Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
SUNSET – The T-Moise Farm is a complete farm-to-table operation, from raising the animals to processing meat in a licensed facility for retail sales.
The farm’s specialty is free-range, grass-fed pigs. Tim Melancon and his wife, Monica, fell into this niche after buying two Berkshire hogs, Wilbur and Minnie, from a neighbor for $100 each.
“That’s how it started,” Tim explained.
He did some research and found that Berkshires do well on grass.
Berkshire pork’s proponents will tell you the meat has a darker, richer color with an abundance of intramuscular marbling- comparable to prime beef, with a distinct flavor and tenderness.
When they wanted to expand their herd, Tim and Monica bought a stud Berkshire boar, Sherman, from Iowa. But Sherman hasn’t been living up to his potential lately so Tim and Monica will probably buy another Iowa hog soon.
Tim said the porkers seem happy and content with their diet of grasses, including crabgrass and Johnsongrass. “They thrive on it.”
He claims grass-fed pork is cleaner. And he eats what he sells. “We like to eat, and so we want to eat good.”
They have eight 5-acre paddocks for pasture, and a supply of seed to plant for sorghum sudangrass, cowpeas, sunhemp and a variety of other grasses.
Piglets get a special grain diet obtained from Georgia but it contains no growth hormones. About 10 percent of the herd’s nutrition comes from grain for a growth boost, and the rest of what they eat is from forage. Anyone who doubts that pigs will graze like cattle should see these Berkshires voraciously chow down on grass. They literally are four-legged Weed Eaters.
“They thrive more on grass than other pigs,” Tim said. “They could live on just grass.”
Tim said neighbor Daniel Lyon doubted that the pigs would graze. “He couldn’t believe it. I broke out a video and there they were, eating grass like a cow.”
He said the pigs get needed minerals from the grass. “That’s why a pig digs a lot, to get minerals out of the ground.”
Pigs’ digestive systems have a difficult time with corn, Tim maintains, but they thrive on grass. “That’s my theory, and it’s been working.”
Monica revealed that when they started out, they had problems when a pig would get sick. “At first it was difficult because we didn’t know who to call,” she said. Even local vets don’t know a lot about caring for sick pigs, she said. But their Iowa hog connection put them in touch with a vet who provides medical advice.
Tim first learned the basics about pigs from his father and grandfather, growing up on a farm not far from where they live now between Church Point and Sunset. His father, Frank, grew rice and row crops but also had pigs.
His father had 200 hogs at one time, and he used sale barns to market his crop. Tim said the Oscar Mayer company approached his father about producing pigs for them. But his father turned down the offer after learning about the feed mixed with hormones that Oscar Mayer would require.
His grandfather, Moise Melancon, had a 920-pound boar named Buck. “He would ride that pig to go get his cows.”
When Buck was butchered in January 1970, it made the Opelousas Daily World newspaper that reported Buck produced 250 pounds of sausage, 125 pounds of boudin, 43 gallons of lard and 350 pounds of meat.
Tim started farming and he especially liked growing corn, his favorite crop, but couldn’t make money at $3.50 a bushel.
“We were one of the first in the area to do a winter wheat crop.”
When the bottom fell out of farming in the 1980s, Tim started working offshore but his heart was on the farm. “It was always in my blood. I was born to farm.”
He eventually left his offshore job and he started T-Moise Farm.
Monica said the goal of raising food to sell came from their desire to produce meat free of artificial hormones.
Now T-Moise Farms is approved, certified and licensed to process, package and label their products as well as products for other producers.
“We are state inspected,” Monica said.
Before they started their own operation, they had their hogs butchered and packaged at Eunice Superette. But that processor, now under the name Coastal Plains, no longer processes hogs, Monica said.
It took 3 years to get through the complete state inspection process, and 2 years to build their facility using the state standards for a meat-processing operation.
Monica took on much of the paperwork burden, and she attended classes to get certified with the state health department. She is now certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an HACCP producer, or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. If you Google HACCP you’ll learn it is “a management system in which food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.”
After going through the regulatory labyrinth, one of their biggest challenges currently is finding a butcher willing to work for $25-30 an hour depending on experience. Monica said it’s not easy to find someone who knows how to cut meat.
“It’s a lost trade.”
Work is almost complete on a retail sales building at their facility at 683 Bearb Road near Sunset.
