Heritage Pork. It’s all the rage. And for good reason. Let me be the first person to assure you. Heritage Pork is not a fad. It’s a return to our roots, an appreciation of our past, and a heralding of the pig. Have you ever eaten a tomato from your garden, right off the vine? Or a carrot, right from the dirt? You probably felt yourself unable to describe the flavor difference. Instead you said, “It tastes like a tomato.” That’s how Heritage Pork works. The flavor is deep and earthy, reflecting hundreds of years of pigs being raised on pasture and in the elements. Pigs who were born in the field, not in a cage, raised as nature intended.
Which may beg the question, “If Heritage Breeds are rare, why do you eat them?” The answer is simple. Eating these pigs is absolutely necessary to the survival of Heritage Breeds. When breeding animals, not every animal is suited to continue on the breed standards. Certain physical flaws like poor muscling or bad milk production shouldn’t be perpetuated through breeding. On an even more important note, some of these animals make poor mothers or lack the temperament their breed calls for. These too should not be allowed to pass on their genetics. When we eat them we create a demand for them. We allow only the best to be saved to proliferate the gene pool.
Heritage Philosophy is Simple: Breed the best. Eat the rest.
As you read these summaries you’ll start to notice a trend. Heritage Breeds thrive on pasture. They have excellent personalities and make great mothers. What’s important to note is Heritage Breeds not only excel in non-confinement. They need it. Without it their meat will be just as flavorless as the pork in the grocery store. Please consider this a primer on Heritage Pork. It is by no means an all-encompassing list of all the amazing pig breeds there are, instead, it’s a summary of the pig breeds listed by the Livestock Conservancy on the conservation priority list.
Tamworth Hogs – Threatened
Tamworth Hogs are a medium sized hog, averaging between 450-850 lbs. They are deep red pigs (sometimes they look purple) with adorable curly tails (can you tell I’m partial to Tamworths, it’s what we raise here at The Farmstead!) Tamworths are well suited to a wide variety of climates, and do well in cold climates. They thrive in forest settings and can digest bracken quite well. They are average rooters, especially if your pasture is not high quality, as they will excavate other food sources. Sows are known for being good mothers (although we’ve had some bad ones) and average between 6 and 10 piglets per litter. Our exceptional girl gives us 14 though. Tamworths are good natured and accept human interaction well (our 700 lb boar Sampson will lay down on his side for me to scratch him like a dog). At our farm we also breed for temperament, because co-grazing with the sheep and goats is important to us. Not all Tamworths are suited for this but we’re working towards creating a line that is. Tamworths need room and will jump fencing if they feel they don’t have enough of it, they’re also fairly smart, which means they are easy to train to electric fencing but also quick to discover if the fence has a weakness (like velociraptors!) Tamworth Pork is exceptional in taste. Because Tamworths are a bacon hog their meat is less fatty than some Heritage Breeds but still tender. Tamworth hams are good sized and produce excellent marbling. The flavor (in our professional opinion) is excellent, rich and earthy without being overpowering.
Large Black Hogs – Critically Rare
Large Black Hogs are the largest of the Heritage Breed hogs, weighing between 600 and 800 pounds. If you hadn’t guessed, they are all black (and large!), with extra-long drooping ears, usually covering their face/eyes. They are known for being both hardy and docile, and thrive on pasture based farming. Because Large Blacks are a much calmer breed they are easily contained by fencing. The sows are known for having large litters, between 8 and 10 piglets on average with 13 and 14 not being out of the ordinary. Large Black Sows may maintain their fertility longer than other Heritage Breed pigs as long as their weight is kept under control. Large Black Pork is a darker pork, known for being a bit more tender because of shorter muscle fibers. Large Blacks are not known for excess lard but have enough fat to present micro-marbling in the meat. This means when it cooks the meat self-bastes and retains its juicy, delicious flavor.
