Pork. Lord help me. Pigs. I must be certifiable, because birthing hogs has been such a massive disruption and fiscal drain. But education is never free, and along the way I have shaped my process in a way that I believe guarantees you the best, most consistent and delicious pork for your table. Pork that is noticeably different from the pork you get in the supermarket. And pork that allows pigs the joy of being pigs.
I am at heart a heritage breed supporter. But in our modern world of branding, and trendquesting, being a true heritage breed farm is harder than ever.
The words a heritage breed farmer relies upon to differentiate their livestock from commodity livestock are constantly under attack by Big Food and Big Ag, and even other small, sustainable farmers. Words are hijacked daily by commercial operations who wish to capitalize upon the story and cache of the heritage breeds, yet retain the commodity production benefits of industrial style production. The conundrum is real.
True heritage breeds are and always will be undesirable if profitability is the single goal. They tend to be slower growing, and individuals are not as uniform in size as commodity “improved” breeds. Commodity prices for industrial hog farms simply do not allow for anything that adds one more day to the expense sheet. Yet commodity producers know that certain words, sadly not protected from misuse, are marketing magic, and really put the ability of small farms like mine to differentiate themselves at risk.
Many commercial growers evaluate pigs only by their grow out rate. The value of a hog is simply numbers, percentages and weights. The leaner the better.
Here, though, my purposes are different. My farm is about flavor, and animal happiness, not output. I choose breeds based upon their suitability for my climate and land, and also their temperament and mothering abilities. And the holy grail here is not the most pounds in the fastest time, but the most delicious foods and doing our part to contribute to the work of preserving valuable old-fashioned genetics.
As I mentioned, my hogs have been a journey. And along the way, I took a bit of a hard left from my original plan. Which has serendipitously led me to a breeding recipe that I feel is a win/win, allowing me to support heritage breeding programs, while also improving the quality of your experience.
My original plan was to raise purebred, registered Gloucestershire Old Spots, just as I do with the American Milking Devon Cattle. The spots are happy-go-lucky pigs, less aggressive, known for their mothering abilities, and delicious, buttery meat. They are a lard hog, which appealed to my old-fashioned ways, as I love using lard as a healthful, sustainable cooking fat.
But part of being easy-going, is that sometimes, you can be too easy going. My first boar, Boaris, was very handsome, and easy to manage, but honestly, just not that into my pretty girls. We lost a lot of valuable time waiting for Boaris with his fancy British pedigree to grow up, then waiting for Boaris to do his job, and to be honest, it took me some time to accept the fact that Boaris just wasn’t going to do his job, like ever.
Budget depleted, and clock ticking, a friend offered me a young Duroc boar they picked up at auction, and without a better plan or time to lose, I accepted. That was a turning point, as three months, three weeks and three days later, piglets started showing up on a regular basis.
And, just like that. I learned something new.
While I loved the juicy, buttery, rosy Old Spot pork, I had been slightly disappointed in the size of their shoulders, hams and the excess fattiness of the bacon. I had come to expect that those were just the compromises I would be making for the flavor. But amazingly, my Duroc with his bodybuilder physique, added the big shoulders and hams, my bacons were suddenly leaner, but the flavor and rosy juiciness was the same.
Reading Pre-World War farming books as I like to do, I discovered that my accidental find was actually planned practice by the great British hog breeders of the day. They would pair a “refined” pedigreed boar to a more coarse sow for the very reason of producing excellent pork.
Their work in maintaining genetics and pedigreed breeds was a separate line running parallel to their pork production. Which makes perfect sense.
The pairing for Auburn Meadow Farm hogs is not random. It is purebred GOS sow to purebred Duroc sire. That results in a consistent hog, nearly as uniform as a commodity hog. They still take longer to finish on pasture – though I am pretty confident if they were confined my cross would gain at acceptable rates for commodity production. As my pasture rotations improve, the timing gets more and more consistent, but here I don’t press, they get to take their time, as the extra time adds flavor to the meat.
Another aspect I have tweaked along the way is my feed ration. My goals are to build a better local food shed for the future, not simply to jump onto a trend in the now. I wish to work with local growers and feed mills to demonstrate my commitment to buying from them as they transition towards nonGMO and certified Organic options.
Transitioning from the local feed mill’s cheapest option to the verified nonGMO I use now has increased my costs tremendously. But, I feel it has also been a solid step towards aligning my practices with my farming & food shed goals and the byproduct has been a brightness and consistency in the flavor of the pork, which was previously lacking.
So today, while I love the ability to supplement my pig’s diet with seasonal treats like black walnuts, garden produce, apples, pumpkins and fodder beets, making sure that those items are supplemental extras and not relying upon foraging in place of a balanced ration in order to bring my costs down, is an important part of the recipe too.
In my quest to build a modern heritage food shed, I am very proud to offer our Auburn Meadow hogs. They represent perfectly my desire to marry the old with the new. Not too lean, yet not too fat, healthful, and delicious, I am pleased with the path we have set upon.
And, as we continue improving our grazing areas to widen the diversity of forage, fruits and nuts freely available to the hogs, and to improve the joyfulness of their lives, our pork will only continue to improve.
We certainly hope you agree. If you have not tried our pork, look for it this summer at the Old Time Farm tent and/or buying club at the Bloomfield Saturday Market, the Bellevue Farmers Market on Wednesdays, on a walk in basis from our partner FitAmerica PA in the North Hills, or contact me to make arrangements to buy on farm.