Yesterday I spent an uncharacteristic full day away from the farm at Cornell University for an all day “swine school.” I left at 6:00am after feeding the animals in the dark with the assistance of my trusty headlamp, and I got back exactly twelve hours later. I double fed everybody, so Jen didn’t need to feed any adult animals at lunch time, but she did feed the bottle lambs a couple of times and checked water.
The content of the swine school was excellent, but the most amazing thing about the day was the attendance. There were over 150 people there. Tro Bui, the Cornell professor that organized the event, called the level of attendance a “miracle.” Two things are clear from the level of attendance. The first is that more and more people are getting into raising hogs (one recurring conversation during the day was that people have had more calls for feeder pigs this year than they ever have before) and those people really want practical information on how to raise them — a lot of people drove quite a long way yesterday to get that information.
The primary reason that I went yesterday was to participate in the open discussion in the afternoon because one of the planned topics of that discussion was the pig marketing cooperative that I am trying to get going in order for NY (and local out of state) farmers to be able to collectively meet the needs of larger buyers. I am very glad that I made the trip to Ithaca. I really enjoyed the three formal presentations, and I really enjoyed the open discussion, but the coop idea is dead in the water. It is clear that that is not the right place for me to invest the considerable time and energy it would take to get it going. The cooperative spirit is sorely lacking in our culture. However, I have not yet given up on the idea of gathering together and organizing the pigs of local-regional farmers for sale to large buyers. My focus now is on another idea I had, the rebirth of wholesale meat markets, but in this case with strict local regional-only sourcing rules. Such an infrastructural choice will mean that the return to the farmer will be substantially lower than if that infrastructural choice had been a coop, but it will nevertheless get local-regional pigs into the hands of those large buyers, thereby substantially bolstering our burgeoning local-regional farm and food system.
While driving home from Ithaca, I thought for a long time about pig farming, primarily pasture- and hoop-building based, specifically in New York, but also more broadly in the northeast. Within the pasture-based pig farming movement, there is a strong preference for heritage breed pigs. They do better outside and they taste better than modern production hybrids. The heritage breed pig story also fits better with the pasture and hoop-building based models than does that of the modern production hybrids. Those models are about less than maximum production; they are about less than total control.
One thing that I thought of while driving was something that I have been thinking for the past few months, since the day after Christmas when I devoured Kelly Klober’s Dirt Hog that Jennifer gave me as a gift. I was extremely frustrated by Klober’s descriptions of buying pigs, either feeders, gilts, sows, or boars. Klober farms in Missouri, which is very much “pig country.” He states at one point that there were three or four purebred pig breeders on a just a few mile stretch of his road. In Klober’s world, when you buy feeder pigs, you go to the breeding farm and select your pigs out of pens, taking only those you want. Similarly, when you buy a gilt or a sow or a boar, you have options. For example, Klober talks about choosing a gilt that is in the top third of her litter, size-wise. Well, here in the Northeast, we don’t live in Klober’s world.
The Northeast, New York, specifically, is very much not pig country. Yesterday at the swine school I learned that in 2007, there were a total of 96,000 pigs (including breeders and feeders) in New York State. One of the presenters yesterday pointed out in response to the size of the New York pig population that there are at least, if not more than, 96,000 pigs in his and the neighboring county alone in Iowa. The statistics also showed that the vast majority of those 96,000 pigs live and die in the confinement system. Only a very small percentage of those pigs are purebred, and of those only a very small percentage are any of the “classic” heritage breeds such as Gloucestershire Old Spot, Large Black, Mulefoot, Poland China, Berkshire, etc., which are currently so much in vogue (and rightly so).
In New York, generally speaking, when you buy feeder pigs or breeding stock, especially heritage breed (purebred or crosses) there is no choice. You don’t select your pigs out of a pen of pigs for sale. You take what you get. If you want two purebred gilts, you don’t choose those gilts, selecting them from the top third of the litter size-wise, or selecting them based on other traits you might be interested in. You just go to the farm and pick up your two gilts when they are ready. You might not even be given the chance to see the sow or boar of your gilts, let alone their litter mates. Why are things done this way in New York? Because there aren’t any pigs in New York. Why pretend there are options when there aren’t any? We aren’t actors, we are — trying to be — pig farmers, and the reality of pig farming in New York is that there is no pig “industry” to speak of as there is in Kelly Klober’s world. There is a smattering of farmers, many of them, like me, new farmers, who have a hodgepodge of pigs that are not being bred or raised industriously, that is, with “systematic work or labor,” with an “energetic, devoted activity at any task,” with “diligence.”
One of the most frustrating realities of heritage breed pig farming in New York (again, also the Northeast, more broadly) is the way purebreds are handled. In this, there is literally no industry at all. Nearly every breeder of the most critically endangered though “popular” heritage breeds — Gloucestershire Old Spots, Large Blacks, Red Wattles — that I have spoken to considers every pig that pops out of the back end of a sow as breeding stock. There is literally, or pretty damn near it, zero selection for quality, either in terms of maintaining a breed standard or in terms of production. If the sow weans eight pigs, five gilts and three boars, then the farmer sells the five sows and the three boars as breeding stock. None of them are culled out to be raised for slaughter because they don’t make the grade. I have even seen runts sold as breeding stock. Can a runt grow up and breed? Sure, of course. Should it? No. I know of one breeder that has a sow that for two litters in a row has eaten half of her piglets. When I asked if the sow would be culled, the breeder said no, that she was still getting four pigs from her. When I asked the breeder if that sow’s pigs were being sold as breeding stock, the breeder said yes. There is no surer way to ruin a breed than by breeding the way we are right now. At some point, we are going to need to wonder after generations of this willy-nilly every pig out of the sow breeding if the breeds are even worth saving — although because pigs are so prolific even a breed that is quite far gone can be quickly recovered with industrious breeding.
On my way home, I decided to embark on a new crusade, a crusade to cultivate a New York heritage breed pig industry, to cultivate industriousness in New York heritage breed pig farmers. Doing so will require infrastructural development. It will require breeder networking. It will require importing animals from other parts of the country and other parts of the world. It will require focused and sustained educational programming.
The number of pigs and pig farmers in New York is on the rise, and many of those pigs are heritage breeds and many of those farmers are heritage breed pig farmers. If this increase is to be more than a fad and less than a disaster, we need to cultivate a cultural commitment to a heritage breed pig industry — to care, to thoughtfulness, and to diligence.
There are just a hair more than 19,000,000 people in New York State. Per capita pork consumption in the US is about fifty pounds per year. That means that on average, the people of New York eat 950,000,000 pounds of pork every year, just shy of one billion pounds, or about 9,000,000 pigs worth — a bit shy of 100 times the current number of pigs we have in the state. If we were to capture just one single percent more of that market for New York raised pigs, the number of pigs in New York would double. With no industry, however, such an increase in market share will be impossible to achieve.