Gloucestershire Old Spot Hogs – Critically Rare
Gloucestershire Old Spots are a fairly large hog weighing between 500 and 600 pounds. The coat is all white with clearly defined black spots (not blue). Old Spots are known for being docile, intelligent and prolific. Sows average around 9 piglets but litters of 13 and 14 are normal. Once born the sows are touted as being excellent mothers with high milk production. Because of its higher body fat ratio, the GOS is considered an exceptionally hardy pig with the ability to withstand harsh weather. Commonly called “orchard pigs”, GOS were bred to graze in an orchard and eat the fallen fruit without damaging the trees. Side Note: They say that the spots are actually “bruises” from where the apples fell on them. Love that! So much so that The Farmstead is adding Old Spots to our pig pastures this Spring. I'm going to be a good farmer and choose our new breeding stock based on confirmation and not spot placement...I promise! Gloucestershire Old Spot Pork is exceptionally moist, probably because they are one of the slower growing hogs, which means they have more fat and marbling on them when harvested. Lyndsey of Six Buckets Farm says: “LBs are great because they don't sunburn and aren't prone to things like buckwheat poisoning that may affect light-skinned pigs. They are long-bodied and have an extra rib, but are lacking in ham size. You may need to crossbreed with a hammier pig if you are raising them solely for meat. The lines I have are less prone to wander and cross fence lines, and are almost too docile for their own good. Because the LBs are so timid I barely have to leave my fence on. Then I got an Old Spot and she just doesn’t give a damn. She’ll walk right through it. My GOS is a great mother though and busted out 13 piglets on her first round.”
Mulefoot Hogs – Critically Rare
Mulefoot hogs are a compact pig, averaging around 400-600 pounds. Their name derives from the fact that their hooves are not cloven, like a mule/horse/donkey. Breed standard is solid black with the potential for white points and forward facing ears. Mulefoots are known for being excellent foragers. Sows are known for being excellent, calm mothers with an average of 5-6 piglets, although some can have as many as 12. Mulefoot pork is known for having more marbling and exceptional tasting hams and shoulder. Those especially interested in bacon, ham and lard will enjoy the mulefoot. Because the breed grows a smaller loin the pork chops are not comparable in size to other hogs but, the taste is still excellent and the pork chops caramelize better because of the fat. It’s this same fat that often leads people to agree Mulefoot pork “melts in your mouth.” Courtney from Whistling Acres says: “We love raising Mulefoot pigs because they are intelligent, extremely docile, hardy pigs with wonderful mothering instincts and a great ability to grow on timber forage and pasture. They are smaller than many other heritage breeds which makes them a great choice for a homestead. While they tend to grow more slowly, they seem to do so on less input. Mulefoot pork is richly flavored, well marbled, and has won many taste tests over the years. All this makes them well worth the wait!”
Red Wattle Hogs – Critically Rare
Red Wattle Hogs are large, red hogs with front facing floppy ears and wattles that hang from each side of their neck. The hogs average between 600 and 800 pounds but have been reported as big as 1,200 pounds. Red Wattles are thought to be hardy, thrifty and fast growing, producing a leaner meat. Sows are excellent mothers and average 12 piglets per litter. They are also known for being mild tempered. Red Wattles adapt well to a large range of climates, both hot and cold, and thrive on pasture. Red Wattle Pork is lean with just enough marbling to make it juicy. Some say that Red Wattle Pork has a beef-like taste and texture. In fact, for Jenifer from Golden Valley Farm, raising Red Wattle Hogs is a no-brainer. She does it for two reasons, temperament and taste.
Hereford Hogs – Watch
Hereford Hogs are named because of their resemblance to Hereford cattle, red with a white face. The hogs average between 600 and 800 pounds. Herefords are well suited to pasture but could also be suited to semi-confined conditions, especially when considering their docile nature (making them an excellent choice for 4H projects). Because of their white ears and faces, Herefords may be prone to sunburn. Herefords are faster to mature on less feed if they have the opportunity to graze. They are extensive rooters which makes them an excellent choice when choosing a hog to help with tilling. Sows average between 8 and 9 piglets per litter. Hereford Hog Pork maintains just enough fat to flavor the meat, but they are considered one of the leaner Heritage Breeds. Jason from McGregor Angus Farm says: "Hereford pigs are unmatched in performance, ease of fleshing and gainability. These pigs might be running to greet you before your dog."
