| January 17, 2008:
Those of us who were there in the ‘90s when hog prices
dropped to 8 cents a pound felt we were at the end of life as
we had known it as independent swine producers. We had everything
but a British military band playing “The World Turned
They were indeed hard times, but the
century has turned, and guess what—so has the set of
opportunities facing enterprising, small-scale hog producers
throughout the Heartland.
Small hog herds are coming back, or, more accurately, they
are becoming profitable again after never really going away.
They are just easing out of the brushy fencerows and the far
corners. It is a very different situation now, and I’m
seeing hogs being held by very purpose-driven, niche-market-oriented
Certainly the big players are established and seemingly quite
busy trying to devour each other. Some see them as looming
over the landscape forever, or, more likely, until labor issues,
environmental problems or public resistance—separately
or collectively—cause them to seek greener (less-regulated)
pastures in the Third World. Indeed, there is a belief that
Big Pork is already primed to jump to Central or South America
as soon as transport issues are resolved.
While here, they need a modest number of smaller producers
in place to give their business that all-important family-farm
veil of respectability. They have done this, in part, through
contract production and leaving a few, very small market outlets
untapped. All too often it seems that all they use contract
production for is to shift numbers to circumvent CAFO environmental
regulations based on animal numbers in one location.
A body of truly independent livestock producers has remained
and even grown recently. Common to nearly all of them is pork
production that is not a singular focus of the farm, but rather
one enterprise fitted into a diversified, integrated system.
These specialized hog raisers are:
- Producing precisely to the needs of their markets.
- Quite responsive to, and interactive with, these markets.
- Very often using purebred genetics exclusively.
- Investing as much time in marketing as in production.
When kept in modest numbers, hogs can fit in just about anywhere
in the country. Many farmers are finding their markets simply
by producing products to once again fill pork’s historical
role in their region’s foodways.
There is a history of pork consumption and production of
a very specific and distinct nature in New England, the Eastern
Seaboard, the South, the Southeast, the Midwest and among
numerous ethnic populations. This demand is built on pork
of a savor and taste now sadly lacking in the factory-farm
Research documents that pork from Duroc, Tamworth, Chester
White and Berkshire breeds of swine tastes different, and
has different eating qualities, compared to pork from the
hothouse hybrids now widely used in confinement production.
Likewise, pork produced out of doors has a different texture
and finish, and projects something quite akin to the terroir
now associated with certain American wines, i.e. special qualities
of a food that derive from a specific location’s set
of environmental characteristics, including soil qualities,
solar incidence, day length, wind, rainfall and other traits
of the place.
Outdoor pork also appeals to the informed consumer’s
sense of humaneness, as well as social and ecological concerns.
The pork from Grandpa’s hogs was the good stuff, and
is what is wanted again by the majority of meat consumers
who think about what they eat.
To this end, small producers are collectively and individually
producing and marketing pork based on the taste it derives
from its genetic background and the manner in which it is
produced. Production-based marketing labels include additive-
or antibiotic-free, crate-free, open-range, organic, high-percentage
Tamworth and 100-percent Berkshire.
Berkshire pork—with its distinctive color and marbling
(yes, marbling) quality—has great value in the Pacific
Rim. One Midwestern group is doing extensive testing of the
meat and animals it sells to this market to assure these customers
are getting exactly what they are paying a premium to receive.
Recently, a group of Missouri chefs were supplied with pork
from a hog of one of the truly minor Red Wattle breed. They
found it to impart a most unique set of qualities to their
This kind of full-flavored pork cannot be had in even the
toniest commercially supplied stores. Traffic is limited to
farmer-direct sales to adventurous consumers or specialty
chefs or shop owners. By having their animals processed at
small, local USDA-approved processing plants, farmers can
afford to legally supply a range of finished pork cuts and
products to eager families and chefs.
Whole-hog sausage works
A popular farmer-marketed product in my area of Missouri
is whole-hog pork sausage, made from the entire carcass, less
the ribs. Of modest cost, it’s conducive to uniform
pricing and is a well-accepted, traditional pork product that
can be used for every meal. It’s lean and desirable,
as it contains hams, loins and shoulders. A local abattoir
seasons it in several styles, processes it bulk (1- and 2-pound
packs) or as links (like bratwurst), and flash freezes it
for easy transport and sale to farmers’ markets, on-farm
markets or stores.
Regulations pertaining to slaughterhouses, packaging and
outdoor sale vary from state to state, but your county or
regional Extension agents can help you locate the requirements
and find state- and federally-approved processors.
