BRATTLEBORO — At one time, Jim Westbrook was raising more than 250 pigs at once on his plot of land on Meadowbrook Road in West Brattleboro.
Earlier this month, that number was down to less than 30 and by December, there will be no more swine on CherryRail Farm.
“If you told me 20 years ago I’d be a pig farmer, I’d be like, are you kidding me?” said Westbrook, a graduate of Syracuse University who moved to Brattleboro from Greenfield, Mass., about 12 years ago.
Westbrook had been raising pigs for about five years when he got a visit from a state official in 2018.
The Agency of Natural Resources had received a complaint that effluent was making its way into the Whetstone Brook via a pair of unnamed perennial streams that intermittently flowed across the land Westbrook’s pigs were ranging on.
“A number of neighbors complained about odor,” Brian Bannon, Brattleboro’s zoning administrator, wrote in an email to the Reformer. “Though I haven’t heard any odor complaints in the last couple of years.”
According to a violation report filed by an investigator from the Department of Environmental Conservation, pig manure and the whey Westbrook was feeding his livestock were contaminating the water.
“On June 1, 2018, a DEC Environmental Enforcement Officer responded to the complaints and visited the area just south of the farm property, around the confluence of Tributary 1 and the Whetstone Brook,” states the violation report. “Tributary 1 was running very turbid and murky. There was a strong sour smell in the area caused, at least in part, from manure. Closer to the water, the smell became stronger.”
The report notes that along the edge of the farm, the investigator found two piles of manure and old hay bedding, about 50 cubic yards of material, on the edge of an embankment were water was flowing.
“In addition, manure had been washed directly into the swale and from there to Tributary 1,” states the report. “The swale smelled strongly of manure ...”
An aquatic biologist from the Department of Environmental Conservation concluded “Tributary 1 has been heavily impacted by the pig farm.”
Despite recommendations to keep the pigs out of the water, to stop whey from leaking out of delivery lines and to impound the waste, during follow-up visits, inspectors found none of the recommendations implemented, the report states.
“[I]n the area where the whey line had previously broken and released hundreds of gallons of whey into the woods and Tributary 1 ... the same whey line had another breach, spraying whey in a small jet up approximately 10 feet into the air,” the report states. “The whey was landing on the mud and manure-laden ground.”
Westbrook was feeding his pigs between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of brewery waste per week, which he got from three local breweries at no cost, as well as about 7,200 gallons of liquid whey every week from a local creamery, also at no cost. He was also feeding his pigs excess bread products from a local bakery.
In August, Westbrook reached an agreement with the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to cease pig farming on his property. Vermont Superior Court Judge Katherine Hayes finalized the consent order, which included a $70,000 penalty, with $60,000 waived as long as Westbrook doesn’t continue to violate state regulations.
Westbrook said in addition to the $10,000 fine, he also had to pay $5,000 to a professional engineer who prepared an erosion prevention and sediment control plan for his property.
He said the tens of thousands of dollars he has invested into his farm for breeding stock, equipment, vehicles and buildings to house his livestock was basically thrown away when the judge’s gavel came down.
Westbrook said his farm was just starting to turn a profit. He said he had partnered with a regional buyer that connects farmers in the Northeast to consumers in cities across New England, New York and New Jersey.
“I’d been shipping 20 or 30 pigs a month to them every month for the last four years,” he said. “I could’ve shipped 50 pigs a month, but that’s over.”
Westbrook, who before moving to Brattleboro was a wrestling coach at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Mass., admitted he made some mistakes on his farm, but was trying to remedy the problems, investing even more money.
“It’s a disappointment because we were raising pasture pigs and we had a market and we were finally making a profit,” said Westbrook, who contended farmers in Vermont get a lot of lip service from the government, but not much else.
“The state says we’re all about farms, but the reality is ... not even close,” he said.
Westbrook said the way Vermont’s required agricultural procedures are written, an investigator could find any number of ways to shut down a farm in the Green Mountain State.
“We do not have an interest in putting farms out of business,” said David Huber, who was the chief policy enforcement officer for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets when the complaint was received. “We wish to work with farms. But this place was a mess.”
According to Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices, “production areas, barnyards, animal holding or feedlot areas, manure storage areas, and feed storage areas shall utilize runoff and leachate collection systems, diversion, or other management strategies in order to prevent the discharge of agricultural wastes to surface water or groundwater.”
To meet the standards set out in the recommended agricultural procedures, Westbrook would have needed to construct a manure retention pit and confine his animals to keep them out of the two streams.
“That’s factory farming,” Westbrook said. “There’s a trade-off. Either you have factory farms where they need antibiotics in the feed or you can have pasture-raised pork.”
Though Westbrook says he and his wife will be fine financially because they own a number of rental properties in Brattleboro, he can’t afford to make the investments the state says are necessary to continue pig farming.
Right now, he’s thinking about taking up a friend on his offer to cook at a restaurant in Killington during ski season, but his pig farming days are over.
“I’m 61 years old. I’m not starting over. It’s not worth it.”