Ossabaw Island Hogs – Critically Rare
Ossabaw Hogs are unique in that their breed comes from a single population of feral pigs on Ossabaw Island, Georgia. The pigs average between 100 and 250 pounds. True Ossabaws are usually black but some spotting is allowed. Stripes are not typical of the native island population. Ossabaw Hogs are of particular interest to conservancy efforts because their strain of DNA has been relatively untouched for so many years. “Though pigs have lived on Ossabaw Island for several centuries, they do have an impact on the island’s ecology. Environmentalists became concerned, and the pigs may or may not be allowed to remain. The fate of the breed now rests upon complex questions of how it will be managed in its habitat without having a negative impact on the island’s ecology.” http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/Ossabaw.html Because of their unique survival situation, Ossabaw Hogs have developed the ability to put on fat even in scarce food environments. This also means it’s easy to overfeed an Ossabaw and care must be taken to ensure they do not become obese. Sows average 8 piglets per litter and are excellent mothers. Ossabaw Pork is well marbled throughout and offer larger roasts and chops because of their larger shoulder areas. Chad from The Stamps Family Farm says: "I was initiatlly drawn to the Ossabaw Island Hogs as part of a broader plan to find animal breeds within domestication that retained more of their natural instincts and had been less 'improved' by selection of traits more suited to confinement than pasture (a problem most other pig breeds suffer from, even many heritage breeds). The long term design of our farm systems will incorporate these animals to maximize their natural functions to improve the health of the land they are rotated through. Ossabawss are one of the rarest breeds in production, and one of the most recently domesticated. We're very excited to have them - they behave much different than other pigs and are only a few generations removed from the pigs that live on forage alone on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia. For the pigs specifically, our goal is to incorporate those traits into our woodland areas - correct management of species like these leads to more fungal and flora variety and better general health of the plants therein. They will also be rotated through pastures during times when the forage is heavy in the kind of plants they benefit most from. This has the additional benefit of adding another species to our multi-species grazing, further reducing parasite load and increasing plant diversity in our pastures. The Ossabaws have a lot to recommend them for an operation with goals like ours, but I would not recommend them as a first pig due to the very long grow out time, smaller carcass size, and high fat to meat ratio. Litters are generally small - 4-6 piglets each, but these pigs have been farrowing on pasture for their entire history, so losses are less common because they retain the necessary genetics to farrow successfully on pasture without assistance."
American Guinea Hog – Threatened
American Guinea Hogs are touted as the perfect homesteaders hog, and for good reason. They range between 150 and 300 pounds, are solid black with occasional white tips, have an excellent disposition, are thrifty foragers, good meat return and, of vital importance to any homesteader, lard. The AGH is a good mother and does well with children and other farm animals. In fact, AGH growers will tell you one of the most important things they breed for is temperament. While they are a slow growing hog, because of their thriftiness most homesteaders agree that keeping them around for a year to reach market weight is not an issue. American Guinea Hog Pork, if raised primarily on pasture, will offer a moist pork with a deep rich flavor. If overfed commercial bagged food AGHs are at risk of becoming too fatty. Ashley from The Browning Homestead at Red Fox Farm says, "It has been a real pleasure raising AGH's. They are extremely docile and good with children when raised by hand. They get along with all our other farm animals: chickens, dogs, cows, and ducks. Although they are slow growing and we've waited a year to butcher our first, they have done extremely well on grass hay, foraging, and cow's milk." And just in case there was still a question regarding whether or not Heritage Pork was worth it (you know, if the whole idea behind pigs being pigs doesn't motivate you) then perhaps this photo will help. Lyndsey from Six Buckets Farm broke this hog down herself. This is pork. Beautiful, rich, deep, intense pork. This looks nothing like the pork you buy in the grocery store...and for good reason. This pig was raised how pigs should be raised. If it looks this good, can you imagine how it will taste?