Preston farm family raises animals naturally, educates public
Horses, cows, pigs and chickens live a good life at Broad Brook Acres farm in Preston.
Situated on 15.8 peaceful acres at 408 Old Jewett City Road and segregated into large groups, these animals and birds mostly enjoy socializing with each other in the barns, pastures and henhouse/pen. Sometimes, the only sound that can be heard are hogs quarreling – at which point Mike or Christian Swanson checks in on them to see what all the fuss is about.
Broad Brook Acres is really based on a love story. When Christian Martel (her maiden name) began working as a Montville animal control officer in 2010, she met Mike Swanson who was working at the time as a Montville firefighter.
“So he would come and have lunch all the time,” said Christian, “and he kept talking my ear off about dogs,” and she wondered, “Who is this guy?” and “the rest is history.”
Eventually, they started dating; in 2013, they got married.
With a degree in Animal Science from the University of Connecticut in Storrs, it was Christian’s idea to start a farm, raise animals naturally and feed their family quality food.
“It didn’t take much” to talk Mike into the idea, she said. “He loved it.”
The Swansons purchased the farm in 2014 and began raising some feeder pigs and a few sheep. Over time, they expanded their farm and now have three horses, one bull, 30 cows, five calves, 30 breeding sows (Registered Berkshire pigs) and about 60 piglets. Soon, they will be also raising 200 seasonal Red Ranger “meat” chickens. They chose to discontinue raising sheep because it wasn’t “lucrative,” said Christian.
Some of their animals are raised for breeding, “but much of it is raised to finish,” she said.
Their pigs are fed a healthy diet of grain and whatever they find rooting around in their woodland pasture, while chickens eat grass and grain. The cows gain their nourishment from grass and hay, as well as “spent grains” they pick up from These Guys and Epicure Brewing Companies on Franklin Street in Norwich, which is “high in protein and fiber,” said Christian, a New Hampshire native.
Mike explained the brewery adds the grain and hops and “they basically boil it down. They extract the flavor out of it and then they’ll mash out. Then they’ll drain the liquid out and that goes into the fermenter, and the grain that is left over is what we get.”
Ultimately, the Montville native said they’re doing each other a favor, because the “spent grains” are no good to them and they don’t have to pay to get rid of it.
“They don’t charge us for it and we don’t charge them to go get it.”
“For These Guys, it’s almost full circle for them because they get the beef right back,” Mike said, adding that all their burgers are from them. Periodically, the brewery also buys pork from Broad Brook Acres.
“There’s been a big movement in the last few years where people want to know where their food is coming from,” Christian said.
As of February 2016, “the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) pulled the labeling for point of origin requirements for beef and pork mussel cuts, ground beef and ground pork, so it could now come from anywhere in the world and there is no way to know, said Mike, a marine corporal veteran, who served as a helicopter mechanic from 2001 to 2005.
Christian said she noticed the farmers markets they sell at in Ledyard and Colchester have “gotten busier and busier” and thinks COVID was a “big” contributing factor. “People couldn’t find food in the grocery stores for a while. We basically got our freezers cleaned out at the beginning of COVID. People would come and buy $500 to $1,000 worth of meat just like that, because they couldn’t find anything in the grocery store and they didn’t care how much how much it cost at that point in time.”
She believes they gained a few customers, because they thought their meat, pork and poultry tasted better and liked the fact that their animals are not given any hormones and are not loaded with antibiotics. “We only use antibiotics or any other medication therapeutically and never within the withdrawal periods for slaughter.”
The couple split their farming responsibilities. Mike bales the hay, maintains equipment and hauls the animals in their trailer. Christian manages the animal husbandry aspect of breeding and vaccinations. They also check all the animals and chickens twice daily.
Since much of his work is done during the day, Mike said there is no way they could run the farm if he had a 9-to-5 job. He now works roughly two 24-hour shifts weekly as a full-time firefighter for Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department in Groton.
After they bought the farm, Mike’s mother, Donna Swanson, said she and her husband knew Mike “was serious about farming when he traded in his Harley Davidson motorcycle and came riding down the road in a tractor.” Her husband and Mike’s father, Tom, passed away three years ago.
Mike said his mother is “an integral part of us growing our business to where we have. Honestly, we couldn’t do it without her." Periodically, Christian also receives help from college interns.
The farm has “really grown and I have to say, these two are the hardest workers I’ve ever seen. Really, they just work and work. It’s amazing to watch them,” said Donna, who helps them weekly with childcare and housecleaning.
Reflecting back, Mike said he remembers when Christian loaded 100 to 150 bales of hay up into the barn with a baby in her carrier pack. Another time, he said they were cleaning stalls the day her water broke. Their “little farmers” now include Connor, 7 and Corbin, 4.
He said he is glad that their sons are growing up on a farm, because they have knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise have, “learn a good work ethic and know where their food comes from.”
During the wintertime, Mike said they keep their cows and pigs close by, so they can keep an eye on them and “don’t have to worry about predators.”
Also, as part of a grant agreement (with Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the USDA) to build two barns with solar panels (which heat other parts of the farm), the pigs stay together inside six months out of the year in their dry lot, said Mike, explaining that Broad Brook runs the entire length of their property into the waterway that runs through Preston and into the Quinebaug River.
“It’s actually protecting our waterways, conserving our natural resource,” Christian said. “They don’t want any of the manure making its way into the waterways.”
She said their pigs “don’t want to be out in the middle of winter” anyway.
“When it’s cold and wet, they like to have a nice warm, dry barn,” Mike added.
During the summer months, the pigs are brought outside to wander about nearby pastures. The cows roam about the 15 to 20 acres the Swansons lease/use nearby – sometimes paying with money or meat – which includes 9 acres on top of the hill – at which point they haul 1,000 gallons of water to the animals over every three-day period.
They also use 10 or 12 acres of land from their neighbor, Steve across the street.
“Steve doesn’t want anything out of the deal, because he likes having the cows in his backyard and he really enjoys going out and watching them,” Mike said.
“He hand feeds them. I send all of my heifers up there because they come back like puppy dogs,” Christian said.
Mike explained, “So that makes it easier during calving season when the cows are giving birth. If there are any issues, it’s easier to get closer to the mother and the calf.”
He said he loves living on their farm. “It is a very good life to have. It’s got its days.” He said not everything can be scheduled. “You gotta get your hay in when you can get it in.” Once they know which cows and pigs are pregnant and their due dates, they monitor them to make sure everything is going okay. “I’ve been out in the farrowing house farrowing pigs at 2 in the morning before.”
For more information or to order beef, pork or chicken year round, go to broadbrookacres.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call/text 860-389-2323, or go to their Facebook page: Broad Brook Acres. Their products can also be purchased at Herb’s Country Store and Hunt’s Brook Farm in Montville, Full Heart Farm in Ledyard and enjoyed at Vintage Restaurant in Colchester.
Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, resides in Westerly.