Digging In: Pete King’s Pigs Feast On The Fruits Of The Forest
Deep in the forest, Pete King has built a house of straw and twigs. The Lean-To Pig Shelter he’s just constructed is made of large, sturdy branches, a deep bed and roof of fallen leaves, and a generous heaping of hay.
It may look like it’s been built by a pig in a folktale, but Pete is proud of how solid it is. He tested the roof by running across it and jumping vigorously. After it held up to that test, he was satisfied that the shelter will serve the purpose of keeping his pastured forest pigs warm and dry. Putting pigs out in the woods has a number of mutual benefits for both farmers and pigs. Pigs are natural rooters. They use their noses to investigate the world around them. A pig given access to the wild will spend 75% of the day rooting, searching for both food and excitement in the world around them. Even with commercial food available, pigs still choose to spend their time rooting if they are allowed to do so. In fact, several studies of hogs kept in confinement operations with cement or slatted floors have proven that the lack of opportunity for rooting causes pigs to turn upon each other, biting at the tails and ears of other pigs in their pens.
The rooting behavior of pigs is not only important for the health of the pigs; it also has significant benefits for forest management. Pete’s long-term goal is to clear out the underbrush in the forest, opening up the space between the trees. His pigs are hard at work right now, rooting up brambles while exploring their surroundings.
Pigs are naturally curious, and love to explore the world through their noses. A pig’s snout is both strong and sensitive. Pigs have a sense of smell that is more than 100 times keener than humans, and their noses are strong enough to dig deep beneath the ground uprooting edible roots and tubers. For this reason, pigs have been used for thousands of years to seek for valuable truffles located up to three feet beneath the soil.
Here in Western Pennsylvania, Pete’s pigs aren’t searching for truffles. Right now, the main treasure that they are seeking is the partially buried crop of acorns falling from the trees around them. The bounty of nuts available in the fall has been used to fatten pigs for thousands of years. Farmers herded pigs into the forest to forage for “mast”, a term which refers to the fruit of trees including acorns, hickory nuts, and beechnuts.
This tradition of forest-finished pork is still practiced in the Mediterranean and various parts of Europe. In fact, one of the most famous hams in the world, known as Pata Negra, is a Spanish ham from the Black Iberian pig raised in the oak forests on the border of Portugal. These black-hooved pigs spend the last six months of their life in the fresh air of the forest, eating 15-20 pounds of acorns a day. After slaughter, they are hung and cured for 12-36 months. The ham produced from these pigs is legendary, offering a complex blend of sweet, nutty, earthy flavor and retailing for over $200 a pound on the rare occasions it is shipped to the United States.
Luckily, it’s not necessary to spend $200 a pound to experience the unique experience of eating an ethical and epicurean ham raised in fresh air and the fruits of the forest. You can find it at the Farmers Market. For an even better deal, invest now in a ½ pig to stock your larder for the winter. Stop by at the Farmers Market for more information.
Do you have a passion for pigs? Send your suggestions to contact@FreedomFarmsPA.com and your story could appear in our next issue!
Written By Kate Stapleton