Q&A: Pig farmer pivots by inviting glampers to the farm

PIVOT: Since 2017, Catherine Topel, featured, and her husband, Rick, have operated Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa pig farm. Amid economic challenges during the onset of COVID-19, the operation pivoted, and the Topels invited campers and glampers to vacation alongside the property’s pigs. Photo courtesy of Topel

“We traded the salt for the mud,” jokes Catherine Topel, who co-owns Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa pig farm with her husband, Rick, in Haywood County.

Prior to their arrival in Western North Carolina in 2017, the pair traversed the high seas as yacht captains. “Yachting, just like any other, is a job,” says Catherine. “I mean, it’s certainly glamorous, and being on the water is extraordinary. But, we wanted to have our own canvas to create our own business. And we just wanted the idea of owning land.”

The Topels settled in Waynesville to be near Catherine’s parents. Even though neither of them had experience in agriculture, they took a chance on farming 100 acres. “When we bought the land here, we made a concerted effort to think about what we could raise that would be a niche market. What can we do entirely differently?” she says. They chose livestock over produce and built their Mangalitsa brand from the ground up, researching how to raise and process the animals.

Soon after launching in 2017, the pair began dealing almost exclusively with restaurant orders. But demand came to a halt when pandemic-related shutdowns temporarily closed a large swath of the food service industry. At the time, the Topels were left with 20 processed pigs and no customers.

In an effort to recoup their loss, Catherine attended a webinar offering entrepreneurs ideas for pivoting their businesses amid the pandemic. During the session, Catherine learned about HipCamp, a company that connects travelers with unique outdoor camping and glamping experiences.

While the Topels continue to operate their pig farm, they’ve since invited guests to camp (and glamp) on their property as well. “Every day we have campers coming and going,” Catherine says. “Everyone has been delightful.”

Xpress sat down with Catherine to discuss how the couple’s interest in pork chops turned into a new career and what it has been like welcoming campers onto the farm.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Xpress: What do you like about offering your land to campers?

Topel: It has been not only profitable, it’s offered us a social aspect that we just didn’t realize we were missing. Everyone has been appreciative, supportive, enthusiastic and complimentary. We keep our farm really neat and tidy, and we prefer to cut and mow everything instead of spraying to eliminate weeds. We try to convey to the campers how directly positive their impact is. There’s no middleman. They can see the animals, and they can see the meat that those animals yield for us. And they can see that it’s just the two of us running the farm.

What drew you to the Mangalitsa pigs?

We occasionally had celebrity chefs visit [the yachts we previously worked on], and they would cook us these amazing dinners, including Mangalitsa pork chops. Honestly, that’s what inspired us.

I watched that pork chop get cooked on an open grill without ever being covered. I thought “Oh my gosh, I don’t think anything could be more dry than a pork chop coming off an open grill.”

But then when it was served, we could literally cut into the meat with a fork. It was just incredible. The chef explained that this particular [Hungarian] breed had not had the fat bred out of it. That was such an interesting concept. I am very into traditional diets. I cotton more toward cooking with lard and real butter, using them as spreads and dressings.

Do you have any other animals?

We have three horses that we call “yard art.” We have two wild donkeys that were brought in from the Bureau of Land Management. We have four miniature donkeys that we use for guest interaction — this is the first year we’ve had them.

We started camping last year, and the campers want to pet the pigs. I do give a little Mangalitsa tour. But pigs and the public? It doesn’t work. They’re heavy. They bite. They don’t have manners. They’re not really a cuddly animal. So we purchased the miniature donkeys to fill that need for our campers and stuff like that. And then we have household dogs and cats. So we’re probably at 50-something animals on the farm.

Do you have any funny or unusual stories about the campers and the pigs?

I’m thrilled to say that I do not. What you want is a long, boring career. There’s no stress with all of that. The camping has been fantastic. It’s created resiliency for our farm. The campers are utilizing lands that are not otherwise in production. Our pigs are between the campsites, as well as on a hillside that the campers cannot access, but where they can view them. It’s been very positive. I think it helps people to be exposed to them. They enjoy it. They want their children to see where their food comes from. It’s good for them to see the paddocks.

Pigs are very destructive. Basically, we’re encouraging natural behaviors. We let them root. We’ve got holes that are 3 feet deep, that these pigs go into to wallow. You know, we would love the whole place to look like Churchill Downs, but we just try to do what’s best for the animal. We don’t inconvenience the animal to convenience ourselves.

What are your recommendations for those aspiring to host glampers?

The glamping component is new for us this year. For it, we built two decks on the riverbank on really high ground, and we put up the canvas tent. We provide the bed and some amenities. There is an investment.

I always say ‘buy nice, buy once.’ But if you’re not sure you want to be into glamping, you could just buy a tent that might last you one season. Also, I would make sure that you have a spot that is quiet. People who are glamping want peace, tranquility, remoteness and accessibility. So if your most beautiful spot is right by your barn, it’s not going to work. You’re going to only disappoint and frustrate the people who are glamping. Have a separate area where you’re not likely to drive by it frequently. And, if you’re going to build a deck, materials are very expensive.

Only pursue what you enjoy and what you’re willing to maintain. [As former yacht captains,] we’ve been in hospitality for decades. It’s easy for us to think three or four steps ahead. Are you prepared? Do you have techniques for quick cleaning? Those are the kinds of things where many people might be overwhelmed. Purchasing high-quality sheets, or four sets of sheets for each bed takes the stress level way down. …

There are also certain regulations that come with glamping, believe it or not. I learned that if I have more than four glamping sites, I have to be inspected for lodging. If the site is over 400 square feet, I would have to have sprinkler systems and a fire access road. So there are regulations out there. So don’t think that just because your operation is small that these regulations don’t apply to you.


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