Mark Florenz stands on the side porch of his farm in West Keene. It’s a cold, overcast day, and long-frozen puddles embedded with dirt dot the driveway, making for some treacherous walking.
He’s wearing boots, rugged pants and an undershirt with a heavy flannel over it, but no overcoat — a hint that perhaps he’s accustomed to being outside in this weather. He dons a sky-blue hat, knit by his mother, pulled down over his ears.
Florenz is a pig farmer — a rare breed around here, as that kind of livestock-raising has all but disappeared from New England after migrating to the Midwest more than half a century ago, he says.
“A few people raise maybe one, two, five pigs around here; maybe a few have 20, but that’s about it,” says the 41-year-old Florenz, who owns Archway Farm. The farm draws its name from its location on Arch Street, next to the old granite Boston & Maine railroad bridge, which is part of a rail trail that connects to the Pathways for Keene network.
On his farm are more than a hundred pigs — large-scale for this region, but small compared to the big industrial pork farms in the Midwest that can raise up to 8,000 animals at a time. (Parenthetically, a group of pigs is called a sounder of swine, or a passel of hogs.)
In some ways, Florenz is perhaps one’s stereotype of a New England farmer — lean, limber and laconic. But the story of what brought him to pig farming is not a conventional one.
“It certainly has been a journey for us,” he says, of himself; his wife, Alona, who is an executive at C&S Wholesale Grocers; and their two sons, Dmitri, 8, and Leo, 6.
His story starts in Maine, where he was raised on a small “gentleman’s farm” near the town of Norway, in a rural setting about an hour northwest of Portland — “the other Maine,” he calls it. His father, Russell, now a retired emergency medicine physician, and his mother, Judith, a teacher, raised a few beef cattle. His parents visit Keene frequently and help him out with the farm chores.
He graduated from Williams College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass., with a degree in mathematics. He met his wife there, and following graduation, the two moved to Colorado for a year, working odd jobs. After that, the couple headed back east, to Boston, where he took a job as an analyst at a data collection agency. They lived there for two years.
Then, in 2002, he got a job as an actuary at National Grange Mutual Insurance Co. in Keene, and the couple moved to Troy.
Insurance companies use actuaries to analyze data to assess risk, a key component to underwriting and setting premium prices. To become an actuary, one must pass a series of certification examinations, he says, as it’s considered a precise and exacting system of data analysis.
“Six months after I got to the Grange, they announced they were moving their actuary division to Jacksonville,” Fla., he said. “They asked me if I wanted to move there, and I said no.”
Back to Boston they went, where he got a job at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., while his wife enrolled in and graduated from the MBA program at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Alona got a job at C&S in Keene in 2008 and is now vice president of corporate development. Her husband began working as an actuary at Peerless Insurance Co., which by that time had become a subsidiary of Liberty Mutual.
“We wanted to live in a more rural community, and we just love Keene,” Alona told The Sentinel last year, in a publication about her and other recipients of the 2018 Trendsetter Awards. “This is such a supportive community, and our kids love it.”
The couple lived on a 20-acre property on Daniels Hill Road. There, they cultivated a sizable garden and raised a couple pigs.
Now with two young sons, they thought it would be good to have one parent with a flexible schedule who could be around home after school for their boys.
“It really was an idea that evolved. I enjoyed working with the pigs, and I felt maybe there was an opportunity raising them, since very few people in this region do that,” Florenz says.
They searched for a larger piece of land, found the 80-acre property that straddles Arch Street and bought it in 2014. “It hadn’t been a farm in generations,” Florenz says, but it appeared perfect for raising pigs.
The farm had traditionally been known as the Hathorn property, after the family that long owned it. The farmhouse where the Florenzes now live dates to the late 1700s. “It was a dairy farm once, and then just hay grew here after that; the rest was woodlands,” Florenz says.
