Under the shade of sassafras and cherry trees in Natrona Heights, PA, we watched the pigs enjoy their lunch. Some huddled around a large tree trunk, gnawing at the bark and loudly crunching mouthfuls of it like potato chips. Other pigs happily buried their snouts in the dirt, lifting the soil like a trowel, and ripping the fine roots with the sound of tearing cloth. The whole area occupied by the group had been razed to bare earth within the past week. Shrubs and saplings, uprooted by the hungry animals, were held aloft by the low-hanging branches of neighboring trees. The lush forage on the far side of the portable fence threw into stark contrast the amount of damage that had been done. And on this day, the fence would be moved, releasing the pigs to claim more of the land.
Hogs hard at work at Blackberry Meadows Farm
This destructive tendency that we associate with the hog is a result of its omnivorous and independent nature, something which, as recently as a century ago, appealed to families looking for a low-maintenance livestock species to provide food. Another advantage was the pig’s astounding reproduction rate: females reach maturity at seven months of age, produce several piglets within four months, and go into heat just days after weaning. Factor in their ability to pack on over a hundred pounds in a matter of months, and they are quite a bargain; so much so that during the early voyages to the New World, explorers would bring along a few mature pigs, drop them off on an uninhabited island, and return months or years later to harvest from an overflowing population.
These days, 97% of the 100 million pigs in this country are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, pronounced KAY-foes). Their parenting instincts and independent dispositions have been bred out of them in favor of a low feed conversion ratio (pounds of feed needed to produce a pound of meat) and lean, pale flesh. But the pigs lounging in the shade, rooting around in the dirt, are residents of Blackberry Meadows Farm and are among the 3% of hogs that aren’t raised in confinement. Blackberry Meadows farmers Jen Montgomery and Greg Boulos do what few farmers will: they embrace the natural behaviors of their hogs.
As practitioners of permaculture, (a style of agriculture in which natural processes are mimicked as closely as possible), Montgomery and Boulos monitor the ecological edges on their farm; that is, the grey area where two different ecosystems meet. These edges are the most productive biological communities, as measured by biodiversity. For example, meadow-dwelling species and wood-dwelling species both exist where the meadow and wood converge. Edges are also easily threatened by invasive plants, which is—ironically—where the domesticated, non-native pig comes in.
Montgomery and Boulos set up portable fencing, sectioning off a paddock that straddles a meadow and the woods. Over the next week, the pigs devour whatever is within reach, including an overgrowth of invasive plants that the farmers want to be rid of: multiflora rose and oriental bittersweet. The sassafras and cherry trees that populate the edge of the forest are not particularly dear to the farm either. Each week, the pigs are moved along the wooded edge. The paddock left behind, freshly tilled and fertilized, becomes a blank canvas for Blackberry Meadows to introduce fruit and nut trees. What was once unusable and overgrown by invasive plants becomes a productive part of the farm, thanks to the ravenous hogs.
Living outside is hardly the only way to distinguish the lucky 3% of pigs from the rest. Take feed, for instance. With conventional animal feed being unregulated, the diet of a CAFO-dwelling pig may include GMO corn, GMO soybeans, commercial kitchen waste, and by-products of other animal production, such as feather meal, bone meal, and even feces. Whatever the ingredients, the nutritional proportions are crafted to ensure consistency of the final product.
Michael Kovach of Walnut Hill Farm in Sharpsville, PA has other aims for his pigs’ food. He also uses hogs to reclaim undeveloped land for productive use, and relishes in the different flavors that result from what the pigs eat. Depending on the time of year and the location on the farm, Walnut Hill Farm pigs may enjoy apples, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, acorns, and other goodies that fall from the trees, not to mention the smorgasbord of roots, weeds, and flowers growing right out of the ground.
Pastured hogs at Walnut Hill Farm enjoying crab apple season
“This is how they, by our observations—and in our estimation—are happiest,” says Kovach. “Pigs love variety.” There’s plenty of natural food to go around, and the taste of the pork is incomparable to its conventional counterpart.
Jake Kristophel and Desiree Sirois of Fallen Aspen Farm in Volant, PA also embrace the seasonal flavors of their pastured pork. The pigs’ foraged diet ranges from grass to nuts to excess produce from the farm. Raising pigs on pasture becomes more challenging during the winter, even more so when you are trying to minimize grain feeding to maximize that sublime pasture flavor. To make up for the lack of vegetation in the winter, Kristophel and Sirois are working on growing fodder (essentially microgreens for livestock) indoors, which will allow them to produce a better-tasting pastured pork in the colder months than if they just fed grain.
Pastured pigs at Fallen Aspen Farm devouring the surplus harvest of fall squash
The pig’s omnivorous diet offers a wide range of feeding options for a farmer, but the decisions don’t end there. Breeding presents yet another fork in the road. Conventional production relies on facilities that specialize in different stages of the pig life cycle. At the facility where pigs are born and weaned, the sows (female pigs that have given birth) and gilts (female pigs that have yet to give birth for the first time) spend their pregnancies in individual gestation stalls, which are too narrow to allow them to turn around, presumably in order to fit more stalls in a given barn, and to keep the feeding end away from the other end. Just before the piglets are born, the mother is moved to a farrowing stall, which allows her to lay on her side to nurse the piglets. This stall acts as a protective barrier between her and her offspring, who could easily be crushed if she laid down carelessly. Soon after weaning her litter, the sow is inseminated and goes back to the gestation crate.
