Less than a week old, the babies are a pale blush, seven huddled in a corner between the heat lamp and their mother’s snout. In an adjoining pen, five week-olds roam independently of the sow, feeding and lounging, black and white with wiggly tails and sharp hooves. “Sometimes they get stuck, sometimes they don’t want to start breathing right away. We’ll wipe their mouth, shake them,” says farmer Marc Filion, who will wake up every two hours throughout the night when he knows a sow is about to give birth.
Marc, who runs Keegan-Filion farm in Walterboro with his wife, Annie, and son and daughter-in-law Jesse and Amy, knows every animal on his farm, whether he’s helping them catch their first breath or lighting their heat lamp.
At Keegan-Filion they raise chickens, turkeys, four breeds of swine, and cattle in a humane environment — it’s exhausting, 24/7, 365 days-a-year work with morning, afternoon, and evening chores. There are easier ways to raise animals, without fresh straw laid down every day, without fans in every pig pen and a system of moving the chicken houses daily so they can roam and graze on new patches of grass. Marc says when he’s lucky he gets two-to-three hours on Sundays between his farm duties to relax. He and Annie haven’t taken a vacation in six years.
But their grass-fed, antibiotic/hormone-free product speaks for itself, and area chefs have been lauding the Filions’ methods for over a decade now. As farm-to-table becomes rote and the restaurant industry toes the line between quality and quantity, Marc continues to sell 250-300 chickens a week, and hasn’t raised his price of pork since 2006.
Marc says they used to raise swine and sell them to Smithfield, but stopped in the mid-’90s, switching their focus to pasture chickens. It wasn’t until 2005 when former Cypress and Artisan Meat Share chef/owner Craig Deihl (now at Hello Sailor on Lake Norman near Charlotte) started “hounding” Marc that he says he considered expanding.
“Craig said, ‘Man, these are great chickens, have you ever thought about hogs?’ I said well we used to raise hogs. He said, ‘Well raise them again!'” After some back and forth, Deihl convinced Marc to invest in a few swine. At Cypress’ 2006 Wine + Food dinner, Marc hand delivered the hog, with Deihl exclaiming, “that’s the best hog I’ve ever seen — if you keep raising them, I’ll keep buying them.'”
And so he did.
“I come out here maybe once a month at this point,” says Farmstead Co. chef Blair Machado. We’re admiring the pink piglets, and it’s hard to hear over the mother’s guttural snorts — she’s trying to get on her feet. “I try to help out, learn as much as I can so I can have conversations with customers, it’s about putting the farm back in the middle of it.” He looks to Marc, “When she gives birth, do you separate them?”
“They’ll go right up to her right after they’re birthed and as they start filling their bellies they’ll migrate over and warm up under the light,” says Marc. Machado nods, tucking this information away for later use — perhaps at his next Thursday pop-up at The Daily, or a weekend showing at Workshop. Recent Farmstead menu items read like a love letter to Keegan-Filion: “half/full rack Keegan-Filion Farm pork ribs with signature BBQ rub, bourbon molasses vinegar sauce, hatch green chile slaw; Keegan-Filion pork, chicken, beef dogs; Keegan-Filion porchetta cured with parmesan-lemon salt, garlic confit, basil.”
Machado originally moved to Charleston to be the A.M. butcher at FIG, “that’s where I actually started butchering, I met the Filions in 2011 — Jesse was the first delivery guy I met, I helped him unload suckling pigs.”
Now, the farmer and chef are more than industry acquaintances, they’re friends. “Jesse and I talk three to four times a week, no exaggeration,” says Machado. “Not only about business, like, ‘Hey, I have this idea.’ There’s a camaraderie on the farmer/butcher side. He’s opened up my eyes to things I’ve never even thought of. Seeing things like this versus, you know, seeing it being brought in from the restaurant side.”
Machado hopes to one day turn Farmstead Co., which he started focusing on full time only about six months ago, into a real-deal butcher shop with a small breakfast and lunch menu (he’ll use his Park Cafe experience for that, he says). “It’s not what I ever thought I’d be doing as a chef, opening a butcher shop, but it’s also the first time in my career that I feel like I’m on the right track.”
While Machado has a very specific vision in mind, friend and fellow chef Andy McLeod is sourcing local products, like whole cows from Keegan-Filion, on a much larger scale. McLeod is the executive chef at Dockery’s, a huge restaurant/brewery/music venue on Daniel Island that serves dinner every night, lunch Mon.-Sat., and Sunday brunch. McLeod has been ordering from Keegan-Filion for years, from when he was at The Lot and also when he was at Indaco.
“Andy gets it,” says Marc. “He knows he can buy a whole animal and do all these things for about as cheap as buying it from Sysco — the thing is he has to put the work into breaking it down.”
Putting in work is the name of the game for these chefs and farmers — we visit the chickens, who Marc says are not particularly happy in the heat. “They look like they’re dying but they’re just panting because they don’t sweat,” he explains. “When they’re doing that, they won’t eat, and when they won’t eat, they don’t gain weight,” adds Jesse. The birds are night blind, which means when it’s dark they lay down and sleep, so they’re only feeding during dawn and dusk in the summer. “They eat like crazy as soon as the sun comes up,” says Marc. “They’re out there it’s red with chickens and when it starts to get really hot they move in the house, just like we would.”
Keegan-Filion chooses to raise slow growing chickens which take 10-12 weeks to get to size, where commercial houses’ Cornish crosses will grow in six weeks. “We’re taking twice as long but they have a whole lot more flavor,” says Marc. Commercial operations will also have fully air-conditioned chicken coops with feed and water on a programmed timer. Marc says those birds eat, drink, and lay down, never moving more than 10 feet their whole lives.
Every day, except maybe on Christmas, Marc says they move the chicken houses. “We have 13 houses, it’ll take us three-and-a-half hours a day with two people this time of year, we run about 150-200 birds per house.”
Three-and-a-half hours of the day just moving chickens across a field. That’s on top of the hours spent delivering meat across the tri-county, Hilton Head, Bluffton, Beaufort, and Columbia. On top of the daily chores, the hours spent at farmers markets on the weekend, the time spent traveling twice a week to Kingstree, where the animals are humanely slaughtered. We back out of the chicken house, heading toward the boars rolling in mud out back. Machado grins, “I’ve got chicken parmesan running this weekend.”