Holding a generous piece of bread in her hand, Dotsie Hoffman strolls up to the fence where Arthur and Agnes await. The mangalitsa pigs push their snouts up to the wire as she reaches one arm over to pat their heads.
It’s not yet 4 p.m. on this late fall day but the sun is already beginning to set, casting a glow on the still-green Huntertown fields.
Dotsie has afternoon duty at the family farm, Hoffman Certified Organics. She tends to the chickens, both meat and egg-producing, which can number up to a couple thousand in the summer. The pigs, of which there are five, and the newest residents of the farm, are also given their due attention.
Agnes and Arthur arrived in August, along with three piglets, and they’ve grown accustomed to the interaction with the Hoffman family. And as graciously as pigs can, the two take the bread from her hand and gobble it up.
Finding right bird
Dotsie’s sons Ben and Don Hoffman started farming with everybody saying you’ll never do it.
Raising chickens is difficult; there can be a lot of losses and even more headaches.
But several years ago, when the family had a meeting of the minds, Ben Hoffman says, they knew this was what they wanted to do.
"We were never really farmers. This was our parents’ property, and it was just like a big forest really," Ben Hoffman says as he looks out at the chicken coop. "We said let’s do something more for the community."
The 60 acres in Huntertown had been used to raise horses and grow alfalfa and clover when Ben and Don Hoffman were young, but after their father died in 1996, nature was allowed to take over. Small saplings took root and a woodland grew where there is now expanses of pasture.
The brothers cut down more than 3,000 trees to prepare 20 of the acres for pasture. They spent even more time – three years – looking for the right kind of birds to put out there.
"What people don’t understand is that there’s a specific breed out there for every farm," Ben Hoffman says. "You have to take the time and consideration and the knowledge to find what is right for you and your farm and your customers. And that’s what 90 percent of the farmers don’t do. It’s time consuming."
The White Mountain Broiler chicken, of which the Hoffmans raised 4,200 in 2016, like to pasture and eat grass, clover and alfalfa. Bugs, too. They like to be out in the sun and have the wind ruffle their feathers.
The birds are the only certified organic pastured-raised chickens in the state, the Hoffmans say. To be considered pastured, they have to be outside and allowed to eat at least once a day and moved regularly.
Ben Hoffman starts his day about 7 a.m. The full-time contractor has morning and late-night duty on the farm.
As he does his morning chores, feeding and watering the animals, he checks on the hens in the pasture and the pigs in the pen. He stops at the barn and visits the brooder room, where the youngest chicks are kept. Usually, it’s two to three weeks before they head outside.
"At night time, when I go in the brooder – you have to interact with (them)," he says. "You can tell them your problems. You can tell them the good things and they love it. They love the interaction."
And, maybe that’s why he’s called the chicken whisperer.
Don Hoffman strolls over to the crate where the 28 laying hens are spending the afternoon eating bugs and grass. He lifts up the cover and picks a bird from the bunch.
Cradled in his arm with his hand on the belly, his carry resembles that of a football player and you can see why he’s earned the nickname chicken wrangler. But unlike a 300-pound lineman, he is gentle and affectionate with the bird – using his opposite hand to pet its head as he sweet talks it.
Rather than flapping its wings, the brown-feathered head of the chicken nuzzles into the crook of his arm.
At the Hoffman farm, all of the chickens are handled regularly by people. They are individually loaded into and unloaded from the crates, which are moved daily to give the birds fresh pasture.
"We’ve seen the horror stories on TV and documentaries about how mistreated animals are," Don Hoffman says.
"You have to build that relationship," Ben Hoffman says. "That’s the biggest thing. You have to be hands on."
And so that means Dotsie Hoffman, when she visits in the afternoon to water and move the birds, hand feeds the youngest chickens grass, clover and alfalfa so that they know how to pasture when they go outside. She sings to them, too.
Then, when the birds are driven three hours and handled for processing, they aren’t fearful and it results in fewer losses.
"That was probably the biggest eye opener," Ben Hoffman says. "When it’s done correctly, and I’m not saying our way is correct, but what works for us and the amount of losses we’ve had versus what everyone’s horror story is, it was the exact opposite of the industry. The meat really shows the difference in the flavor and the texture."
The season for meat-producing chickens is over, but there is still plenty of work on the farm.
Of immediate concern for the Hoffmans is the pen for the Hungarian mangalitsa pigs. The infrastructure needs improvement, and the animals need more space so they can forage for grubs and acorns, among other delicacies.
Arthur, whose woolly fur is white, is also annoying Agnes. The black sow is a bit older than him, but she is pregnant – due this month with the farm’s first litter, which could produce eight to 10 piglets.
Highly prized by chefs, the meat from a mangalitsa is like the Kobe beef of pork, marbled and fatty and full of flavor.
Some of the Hoffmans’ pigs, which need to be 15 months old for processing, have already been claimed by local chefs. The farm has worked with Chris Zimmerman at Parkview’s Mirro Center and Matthew Nolot at Tolon, among others.
"It opens a new market in Fort Wayne because when you can go to your farmer and go, ‘I would like this.’ " Ben Hoffman says. "It’s having the relationship, being able to do that for the customers and letting the restaurants tell us what they want."
For now, though, the pigs are content to forage and be outside. Their woolly coats protect them from the sun and keep them warm, allowing them to withstand temperatures of 40 below zero.
When the Hoffman brothers approach, the three smallest come to the fence and meet their outstretched hands.
"They’re like a puppy dog. They lay down and let you pet their bellies," Don Hoffman says. "They are so sweet."