He left his work as an actuary and began the hard process of starting a farm — a steep learning curve that involved major renovations to its buildings and erecting hog pens and shelters. He began by buying a small breeding stock of “heritage” breeds, which include Tamworth, Gloucestershire Old Spots, Berkshire and Chester White.
Archway Farm is part of a trend of CSAs (community supported agriculture), farm-to-table operations that are much smaller than the industrial agriculture operations. Florenz sells his pork at the Monadnock Food Co-op in Keene, Nature’s Green Grocer in Peterborough and the Harrisville General Store, as well as at other area stores and restaurants. A growing market are food trucks in Keene — among them Salt and Lime, which uses Archway Farm's bacon and sausage the food truck makes from Archway's pork.
“I met (Florenz) when I opened my business,” says Isaac Kaufman, Salt and Lime’s owner. “He’s a great guy and hardworking, and doing a wonderful thing for the community — helping with local farming and willing to teach and educate others about it.”
The farm also ships its products to Walden Local Meat Co. The Boston-based company promotes and distributes meats from boutique farms in New England that feature grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken, pork and lamb.
Archway Farm is known as an Animal Welfare Approved farm, meaning its products are certified as coming from farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards. It is also part of A Greener World, a nonprofit organization that audits participating farms annually based on sustainable practices and high livestock-management standards.
“I can’t compete with the price of pork you buy in Market Basket or Price Chopper,” Florenz says. “What I offer is a different kind of specialty product. If you’re shopping for price, go to the big grocery stores.”
Florenz also has a retail outlet in a building off Arch Street on his property, where his products are stored in large freezers. Payment is on the honor system, a quaint feature of perhaps a bygone era that customers have obeyed very well. “We’ve had very little loss,” he says, explaining that the honor system is cheaper than paying for someone to supervise the store.
“We’ve done amazingly well; many people buy our pork when they come to town,” he says of the farm store. “We sell a lot of pork around here.”
Florenz uses social media for almost all of his marketing.
His aim is to eventually grow the operation to a point where it can fully support his family, although, he says, “I’m not looking to have a thousand pigs.”
Meanwhile, he’s discovered a major difference between farming and an office job. “You can’t leave the farm,” he says. “You can’t just take off for the weekend.”
He’s also become an expert on pigs’ behavior. Considered by many the smartest animals among livestock, it’s not quite intelligence they possess, but an unerring instinct for survival, he claims.
“Pigs are very good at being pigs,” he says. “They know how to root for food; they know how to stay warm. They have personalities, no doubt; they are much more interactive than cows.”
Butchering is done up in Springfield, Vt., at a facility with USDA inspection, as is required if pork is raised for retail sale. He then transports the packaged pork back to Keene, in the form of hams, bacon, ribs and sausage. He’s also recently introduced artisanal salami, a dry-cured product that includes cacciatorini, finocchiona, sweet soppressata and chorizo seco, all of which are attractive because they don’t require refrigeration.
From birth to butchering a pig takes about six months.
Building the operation from the ground up has been a big task, Florenz says. “Patience is what I’ve learned; you have to be at the right place at the right time” to successfully market a product. He also credits his liberal arts education for preparing him to accommodate new ideas and adapt to new opportunities. “The beautiful thing about Williams (College) is that you come out able to do anything, confident in your abilities.”
The career change has also enhanced his view on life.
“What’s important to me is the connection to the farm, to the land, and the connection to Keene, supporting local agriculture,” he says.
Florenz is president of the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition, consisting of 80-plus organizations and 50 individual members. The coalition’s mission is to help build a sustainable food network in the region, and it sponsors activities and events that highlight local agriculture. Last June, area farmers packed into Stonewall Farm’s learning center for a community conversation with state Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper about the struggles faced by small, local farms.
Despite all of these challenges — including the stiff competition from the big farms and red tape from government agencies — he says he’d swap his new career for no other.
“I love the diversity of having a small business,” he says, “and I love being outside in nature.”
This article has been altered to correct a point pertaining to the Salt and Lime food truck.