Nancy Poli grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and had no agricultural experience when she moved to her farm in the Pocono Mountains more than 20 years ago.
Back then, Poli kept a few horses and chickens on the farm. Later, her son, Nolan Thevenet, expressed an interest in raising sheep.
Poli had another idea.
“I asked him if he would raise one pig for me because I didn’t like the taste of the pork from the store,” she said.
One pig eventually blossomed into Stryker Farm, a family-run operation in Saylorsburg, Monroe County, Pennsylvania, that raises beef, lamb and pork on pasture.
Poli’s specialty is the farm’s heritage breed pigs, which fluctuates between 100 and 300 head. For someone who grew up in the suburbs, Poli’s venture into hog farming was a bit unconventional.
When she first asked her son to raise a hog, Poli didn’t expect to soon be raising a few hundred pigs as part of a farm business. And, when Poli did become a bona fide hog farmer 11 years ago, she was 58 years old.
“The learning curve was enormous,” Poli said. “I never thought I’d be doing this. I’ve been asked if another woman my age could do this, and I said no. I couldn’t have done it without my son. He was the driving force.”
A free-range life
While Thevenet handles the physically strenuous tasks and manages the on-farm store, Poli’s strength is in raising heritage-breed hogs in a manner focused on nature and ethics.
At the beginning, Thevenet conducted extensive research on which breeds to raise. He and his mother settled on the heritage variety for their ability to thrive in a free-range operation. The heritage breeds have longer legs and a more pronounced snout, Poli said, which makes them better at roaming the wooded pastures and rooting in the ground. They also have coarser hair, she said, which allows them to handle being outside in the winter.
Poli does provide open-front shelters for the hogs, and sows have their young inside shipping containers altered to serve as farrowing structures.
But, the hogs are free to come and go as they please, including the sows and piglets.
“The piglets are basically born free-range, and that makes them hardy,” Poli said. “We let the mothers do what they want, and they raise the piglets themselves.”
The pasture life, Poli said, produces pigs that are more alert and able to fend for themselves. She does have self-feeders in the pastures that supply the hogs with a non-GMO feed mix, but it’s up to them when they eat, root or wallow.
“I think our pigs are very content. It’s a different kind of life than pigs raised in a building,” Poli said.
A good routine
It’s also a different kind of life than the one Poli ever imagined for herself. While the farm functions as a business, it also serves as the heart of the family. Thevenet manages the farm and store, while Poli cares for the hogs. She also has a second business, Poli Restoration, that deals with the restoration and conservation of paper collectibles such as stamps, money, maps, documents and covers. The studio for the restoration business is attached to the farm store, and Poli’s daughter, Rebecca Silvius, is her partner.
The fact that Poli splits her days between wearing farm-chore clothes while feeding hogs and donning a white lab coat while restoring valuable paper collectibles exemplifies the diverse life she made for herself on the farm nestled in the Pocono Mountains.
For Poli, it all centers on the farm and provides a purpose.
“I like the lifestyle and having to go out there every day to work outside with the pigs. The routine of it is a good thing for me,” she said.
Now that the difficult learning curve is behind her and the farm is an established success, Poli isn’t sure if the family will take the operation in a new direction. They worked hard to get to where they are today, she said, and even though they’re constantly learning, they’ve found comfort in the free-range system they have in place.
And it all started when a woman from the suburbs moved to a farm in the mountains and decided to raise hogs at an age when most people are pondering retirement.
“I used to wonder what we are getting ourselves into by doing this, but once it was in the works it wasn’t’ something where you could quit and turn back,” Poli said. “We tried to create something unique in how we raise and feed pigs, and it was something we never did before.
“Now, we know where we’re going and we know we can run this farm. And through it all, it taught me not to be afraid of the unknown.”