Editor's note: This is the first in a continuing series on Nettle Valley Farm.
SPRING GROVE, Minn. ― Dayna Burtness and Nick Nguyen make up the minds and hands behind Nettle Valley Farm, where from June to November each year, they raise a group of pastured pigs on 67 acres of land.
The farm is located in a region of southeast Minnesota known for its rolling fields and bluff views. Burtness said her family has deep roots in Houston County, where her grandparents live today. When she and Nguyen were looking for a "forever farm," they were looking to buy one in the area.
She was a wholesale vegetable farmer in Northfield before the couple moved to the farm in 2015. It never occurred to Burtness to raise livestock until she was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease, forcing her to quit growing vegetables.
"That sort of killed my energy levels for a while," Burtness said of the setback. "But after I got sick and had mostly recovered, I started thinking, OK, well, I still want to farm."
So the couple decided to raise hogs on sort of a whim, and started with just three pigs in their first season. Now they are preparing for their sixth season of finishing hogs, and the head count is up to 75.
"Pastured livestock is a lot — it's definitely hard, but it's a lot less labor intensive than growing vegetables," Burtness said.
It takes two
Nettle Valley Farm thrives because of the respective skills sets of Burtness and Nguyen.
Burtness is the main farmer, meaning that she does tasks like arranging contracts with feeder pig suppliers and setting up fence in the pasture.
"If you're looking through a camera, I'm probably the one who does stuff that looks the most like farming," she said. "And Nick does a lot of the behind the scenes work. That's very crucial."
Nguyen works a full-time job remotely from home, on top of doing his part with the farm.
"Because I have that flexibility, I can help out with chores that need doing," Nguyen said.
He also does all of the bookkeeping, paperwork and tax filing for the farm.
"But as far as planning and managing the farm, and certainly the vision of the farm and execution, that's definitely Dayna," he said.
Nguyen didn't grow up in a family that farmed, and before Burtness, he never envisioned having the rural life he enjoys today.
"Once I was exposed to it through her, I definitely developed an interest for it as well," he said. "Right away it sounded like something I would be interested in helping out and supporting."
It helped that Nguyen had a knack for the work, too.
"Nick is really good at farming even though he wasn't exposed to it growing up, and he thinks systems and sees patterns," Burtness said. "It helps me with my continuous improvement mindset, and how we can raise the pigs in a way that's better for us, better for the pigs and better for the land."
Letting pigs be pigs
After buying their first three pigs, Burtness said she immediately grew fond of the animals.
"I just totally fell in love with pigs as creatures, because I have a lot in common with them — we both hate being hot and we both love to nap and eat," said Burtness.
Pigs also get bored very easily, she said, which is why they raise them a certain way.
"The best way to keep pigs entertained, happy and healthy is to raise them with a lot of variety and in a lot of fresh air, for them to run," she said.
Pigs require a lot more infrastructure than sheep, goats or cattle, said Burtness. Hogs require feed, shade, mud and more water than other animals.
Nettle Valley Farm is switching this year from a fully pastured model to more of a hybrid approach, which is called the "wagon wheel method" because of its circular arrangement.
"Instead of moving everything each week from paddock to paddock, using electric fencing and tearing up the ground, we decided to switch to this hybrid model where we have a pig shed where their food, water, shade and their mud and bedding stays," Burtness said.
They'll then use electric netting to make different rotational grazing paddocks in the pasture.
Burtness said a grant from the American Farmland Trust helped them cover the costs of the shed, which has cement floor and stainless steel automatic water pipes.
"So instead of filling up a tank every couple of days, the pigs will have fresh water every time they take a sip, so I'm really excited about that," Burtness said.
Both Burtness and Nguyen said they enjoy having an offseason from the animals, but the business takes year-round effort.
"I take a lot more time in the winter to do volunteer and advocacy work, lobbying with farm organizations and that sort of thing," Burtness said. "But I definitely like having that sort of end to the season and then time to reevaluate how the season went, and think big picture about how we can keep improving our systems."
The time off from the animals also makes it more exciting when they return, she said, which is soon. The 75 pigs will be arriving to Nettle Valley Farm in the first or second week of June; all of them will weigh around 80 pounds.
"So much excitement right now, about the improvements we're making on the farm, but then there's just looking forward to getting to know the pigs," Burtness said.
Pigs are inherently hilarious, she said, and there will always be a few standout characters in a group. Last year they had "scratchy pig," who always wanted scratches — and "boot pig," who just couldn't resist chewing on boots.
Burtness has been getting photos and videos from the farmer who's supplying them with the pigs, which is increasing her excitement.
"I miss talking to them every day and hanging out with them, watching what they eat and watching their behavior," she said. "They're just endlessly fascinating creatures."