Free-range pigs regenerate the land at Climbing Tree Farm

Half a dozen young pigs come trotting through the woods to see who has just stepped over the wire fence. They are sleek, fearless and gleaming with short hair, coppery and black. They root against ankles and knees, pushing with firm noses, amiably curious about visitors.

The trees here are young too, the slim hardwoods that come back in a few generations when cleared land returns to forest. Up the hill by the pond the guard dog, a sweet-tempered fellow with thick white hair, waits on alert, though he has stayed up through the night keeping an eye on the herd.

The pigs, the pond and the pasture grass belong to Climbing Tree Farm, where Colby and Schuyler Gail also raise geese, sheep and a few highland heifers. They supply meat and poultry to a local CSA and shops and restaurants in the region — sausage for Red Apple Butchers at Berkshire Organics and for breakfast sandwiches at cafés like Dottie’s Coffee Lounge, or lamb, pork and more to places like Allium in Great Barrington, Hotel on North in Pittsfield and Fish & Game in Hudson, N.Y.

Colby and Schuyler got an early taste of farming as caretakers for his grandmother’s farm. They found a few acres in New Lebanon, N.Y., and started out on their own to raise food for their own family. They were both vegetarians when they came here, Schuyler said, but when they had children they decided that their children should have the choice to eat meat — and they wanted the animals well cared-for.

They found the land and then found breeds that would do well on it, she said: hardy creatures who can take cold weather, shetland sheep in the fields, heifers who will grow into highland cows and breed calves in a few years, geese — and pigs.

Young pigs wander free range in the woods at Climbing Tree Farm.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Young pigs wander free range in the woods at Climbing Tree Farm.

“We have breeds all over the board,” Colby said.In the next field the flock of Toulouse geese turn as one goose and begin to walk in procession up the hill, one black and tan Egyptian goose standing a head above the rest.

They are changing their pasture as they go, Schuyler said. The animals are bringing back the land. The highlands and shetland sheep will eat scrubbier brush. She and Colby put the cows in when the grass is higher, then the sheep, then chickens and geese who take care of bugs and fertilize on the way.

They leave the ground healthy and improve the soil. And as they clear away the tougher growth, the grass comes back. Seeds in the soil can live for 100 years, she said, and when the animals eat away the brush, dormant seeds have a chance to sprout.

‘I think it makes you feel different when you eat real food, healthier and more alive. Food is real, real life. Our kids know where food comes from.’ — Schuyler Gail

“None of this grass was planted,” she said, looking out over the pastures still green as the cold season comes on. “It was just waiting to grow.”

She smiles at the rumble of geese voices and says she likes the sound. They choose their birds and animals to be self-sufficient and friendly.

“We let the animals express their natural instincts,” she said.

And as the pasture grows healthy, their animals grow healthy on it, with their careful tending. Free-range and grass-fed animals live better, the Gails feel, and people live better around them. And in the end, the meat the farm produces tastes better.

“This is real food,” Colby said. “It’s harder to find than I think people realize.”

“I think it makes you feel different when you eat real food,” Schuyler agreed, “healthier and more alive. Food is real, real life. Our kids know where food comes from.”

She looked with affection at the young pigs, acknowledging the realities of farming.

“They have a good day every day until the last one,” she said.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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