Meet Your Meat: Heritage Breed Pigs
Huge factory farms, where animals are crammed together and raised in shockingly poor conditions, have become the norm, and it’s time for that to change. Small-scale farming is making a comeback, reintroducing heritage breeds and sustainable practices back into the American agricultural landscape.
At Freedom Farms, the focus is always on cultivating food in the most simple, natural way possible and sharing that goodness with the community. The way they raise pigs is no exception.
Early in the morning, a light mist settles over the steep pastures of Freedom Farms. It rained last night, and there’s thick mud at the foot of the green hills. The pigs seem downright happy about this fact, and even happier to see Pete King. Pete is wading through the mud carrying two heavy buckets of feed. He climbs the fence to deliver breakfast to the herd and leans down to scratch a couple sows along the ridge of the spine. “Pigs are smart animals,” says Pete, “and ours are friendly, too.”
The Kings have raised pigs before, but this year the operation has expanded dramatically. There are currently 40 pigs on the farm, many of which are roaming the hillside above us. Portable fencing separates the hillside here into five sections, and the Kings plan to clear out additional densely wooded land that is currently choked with underbrush to create more space for the future herd. Pete gestures to the current hog pasture and says “This land is too hilly to farm crops. We farm grass here, and the pigs help keep the ground happy and bring it to its full potential, just like the chickens we’ve got at the top of the hill. You’ve got to keep them moving, or they’ll grind it into dirt, but if you do it right they’ll help to clear the land and enrich the soil. This pasture looks good. It’s pleasing to the eye.”
The pigs are also pleasing to the eye. Some are black, some are spotted, and two of the sows are surrounded by piglets jostling for milk. “Keeping the pigs on the pasture is great for their health.” says Pete. “We haven’t had any health problems or sick pigs. They get their minerals out of the ground, which is great for them. The pigs are healthier and the meat tastes much better when they are kept on pasture.”
The morning is quiet and peaceful, the pigs are happy, and it’s hard to believe that the way the Kings raise them is revolutionary. It seems so natural, and that’s the point. Domestic pigs are descended from wild boars and like all pigs, the wild boar is omnivorous and spends a lifetime foraging for roots, nuts, mushrooms and berries. Pigs have been domesticated for thousands of years and although traditional hog farming often involved a pen, pigs were also allowed to forage in orchards, gardens and fields. This practice helped to clean and fertilize the fields after harvest and also improved the flavor and quality of the pork. Then came the factory farm, and everything changed.
In a startling exposé published in Rolling Stone magazine, Jeff Tietz profiled Smithfield Farms, the largest pork processor in the world, and what he found was horrifying. Smithfield’s hogs spend their entire lives packed tightly into pens inside “barns” made of corrugated metal, where temperatures often soar above 90 degrees. There is no earth, no sunlight, and no bedding. Pregnant sows are often confined to 2 by 6 foot crates that prevent them from turning on their side, forcing them to sleep on their chests.
Pigs are normally sociable animals, but under the pressure of confinement farming they often turn on each other violently. Tails are routinely docked to prevent the pigs from biting them off. Diseases spread quickly in such cramped quarters, and the pigs are loaded with preventative antibiotics, growth hormones and steroids. The floor is slatted so that hog manure can fall through into holding pits dug beneath the pens. The air is saturated with gasses from the manure and agricultural chemicals, and giant fans run constantly. If the fans stop, the pigs die. Every so often pig farmers do, too.
A massive quantity of manure is produced by large-scale confinement hog operations, and the manure can be dangerous. Lagoons of manure have flooded and invaded streams, rivers, and lakes, causing toxic algae blooms and fish die-offs. Over the past few years, several farms in the Midwest have experienced large-scale manure explosions, including one that destroyed a barn and killed 1,500 animals.
The horrific realities of factory farms that raise hogs are exactly opposite of how we operate. Here at Freedom Farms, the pig manure is beneficial to the earth, and the earth is beneficial to the pigs. The manure improves the organic matter content of the pastures. Meanwhile the pigs are foraging and rooting through the pastures, and also through the compost, which speeds up the composting cycle. Their supplemental feed is not medicated and it is antibiotic, growth hormone, and steroid free. It is also unusual in that it is free of animal byproducts, which are often used along with steroids and growth hormone to fatten pigs up faster.
“Our pigs are out eating grass, chewing roots, running through the fields.” says Joe King. “Their minds are happy as well as their body. We’re not focused on fattening up a pig; we want to raise a happy healthy being.”
A distant motor sounds and Dan King appears, speeding down the gravel driveway in a gator, a dog bounding beside him. The back of the gator is piled high with bags of pig feed, and he laughs as he backs up to avoid a particularly muddy patch. He pulls up to a water tank and tosses a heavy feed bag onto his shoulder. “These guys are a little shy,” he tells me. “We just moved them away from their mother three days ago.”
Inside a three sided shed on deep piled straw are the young weaner pigs. When they’re larger, they’ll move out to the pastures to graze. Right now, they’re safe from coyotes and other predators, and they are learning to avoid the thin strands of portable electric fencing that make rotational pastured pig farming possible.
They tumble towards Dan, who grins. He leans down to scratch one behind the ears, saying “The key is to keep them calm, even when we are moving them around. We want our pigs to be comfortable with us. Pigs are really smart, and really sensitive. They’re healthier when they are calmer.”
The goal of the pork operation at Freedom Farms is to raise healthy, happy and delicious pigs. In order to create that perfect pig, the brothers are working on creating a breed of their own. They are currently raising heritage breeds, however, with a superior diet, pastured and free lifestyle, and selective breeding; they plan to have a special Freedom Farms breed within a couple generations. Luckily, according to Pete King, “Our boar is the epitome of the perfect pig. You can’t get more perfect than that guy.”
This article was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Freedom Farms Magazine.