To Save These Pigs, Ky. Farmer Says We Have To Eat Them
Robertson County has the smallest population of any county in the state of Kentucky, and it's the only one, word has it, without a stoplight.
So it's an unlikely place to find a campaign to keep the food system more genetically diverse. But that is exactly what's happening on a small farm owned by Travis Hood, called Hood's Heritage Hogs.
Hood raises Red Wattle pigs, a heritage breed that the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit working to protect breeds and poultry from extinction, says is threatened. In 1999, there were fewer than 50 of these pigs left in the U.S. Today, that number is back up to about 6,000.
"As counterproductive as it may seem, to save these pigs we have to eat them," says Hood.
Hood is part of a small but growing movement across the country of small producers and Slow Food advocates working to hold on to biodiversity by building demand for heritage breed meats. It doesn't hurt that Red Wattle meat is known to be exceptionally juicy with a rich texture.
The origins of this tasty breed are fuzzy; some believe the pig came from the Iberian Peninsula, but first appeared in the U.S. in eastern Texas when a farmer found two in the woods and began breeding them. The Red Wattle Hog Association says there's another, unverified story that's been passed down: Decades ago, a pig thief infiltrated a Swiss veterinary school, stole three Red Wattle piglets and snuck them into the U.S.
The pigs are known to be good-natured and can be as friendly as golden retrievers. They grow on average to about 600 to 800 pounds and range from a strawberry blonde to a deep cherry color. Wattles, pieces of cartilage 1 to 5 inches long, hang from either side of their necks like fleshy dreadlocks. (The wattles don't have a function, as far as anyone can tell.)
Warren Beeler of Kentucky's Department of Agriculture says what Hood is doing is critical for pig production everywhere.
"You don't want to lose any genetics, because when you do, you lose them forever," he says.
According to Beeler, the Red Wattle is used to raising its babies outside and braving the elements. That makes it genetically tougher than an industrially raised pig that lives its life in a pen. That toughness is important, says Beeler, if farmers want to cross-breed.
But Gregg Rentfrow, a meat scientist at the University of Kentucky, says raising the Red Wattle doesn't generate much meat to feed people, because heritage breeds take longer to get to market than conventional pigs.
"We're faced with in the next 25 to 50 years of how we're going to feed 9 billion people, and the ability to get an animal to market faster not only helps us feed those 9 billion people, but it helps us do it more cheaply than before," says Rentfrow.
Hood started raising Red Wattles five years ago. At that time he was a golf-course superintendent, a career he'd had for 16 years. Then came job cuts.
"It went from a salaried position with benefits to an hourly position with no benefits," he says. "Well, I thought, the least we can do is feed ourselves. So I got a couple of hogs and then it started to snowball."
Now, he lives on 78 acres with a four-generation blended version of Modern Family, all committed to making the farm work.
It's not an easy life. Over the winter of the polar vortex, Hood hauled 20-gallon buckets of water for the pigs to drink three times a day at 20 below zero degrees Fahrenheit. One windy night, the roof folded up like a gum wrapper. Hood's mother-in-law has been keeping everything afloat through her full-time job as a nurse.
Hood has been lucky. So far, he's escaped the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that has killed nearly 8 million pigs since May 2013.
He sells his meat at the Lexington Farmers Market and straight off the farm, and he turned a profit of $100 for the first time in February. In June, that profit was up to $1,600. Hood is hopeful he can continue to make a go of it.
"If we weren't doing this," Hood says of the Red Wattle, "they wouldn't exist."
Leslie Guttman is a freelance journalist based in Lexington, Ky.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, many people grow up knowing the story of "Charlotte's Web" - a spider with literary talent saves a pig named Wilbur from the slaughterhouse. Now from Robertson County, Kentucky we have the story of two pigs from an endangered breed. The catch here is that experts say in order to save pigs like them, they need to be eaten. Leslie Guttman reports.
TRAVIS HOOD: Come here, buddy.
LESLIE GUTTMAN, BYLINE: Luther, a Red Wattle pig, is stuck in a mud pit - all 700 pounds of him. Farmer Travis Hood hoses water on Luther while his 9-year-old daughter, Taylor, sprinkles feed on the ground to try and motivate the pig to climb out. Luther and his fellow Red Wattles are a threatened breed according to a group called The Livestock Conservancy. There's only about 6,000 of them in the United States. Hood is one of a small group of farmers raising them.
HOOD: Fifteen-twenty years ago, there were less than 50 of this breed of hog. And because of slow food movements, it has made a comeback. So because they're desirable and finding themselves into restaurants and farmers' markets, you're giving us a reason to raise them.
GUTTMAN: That slurping is Lucy - a 650-pound sow eating lunch. Lucy's 5 years old and the farm matriarch. She's earth-toned with the trademark wattles. Those are pieces of cartilage about four inches long that hang down from either side of her neck. This tiny county seems an unlikely place to find a campaign for genetic diversity in our country's food system. But Warren Beeler, of the state's Department of Agriculture, says what Hood is doing is critical.
WARREN BEELER: You don't want to lose any genetics because when you do, you lose it forever. And so the Red Wattles - they take a step back in terms of being those kinds of hogs that will survive very well out in the open, where the hogs that we've got now probably couldn't handle that. That's a degree of toughness.
GUTTMAN: Gregg Rentfrow, a meat scientist at the University of Kentucky, says Red Wattles don't add much to global food production because heritage pig breeds take longer to get to market than conventionally raised pigs.
GREGG RENTFROW: When we start to solve the problem of how we're going to feed 9 billion people, you know, we have to make sure that not only we were able to feed all these people but we're able to feed them cheaply.
KATHY WATKINS: Just looking to see what you have.
HOOD: Three kinds of bacon.
GUTTMAN: And Red Wattle meat isn't cheap. At this farmers' market in Lexington, Kathy Watkins buys some of Hood's bacon for $13 a pound - almost double what she'd pay for bacon in a supermarket.
WATKINS: It's got a nice color.
GUTTMAN: She fries it up for breakfast the next morning and says it tastes different from regular bacon.
GUTTMAN: How is it?
WATKINS: This is delicious. It's got kind of a deeper - a smoky kind of a taste going.
GUTTMAN: Hood says this year he sold almost three and a half tons of pork products at farmers' markets and to restaurants. The farm turned a profit for the first time. It's the payoff from a risk he took five years ago when he left a 16-year career as a golf course superintendent.
HOOD: It went from a salary position with full benefits down to an hourly position, no benefits. So I thought, well, at the very least we can feed ourselves. So we got a couple of hogs to, you know, supply our own meat. Well, it started to snowball.
GUTTMAN: Hood's entire family works on the 78-acre farm, but his daughter, Taylor, is very different from Fern, the girl in "Charlotte's Web." Fern wanted to save Wilbur from the slaughterhouse - not Taylor.
TAYLOR HOOD: I honestly think it's good for just us - that the world - because fresh pork is good pork.
GUTTMAN: Hood is a little more sentimental - about Lucy, at least. His favorite pig. His first pig. He says it'll be a sad day when he drives her to the slaughterhouse sometime in the next several months.
HOOD: It takes a certain mindset in order to do it 'cause you do get attached to them.
GUTTMAN: Luther has more time on the farm - another two years or so. And then Hood will sell him for breeding.
Meanwhile, Luther's still trying to extricate himself from the mud. Hood shrugs and moves on to more farm chores. He says when Luther gets hungry enough, he'll stop complaining and muster the energy to climb out. Leslie Guttman, Lexington, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.