The practice of isolating a sow or gilt in a gestation crate has been eliminated by some producers, and even banned in a few states, where handlers opt for group housing during gestation. But farrowing stalls continue to be used, even on farms that will raise the offspring outside. It’s seen as a necessary evil, a painful decision between high piglet mortality and giving the sow a more humane farrowing experience.
Pete Burns of Burns Heritage Farm in Ridgway, PA is among the farmers breeding their own pigs that have found another way, a way that has existed all along. Namely, Burns breeds his sows for good parenting instincts. Giving the sows and their litters plenty of space has also had a positive impact on farrowing, so much so that he is able to house multiple families in the same spacious pen until the piglets are weaned and can fend for themselves on pasture. The sows and piglets have space to stretch their legs and socialize if they choose. In this way, Burns can honor the sentience of all of his pigs, not just those being raised for meat.
Burns Heritage Farm breeds pigs without gestation or farrowing crates.
“Raising pigs in their natural environment respects the ‘pigness of the pig,’” Burns says, quoting the famous farmer Joel Salatin, with whom Burns apprenticed years ago. “In other words, it allows the animal to express its natural behavior and enjoy life.”
After weaning, Burns Heritage Farm hogs live on pasture.
Fallen Aspen Farm also breed pigs for their own use, and they farrow outdoors. The idea might startle a conventional pig farmer: exposing piglets to the elements, to predators, and to their own free-ranging mothers. But Kristophel and Sirois have had considerable success with this method. “We don’t lose piglets,” says Sirois. Even when a first-time mama pig farrowed on frozen ground, Sirois and Kristophel brought the newborn piglets to more experienced sows to suckle, and the whole litter survived. The sow’s next farrow went much more smoothly. Still, there are safety nets in place: the pig shelters, where piglets often lay with their mothers, are A-frame structures, which give piglets an escape route along the bottom edges of the shelter, should their mother lie down without warning.
While sows bear most of the parenting burden, Boulos of Blackberry Meadows Farm has also witnessed desirable instincts from his breeding boars (male pigs). Typically, when a female pig is ready to give birth, she will rub her torso against whatever is at hand: a tree trunk, the walls of a pen, or the bars of a gestation crate. Through this instinctive behavior, she is positioning her fetuses to prepare for birth. At Blackberry Meadows, it is not uncommon for the boar to massage the female with his snout to accomplish the same task. But Montgomery and Boulos have also had their share of lessons. They gave a particular sow a second chance at motherhood. She later burrowed into a mound of dirt before giving birth, making her teats inaccessible to her newborn piglets. Clearly unsuited to parenting, the sow was sent to what the farmers endearingly call “freezer camp.” It wasn't a punishment; removing her from the gene pool was best for the welfare of their future generations of hogs.
Considering the lengths to which these farmers go to prioritize their pigs’ welfare, it goes without saying that subtherapeutic antibiotics (doses too small to treat an infection) are not used on these farms, contrasting them even more starkly with conventional farms. Hormones aren’t used either, but that’s because they’re illegal in raising pork (and poultry). And although “natural” is an appropriate way to describe this type of farming, the term “natural” doesn’t officially speak to how an animal is raised. The best way to describe this style of farming is “pastured” or “pasture-raised.” Although the term is unregulated, it implies they are raised outside on grass, with room to exercise and wild goodies to supplement their feed.
But sadly, you probably won’t find pastured pork at the supermarket. You’ll have to go straight to the source. (Check Pittsburgh’s Guide to Ethical Farms, or our catalog of virtual farm tours to find local farmers raising their pigs humanely.)
When you get a hold of a cut of pastured pork, you'll be hard-pressed to call it “the other white meat.” Pre-industrial breeds like Tamworth, Large Black, and Duroc produce redder meat with more marbling and more fat overall, which, when the animal is able to forage, is infused with natural flavor. The fat on the animal used to be crucial for it to survive winter, but it also makes the meat much more forgiving; whether you’re pan-frying a pork chop or braising a shoulder roast, you don’t have to worry as much about over-cooking it. On the contrary, cooking pork less than well-done is becoming less radical these days, and pastured pork, with its rich flavor and juiciness, is the perfect canvas.
If you’re worried about the extra fat, you will be pleased to know that lard (rendered pork fat) contains more monounsaturated fat (the elusive fat for which we treasure olive oil and avocados) than it does saturated fat. It also has a much higher smoke point than olive oil, all without needing to be refined and processed, so you don’t have to worry about damaging the oil during high-heat cooking. In our kitchen, most of the frying—and especially deep-frying—is done in lard from pastured pigs.
Food from pastured animals also has nutritional advantages over conventional, generally being higher in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E, and omega-3 fatty acids. Pastured pork specifically has shown higher levels of vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional; however, with pig husbandry having many variables (breed, diet, environment, finishing time), there is not much scientific consensus about the degree to which there is more of those nutrients.
Whatever the case, it’s a pretty perfect picture when the best pork chop you’ll ever have is also the one from happy pigs helping their farmers tend the land.
Young pigs at Walnut Hill Farm, already masters of rooting in the dirt