They also sell their products at the Lafayette Farmer’s Market at the Horse Farm on Johnston Street on Saturday mornings. If you’re lucky, Tim will be making a batch of jambalaya but be prepared for a line of hungry customers.
Tim will do a custom cochon du lait using a large mobile cooker made by his nephew, Jude Lalonde of Cecilia, who also helped design the processing building. The cooker mounts on a flatbed trailer that he hauls to a site while the cooking is in progress. He’s done a cochon du lait at the Farmers Market and usually sells all the meat he cooks in the pit.
The Melancons now have a state-of-the-art, computerized smoker that can process 600 pounds of sausage.
One of Tim’s specialties is sweet potato and boudin pie. It’s a tasty combination of boudin covered with pureed sweet potato. No crust. He got the idea from a small store near Sunset that stopped making it. Tim tried making a few and the reception was positive.
“For a year, people were begging him to make it,” Monica said.
They have the capability of processing deer and other wild game, but the demand will have to be sufficient to accommodate that service, Monica said.
Their operation is open for farm tours. They hosted 120 participants in April for a gathering of Women in Agriculture.
They buy their Angus cattle from cow-calf operations looking to get rid of cows that no longer produce calves dependably. A few months on grass, and the cows are ready for market. “We stay away from that chemical stuff and fast-grow stuff,” Tim said.
They have about 400 meat chickens, and 200 of them will be ready for sale in about 6 weeks. They also sell eggs from laying hens.
“We sell a lot of chickens,” Monica said. “People like our chickens.”
Their sheep are three-quarter Katahdin and a quarter Barbados. Monica said their most prized lamb product is a lollipop cut with a long rib bone.
They grow vegetables in a high-tunnel greenhouse and some of what they grow is used in their boudin.
“When I first came here, it was 50 acres of chicken trees,” Tim recalled.
Tim and Monica have been together for 8 years – they met online - and they each brought individual talents to the partnership. Monica is originally from Peru. She migrated as a young girl with her family who came to the U.S. on a visa 40 years ago.
She worked as a district manager for a hotel gift shop business, and she sold real estate, all in the New Orleans area.
As the first in her family to speak English, Monica was the go-between. “I had to do everything for them.”
But agriculture was not in her past. She recalls when she was a girl, her mother bought a chicken that became a pet. “She slaughtered it, and we couldn’t eat it,” Monica recalled. She’s gotten over that now, however.
Monica’s role as a go-between for her parents probably prepared her well to deal with regulatory bureaucracy.
She has tapped into several U.S. Department of Agriculture and rural development programs that have resulted in financial assistance to get their business off the ground. A cost-share grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has helped with marketing and labor expenses. “We were the only entity in Louisiana to get one of these,” she said. “There’s a lot of help available, but people don’t know where to look.”
Their 1,700-square-foot processing facility located on the farm maintains 45-50 degrees in the workroom and commercial kitchen, and minus 7 in the walk-in freezer. Carcasses can be hung in the walk-in cooler.
Monica said the six-figure investment will give them flexibility, and they won’t be dependent on someone else to handle orders for butchering and preparing meat.
“We didn’t want to have to wait for something to happen,” Monica said.
On this day that something is happening in the T-Moise Boudin Division. Clifton Chenier is providing background music. Workers Eddie Lewis and Seth LeBlanc, Tim’s nephew, are helping Tim and Monica make about 110 pounds of boudin from scratch. Onion greens are cut, onions are chopped, and spices are added to the pork and rice (long-grain Jazzmen rice grown near Crowley developed by the Rice Research Station) all cooked in a large iron pot.
“This meat is from a sow that was walking on pasture Monday,” Monica said.
Tim got his recipe from his father and grandfather, but he keeps the ingredients and proportions secret. “He wouldn’t give that recipe to anybody,” Monica said.
“It’s just one I picked up through the years from my dad,” added Tim who’s also working on a recipe for a beef boudin.
After the boudin mix is cooked, it’s tossed in a big mixer. Then while it’s still warm, the contents are stuffed into the casing with a machine. The process is quick, and in just a couple minutes, about 15 feet of boudin rope is laid out on tables. It’s then smoothed out for even consistency and cut into manageable sections, then cooled on a rack in a chilling room overnight before it’s steamed.
Between boudin batches, lunch is served. Boudin, of course, is the main and only course. After all, it’s a meal in itself. Dessert is boudin and sweet potato pie. This must be the origin of the phrase "high on the hog."
“We eat good around here,” Tim said. “We don’t make a lot of money but we eat good.”