It takes some time to develop these markets where people
are buying a new product with new values. My first day at
our local farmers’ market with a cooler full of such
sausage made from a Mulefoot (heirloom, endangered) breed
barrow resulted in sales of only a few pounds, mostly in 1-pound
sticks. The good part was that I had the opportunity to talk
about the great old breed and modern small farming. Consumers
made a tentative trial investment, but larger sales soon followed.
Direct-marketing options for pork and live hogs include show
pigs for 4-H and other youth livestock projects, heirloom
breeding stock, cured-meat products, whole- and half-carcass
sales and feeder stock. By keeping purebred herds, small-scale
producers are better able to access all these markets and
retain full control of that most important of all inputs—the
seedstock, which embodies the genetic code on which everything
Surge of the show hog
The show pig has become the big-ticket item in national sales
for the traditional seedstock sector. It’s become one
of the most popular of all youth livestock projects. These
animals are purchased to be fitted for and exhibited at state,
county and national events all across the United States.
Barrows and gilts are bought at about 40 to 50 pounds and
8- to 10 weeks of age for a particular show. At that event
they enter the show ring as an animal ready for market as
a finished meat animal. Many are indeed terminal shows, with
the animals sold at the end of the event or transported to
compete in an on-the-rail carcass competition.
There are swine shows throughout the year, but in the Midwest
the primary market is for early spring-farrowed pigs to be
exhibited at the summer and early fall fairs and shows. These
are primarily pigs farrowed in January, February and March,
the season when much of the breeding stock of years ago was
You hear many stories of youngsters (really, their parents)
paying $500 to $800 for 40-to 50-pound pigs, or paying several
hundred dollars for the semen of a boar with a real show record,
but the norm is generally $1.50 to $3 per pound for a pig
with good show potential. Why so high? It’s because
there are simply so few classic feeder pigs readily available
in most areas. Even where larger operations abound, their
production—all of it—is contractually bound.
It’s also because the competitive show pig is a finely
bred young animal. Many are F1 crosses to gain the growth
advantage of hybrid vigor, a fair number are purebred, and
some will have a dash (or much more) of Pietrain breeding,
an exotic spotted breed known for its heavy muscling.
Until quite recently, show pigs were being bred for extreme
leanness and expression of muscling. It has been recognized
and conceded that this trend is an extreme departure from
real-world type characteristics. These extremes may lead to
all sorts of problems from reproductive ills to basic soundness
and animal durability. Fortunately, the trend now seems to
be back to an animal of more middle-of-the-road type with
greater internal dimension (a wider frame) and a bit of added
Perpetuating genetic treasures
A small-but-growing number of swine raisers are actively
involved in hog-breed preservation work, also. Some breeds
actually went extinct in the 20th century, and a number more
slipped to dangerously small populations. Among the rarest
surviving are the Gloucester Old Spot, Wessex and Large English
Black. (For details on these and other endangered breeds,
check the website of the American
Livestock Breed Conservancy.)
In a second tier of minor breeds, with perhaps better prospects
for thriving, are the Tamworth and the Hereford. Minor breeds
with old type—but being managed for improvement—include
the Mulefoot and Red Wattle. What may surprise a great many,
however, is just how badly numbers have slipped for such widely
known breeds as the Spotted, Black Poland and Chester White.
A real success story is the Berkshire. Just a few years ago,
national sow herd numbers had slipped to a few hundred pedigree-recorded
individuals, and there was talk of the need for establishing
a preservation herd. As word spread anew of the distinctive
pork the breed produces—called “black pork”
in Asian circles—new interest arose. Berkshire classes
are now some of the most competitive at some state fairs.
Actually, many of the minor breeds are presenting in greater
numbers and stronger show classes than have been seen at Midwestern
state fairs in decades.
The small swine herds I knew as a boy in the ‘50s are
coming back. Some of them are the exact same herds. On these
farms, the hog enterprise fits in and around a number of other
ventures to diversify production efficiencies, broaden earning
power, provide value-added potential and improve risk management.
These producers are putting a very personal stamp on their
product, one that has far greater meaning than simply “the
other white meat.” (Actually, wasn’t that turkey?)
They are cultivating high-quality seedstock that yields premium
pork, using high-touch marketing in direct sale to consumers,
to achieve the highest possible returns for a uniquely excellent
product. They are ironing out the ups and downs once associated
with selling commercial hogs by developing loyal customers
in niches of their own making. They output only as many hogs
as their markets will profitably support and are careful to
use practices distinct from the negative images of confinement-produced
These are farmers now netting $100 or more per market hog.
They know what their markets will bear and push no harder.
They are taking a lesson from the wisdom of their critters.
The undoing of pork production has not been the greedy nature
of the pig, but rather the greedy nature of the producer.
By living within their limits, everybody will get along.