BLANCHARDVILLE — April Prusia, an Iowa native with experience as a vegetable farmer, was a vegetarian for many years before meeting her partner, Steve Fabos, and moving to the Driftless Area. Settling in at Dorothy’s Range, their farm named after Fabos’ mother, she left that lifestyle behind after connecting with area farmers who were sustainably raising quality meat.
Then someone casually suggested that she get some pigs herself.
“And it sort of just happened,” she said with a smile.
About nine years ago, Prusia and Fabos traveled to Missouri in their Toyota station wagon to pick up their first pigs, carefully researching the breeds they wanted. Some of the breeds they looked at weren’t available in the U.S. while others were more difficult to track down, but they were heading in the right direction.
“Missouri is a pretty heavy hog state,” she said, describing the heritage hog and specialty pig farmers living in the backwoods — a sharp contrast to some of the large hog operations that can be found across the Midwest.
The couple brought home to Dorothy’s Range three Large Black hogs that trip, making them one of just a handful of Large Black breeders in Wisconsin at that time. And it wasn’t long before they brought home a few more pigs; this time they were Gloucestershire Old Spots, known for their rarity, docility, tastiness of meat and their grazing and mothering abilities.
Gloucestershire Old Spots are really hard to find, Prusia said, adding that they believe they were the first farmers in Wisconsin to have a purebred breeding pair. However, they now know a few others who have this heritage breed of pig, and they work to mentor others raising the same breed.
Prusia cares for 23 pigs right now, including five sows she believes are pregnant. Once the piglets are born, they stay with their mothers for about eight weeks before being sold to interested parties. Springtime seems to always be busy as “everyone wants a pig in the spring,” Prusia said.
Along with selling feeder pigs and breeding stock, Prusia also has a market for pastured pork, offering cuts, sausage, bacon, roasts, wurst, hams, organs and locally rendered lard.
“It’s kind of like garlic,” she said, referencing her time as a manager on a vegetable farm. “Either you sell it, plant it for next year or you eat it.”
When selecting the breed of pig they wanted for their operation, Prusia and Fabos were strategic in their selections, searching out breeds that were known to be good grazers and were light on the land. It was important that the pigs didn’t destroy the tranquil environment of Dorothy’s Range and were raised on a diverse pasture, supplemented with fermented organic grain that Prusia ferments herself, apples, squash, walnuts, organic milk and more vegetables.
It was especially important for Fabos, who has spent the last 10 years as the owner and operator of Indigenous Restorations, a business that specializes in prairie and oak savanna restoration, as well as the removal of invasive brush, trees and weeds. Fabos works mostly with private landowners on their goals, but has also partnered with U.S Fish and Wildlife, the Prairie Enthusiasts, The Nature Conservancy and local Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency offices.
“There’s definitely a need and desire for this type of work as more and more people become conscious of the ecosystem in this area,” he said.
Dorothy’s Range, which includes 50 acres with a trout stream, wildlife pond, tall grass prairie, upland short grass prairie, burr oak savanna, sedge meadow, pig pasture and large gardens, was the perfect place to launch the business and practice what he preached. The vast prairies on the property can be attributed to the work Fabos has done and is a good representation of his resume, Prusia said proudly.
Visitors often come to Dorothy’s Range as the couple also rents out two spaces through Airbnb and VRBO, also known as Vacation Rentals By Owner. Most are from the Chicago area, but there are some from Milwaukee, Prusia said. They’ve even had some visitors who were traveling across the country and needed a quiet place to stay, and others who were just pig and prairie enthusiasts.
Those who come to the farm usually never leave empty-handed as Prusia offers educational workshops to those interested in learning more about the operation. Whether it’s taking them along during chores or teaching them about fermentation, Prusia finds ways to engage them.
“There are lots of people that visit that haven’t ever seen pigs, and if they have, not in this type of setting,” she said. “They have really good questions and it’s always fascinating.
“People always leave learning something about the prairie or the pigs.”
Sharing information about the land and the animals is something Prusia likes doing as she feels so many people are disconnected from their food. And as someone with a special interest, Prusia is always exploring a new “rabbit hole” when it comes to food.
“My palate drove me to be a farmer,” she said. “Trying to better understand has taken me down so many different highways — everything really is connected.”
Fortunately, Prusia has several outlets for her ideas as she is the president of her local farmer-led watershed group, Pecatonica Pride Watershed Association; president of the Gloucestershire Old Spots Breeders Association; and one of three women currently exploring the feasibility of a mobile slaughtering unit and brick and mortar meat processing facility for Green, Iowa and Lafayette counties through a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Farmer Rancher Grant.
Through conversations sparked amongst Soil Sisters, a passionate women-led group with focuses on farming and culinary opportunities, Prusia discovered many were unsatisfied with the availability of meat processing in the area, with the majority of area facilities booked up months in advance, among other issues.
It was then that a fellow Soil Sister nudged Prusia to apply for a SARE grant, seeking answers to questions that had been floating around her mind. Is there a need? What specifically do farmers want? Are there enough butchers? Are farmers interested in U.S. Department of Agriculture certification or organic certification for their meat? Is it possible that we can provide a place for people to learn through internships and a place where customers can learn about the process too?
“There are a lot of different places this feasibility study will take us,” she said.
As president of the Pecatonica Pride Watershed Association, she is able to connect with her neighbors, community members, farmers, fishers and landowners to host workshops and promote and improve the Pecatonica River between Blanchardville and Argyle.
“Being part of the association has exposed me and introduced me to a wide range of farmers,” she said. “And I’m learning all the time.”
Recently, a neighbor was able to hold a training for farmers, water enthusiasts and others with an interest in stream monitoring to help the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources collect data on streams in the area. It has also led to the creation of a “learn to fly-fish” event in collaboration with the local women’s club.
“We now have a bank of information and with that information, we can see if the things we’re promoting with the Pecatonica Pride Watershed Association are working,” she said.
Both she and Fabos see the value in connecting with people, sharing knowledge and promoting a more sustainable way of farming.
“The two of us help to create this balance,” she said. “We are raising food with the environment in mind and heart.”