by Len Lear
Bill Coleman, 67, who lived in a very modest house at Sunset and Norwood Streets in Chestnut Hill from 1979 to 1994 and then, after a divorce, in an apartment on the 8400 block of Germantown Avenue behind Caruso’s Market (now Weavers Way) until 2000, is proof that you just can’t predict the future. When in Chestnut Hill, Bill never imagined he would be buying, growing and selling pigs when they weigh about 275 pounds.
Bill, who has “very fond memories of Chestnut Hill,” for the last year has been raising heritage Mangalitsa pigs (“the Kobe beef of pork”), a breed that originated in Hungary and was on the verge of extinction just over a decade ago. Developed in the mid-19th century for Hungarian royalty, they are the product of cross-breeding local Hungarian and Serbian pigs with wild boars.
The Mangalitsas are identified by their thick, wooly sheep-like coat of hair. “Here at the farm,” said Bill last week in a phone interview, “our pigs have over 150 acres of forest, pasture and mud to roam in. They live outside all year-round and happily spend their days in the sun foraging and digging for grubs.”
Bill did not grow up on a farm.Originally from Bryn Mawr, he attended Episcopal Academy, the Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a BA in history. He then worked in New York City in the financial services field until five years ago, commuting by train to and from Chestnut Hill daily at one point.
When Bill was working in New York, though, his father, died in 1976, and Bill inherited half of a farm in Lititz, Lancaster County, dating back to the colonial era, that has now been in the family for nine generations. (Bill’s daughters are the ninth.) Bill continued working in the financial field, but he was troubled by the fact that the farm was costing him $125,000 a year in taxes and upkeep.
“And the soil is not good for growing corn, so I had to do something else with the acreage.” As a result, Bill and business partner Steve Garman, 47, began planting Christmas trees on 30 acres every year. Some were sold at a property at Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike, which had been a Gulf station. Also at a dry cleaner on the Avenue and at the Top of the Hill Market. At one point a supermarket chain was buying 80 percent of the trees as well.
“And 35,000 to 40,000 people come during the Xmas season to the farm to cut the trees and take them home,” said Bill. “That’s about 10,000 families. And that has been going on for 25 years.”
However, there were still a great many acres of land being unused, so Bill’s business partner did some research and found out about the Mangalitsa pigs thrive in the kind of marshy, wooded area that they have. So they decided to put up fencing, and Steve started with eight Mangalitsa pigs he found on a farm in North Dakota. And they later bought more.
The sows, or female Mangalitsas, have their own maternity ward on the farm where they give birth to their babies. Their gestation period is only three months and three days, and each sow gives birth to five to 12 piglets at a time, so within a few weeks the farm can have about 120 new piglets. The beautifully striped piglets grow the curly wool-like fur within a few months.
The farm now has a retail store, and they are starting e-commerce. They sell lard and soap made from the pigs’ fat. Before Covid-19 they were also selling the pork to 12 restaurants but now to just four — Vernick and Cadence in Philly and Lucca and Josephine’s in Lancaster. They also have horses and wagons on the property, and visitors can come and feed the pigs. They plan to have a bar, restaurant called The Barns and live music, possibly after Labor Day. And there is a gift shop selling wreaths, swags, greens, roping, tree stands, ornaments, local crafts and other accessories. Also a Christmas Fantasy barn.
“This is the first full year for weddings,” said Bill, “and we are taking bookings, but it is weird because no one knows what will happen (because of Covid-19). Over 100 people work here during the Christmas season but only 12 otherwise, including six migrants from Mexico. I could not run the farm without them.”
Bill’s daughters — Virginia, 29, who went to Springside and lives on the farm; Lindsay, 39, of Mt. Airy, who went to Penn Charter; and Emily, 38, of Manayunk, who went to Penn Charter — and their husbands are all involved in the business. “We work on the farm every day,” said Bill, “and we are having more fun than ever.”
The farm is between the Reading/Lancaster exit and Lancaster/Lebanon exit off the Turnpike, about 50 miles from Chestnut Hill. For more details, visit elizabethfarms.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com