People often ask what breed our pigs are and the answer is... well, it's a little complicated! Our first venture into heritage breed pigs came back in 2012 when we purchased two piglets from a small farm in Chilliwack. Their mother was Tamworth and their father was Berkshire. We've been hooked on heritage hogs ever since and our breeding stock include Berkshire, Tamworth, Large Black and Duroc bloodlines.
When we talk about “heritage” breeds, we are making a distinction between the conventional “pink pigs” most commonly raised at industrial hog farms and more traditional, “old-fashioned” breeds. Conventional pigs have been bred to be lean, grow fast, and thrive in a confinement based system where everything from their feed to the ambient temperature is strictly controlled. They are mass produced to be efficient and consistent. Heritage pigs come in all shapes, sizes and colours but they share some important characteristics. They tend to be much fattier than their conventional counterparts and consequently, the meat tends to be more flavourful. They are slower growing, hardier and do much better in unpredictable, outdoor conditions and with a varied diet.
Heritage breeds play well on “Farm to Table” menus. They are indeed delicious but there's another important reason to eat heritage breeds. If we don't eat them, we'll lose them! Many heritage breeds are already endangered. We are at risk of losing genetic diversity that we may very well need in order to provide food security in a world with a rapidly changing climate and even more rapidly developing “super bugs.” Putting all our proverbial eggs in one basket is a risky proposition. As antibiotic resistance becomes more prevalent, climates change, and weather events become more devastating, it is more important than ever to protect genetic diversity. Heritage breeds give us options. Some do better in warmer or colder conditions than others, some are better foragers, allowing them to thrive in less than optimal conditions.
Breeding diversity out of the gene pool has allowed factory farming to thrive and keeps grocery stores well stocked with cheap meat. But these systems are terribly fragile. We saw it with the 2013-2014 PED outbreak which wiped out millions of piglets. African Swine Fever is the newest threat and has the potential to be even worse than PED. Thousands of pigs have already been killed in China (the world's largest pork producer) in an attempt to prevent its spread but it is still spreading faster than they can control it. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacterium is regularly discovered in large commercial hog farms. It spreads from the animals to the employees who handle them and have even been found in the family members of these employees.
Heritage breeds have stronger immune systems and tend to be raised outdoors in systems that do not promote the rapid spread of these deadly diseases. They are not routinely fed antibiotics and as such, are not contributing to the spread of deadly antibiotic resistant bacteria. Naturally, it costs more to raise pigs this way. We raise about 200 pigs a year in the same amount of space that factory farms can produce hundreds of thousands. It takes us longer to get them to market weight and our feed costs are higher. Happily, there seems to be a growing number of consumers who are willing to factor things like animal welfare, genetic diversity, quality and responsible antibiotic use into the cost of the meat they buy. One of the best rewards for this consideration is outstanding tasting pork!
To learn more about heritage breeds, please visit The Livestock Conservancy.
Julia Smith, Farmer at Blue Sky Ranch
Merritt, British Columbia