Date: July 1, 2023 | Story: Virginia Brown | Photography: Rett Peek | Producer: Stephanie Maxwell Newton |
The owners of Porch Swing Farms trade city life to raise heritage pork in Perry County
On 23 acres in Perry County, just northwest of Little Rock, patches of bright buttercup flowers paint Aaron Baldwin and Holly Payne’s farm in strokes of sunny yellow. Next to the barn, about halfway down a long, gravel drive, a sign welcomes: Porch Swing Farms.
Bertha, a 450-pound, floppy-eared Large Black sow, an English breed known for grazing, lazes in her wide pen, unfazed by the Sebastopol geese squawking in the pond. Looking every bit the part of a farmer, Aaron wears a white T-shirt, denim overalls, and muddy work boots. He steps over the low wire that ropes off the pen, Bertha’s litter of nine underfoot. Holly scratches Bertha on the head.
Both Arkansas natives, Holly grew up on a farm in Berryville and went on to teach theater costume design (she still freelances in the field). Aaron grew up in Little Rock and, before turning to farming, taught biology and chemistry at the college level. After their unlikely meeting in Wisconsin, the two got married and moved back to the South to be closer to family, settling in Little Rock for several years.
In 2018, they moved to a farmhouse in Bigelow and started raising hens. Before long, Porch Swing Farms was born. During the pandemic, the couple learned that people were willing to pay a premium for farm-fresh eggs delivered to their door, and soon they were jarring pickles, glazing pecans, and making pimento cheese, too. Then came the pigs.
“We always say that chickens are a gateway drug to farming,” says Holly. “Once we committed ourselves to farm life, we daydreamed about the next steps for our ‘farmette,’ as we had taken to calling it. Aaron has had a lifelong love of pork, and we wanted to make the best use of our little plot of land.”
The impetus for the farm was personal: Aaron has Celiac disease and avoids eating gluten, and Holly had been a vegetarian for 17 years. After marrying, the couple had trouble merging their gluten- and meat-free diets. “I did some research and found ways to eat meat that made sense to me,” says Holly, whos vegetarianism had come from learning more about large-scale meat production. “One of the things that is crucial to both of us is the community created in eating meals together. And now we can.”
Mostly self-taught farmers, the couple’s problem-solving skills—thanks to their design and science backgrounds—have come in handy while learning the ins and outs of their new lifestyle. “Pigs don’t do very well on just grass, like sheep or ruminant animals,” Holly says. “These guys can eat a little bit of grass, but they like to dig up roots and bugs and things in the ground.” Over time, the process can be hard on the soil. To protect the land’s integrity, they divide each acre into four sections where the pigs graze in rotation. Each plot blends oats and rye grasses with radishes and turnips. The pigs stay in a plot for two weeks and then move on.
“They will graze one spot, and then we’ll move them over to another,” Holly says. “It’s like a big salad bar.” Up a gravel path, a few Gloucestershire Old Spots, another English breed, roam freely in a high-grass pasture. Chickens are free to wander here, too, or hang out in the large, red coop nearby. Holly and Aaron have also planted fruit and nut varieties such as black walnut, pecan, and mulberry trees to eventually add to the pigs’ varied diet while providing shade from the sun.
Today, they have 40 to 50 pigs on the farm at any time and work with a local processor to sell the pork directly to consumers through their website, online local food networks, and at farmers markets. Favorites are their hickory-smoked bacon; specialty bold sausage, which they make themselves; and inch-thick chops. They also sell fully cooked spiral hams, ribs, brats, and a honey-glazed pork shoulder meal kit. “Our success really has been getting the pork into people’s mouths,” Aaron says. “It’s difficult to say that $11 a pound for a pork chop is worth it when people can get them elsewhere for significantly less, but we’ve started doing samples at the farmers markets and have had a lot of success.”
On weekends, you’ll find Porch Swing Farms at Bernice Garden Farmers Market and Hillcrest Farmers Market in Little Rock as well as Conway Farmers Market. They also periodically offer cooking classes at Eggshells in the Heights where they demonstrate how to make meals with their products.
“Hopefully we create a community where you can trust us to bring you something delicious and know that we were really nice to the animals,” Holly says. “It really does feel like a symbiotic relationship—we’re meeting a need and they are supporting us.”
The name of Aaron and Holly’s farm is a nod to hospitality in the region, which is a value the two hold close in both life and business. “In the South, rocking chairs and porch swings are common,” Aaron says. “People used to spend a lot of time on the front porch getting to know their letter carrier and their neighbors. We think the name speaks to some of that.”
Farm to Table
“This recipe is very adaptable to whatever you have available in season or at hand,” Holly says. “The hollandaise sauce is delicious on anything—sauteed spinach, focaccia, hashbrowns. Using a vegetable as the base or accompaniment also makes the dish gluten-free.”
Porch Swing Eggs Benedict Recipe
8 farm-fresh eggs
½ pound Porch Swing Farms Hickory Smoked Ham
1 pound asparagus, ends trimmed
½ tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon table salt
3 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon salt, plus extra for seasoning
a pinch of cayenne pepper, plus extra for seasoning
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted to 180°F
To steam asparagus, melt butter in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add water and salt, and stir to combine with butter. Add asparagus, cover, and cook for 2 minutes without stirring. Uncover and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until skillet is nearly dry and asparagus is crisp-tender, about 2-3 minutes longer. While asparagus cooks, poach eggs in a stovetop egg poacher for 2-4 minutes, or to desired hardness.
To create hollandaise sauce, process egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, and cayenne pepper in blender until frothy, about 10 seconds. With blender running, slowly add melted butter (still hot) and process until hollandaise is emulsified, about 2 minutes. Adjust consistency with hot water as needed until sauce slowly drips from a spoon. Season to taste with salt and cayenne.
To serve, create a base layer of 4-5 stalks of asparagus, add a warmed slice of Porch Swing Farms Hickory Smoked Ham, and top with 2 poached eggs. Pour hollandaise over the stack and sprinkle with cayenne pepper. Serve immediately.