned about the staggering loss of piglets, estimated at 6 million to 10 million nationally in the past year.
The virus can be spread from one farm to another by shoes or tires, so Secchiaroli is monitoring who comes on his property. But there is also concern that birds may spread the illnesses and at the Miner Lane piggery mature pigs live outdoors in open lots.
News stories about a bacon shortage stemmed from concern about the pig viruses, but to date what most consumers see is rising pork prices.
Secchiaroli's piglets spend their first couple of weeks in the farrowing barn, where sows nurse their litters of about 10 to 12 until they are weaned.
There are about 50 sows at the Miner Lane farm who produce about 1,000 pigs every year.
Almost as at a grade school with classrooms, as pigs mature and grow, they move from one space to another. After leaving their mother they go to an indoor, elevated pen with a heat lamp, and are fed grain. Once they've acclimated, they go to another enclosure without the heat lamp, and eventually move to the "pig garage," where they are transitioned to the outdoors and the recycled human food.
For the grown pigs, the last stop is "the market lot," where they spend their final days outdoors, rooting in the soil, rolling in the mud, and eating everything they can.
"Pigs are pigs, so they will consume as much as they can," said Secchiaroli, who described the pigs at his farm as "laid back," with "a good temperament."
They're not pets, but he admits that occasionally he's partial to one pig more than the others. And his children, twin 5-year-old sons and a 3-year-old daughter, visit the farm daily and take walks around the piggery.
Proud of his work
Recycling is key at the Secchiaroli Farm, where it's not just discarded food scraps that find another use. White pine shavings used for nesting in the farrowing barn and manure are recycled as compost, and old box trucks, underground gas tanks and Jersey barriers are used to provide inclement weather shelter for the pigs, feeding troughs, and fencing.
"Nothing gets wasted here," Secchiaroli said. "There's a use for everything."
And the focus is always on the pigs. Secchiaroli seemingly never stops: picking up food waste, processing it, mucking stalls and pens, clipping needle teeth, castrating young males, repairing roofs and fences, delivering pork and pigs and rotisseries, feeding pigs, and then doing it all over again.
He's proud to be a fourth-generation farmer, carrying on the tradition that his great-grandfather started in 1911, and then passed on to his three sons, Guido, Julius and Gino. Guido's son, Thomas, is Jonathan's father, and at 82, he still stops by almost daily to check in on his son.
"I am 38 and hope to work until my late 70s like my father," said Jonathan Secchiaroli, who said he inherited his father's work ethic, but not his sarcasm and gift of gab.
"That's why I rely on producing a product that sells itself," he said.