I've wanted to add pigs to the farm since, well, basically the beginning. But as new farmers with full-time off-farm jobs and a 4-year-old dragon slayer to keep us busy, we don't rush into any decision. We do our research, bide our time, and test the waters. I've spent the last year learning about pigs and trying to understand which heritage breed would be the best for us. When I learned about the Kune Kune breed (pronounced "koony-koony"), I knew they would be a good fit. They are a smaller breed of pig, which is great if you would like the full variety of cuts of pork without overwhelming your freezer. They are also considered the only "truly pastured" pork because they aren't prone to broot and can grow out really well on grass alone. Importantly, they are also very docile. Some breeds of pig can be outright vicious. It was important to me that we have a breed that is mellow, for the sake of all the other animals (human and otherwise) on our farm.
To be clear, these are meat pigs.
They aren't pets. As such, they are the first animals we've brought onto the farm to raise solely for meat (we've only consumed the by-products of the chickens and goats; that is, eggs and milk). This was a tough decision for me. I struggled with whether I wanted to take the farm in this direction. But I eat meat. A fact I'm not necessarily proud of. And not long ago, I began to feel really conscientious about where my meat came from and how it was treated before appearing on my plate. I decided to make a concerted effort to only eat meat that had been raised humanely by me, or verifiably by someone else. Pork is a staple in our diet, and so when the opportunity to acquire Kune Kune pigs from a local, trusted breeder presented itself, we began making a home for them in the orchard (because what makes for a better mojo-pork than pigs raised on oranges, lemons, and grapefruit?!).
It's only been a day, but I LOVE having pigs.
What does it mean that we raise them humanely? First, it means they have free range of our 1/2-acre orchard, where they munch on grasses, dropped fruit, and have the freedom to romp and wallow and express their "piggy-ness" to their little hearts' desire. Their happy little grunts as they forage around... it's just music to my ears. They share this space with our two buckling goats, and the inter-species interactions between this scrappy bunch is why we don't need cable television.
Humane pork also means that we will do on-farm slaughter. I just can't stand the thoughts of an animals' last hours of life being rife with stress, fear, and confusion. I've also read that the cortisol, adrenaline, and other chemicals released due to the stress of being loaded into a trailer, transported to a slaughterhouse, and dropped in a completely foreign environment can negatively affect the flavor of the meat. I don't look forward to the day. It will undoubtedly be sad. But just because it's unpleasant doesn't mean I can pretend it's not a necessary part of being an omnivore. Every time I eat meat, an animal has died. I'm no longer comfortable taking that fact for granted. Instead, I choose to honor it.
Humane pork also means that we grow out our hogs slowly. Most CAFO (confined animal feeding operations)/industrial swine operations slaughter their pigs at 6 months. Because they are bred for small sustainable farmsteads rather than mass production, heritage breeds of pig take anywhere from 12-18 months to reach market weight, meaning they live at least 2-3 times as an industrial hog.
So why a heritage breed? From a purely economical standpoint, it makes little sense to raise pigs that take so much longer to grow out. It's that much longer that we have to provide feed, which is an expense. But we are committed to preserving heritage breeds -- those traditional breeds that were raised by small farmers prior to the industrial revolution and represent "part of our national heritage and a unique piece of the earth's biodiversity." They are bred for longevity in a free-range environment, and as such they are hardier than their commercial counterparts. Also, unlike industrial hybrid breeds, heritage breeds are bred for flavor, not mass production.
However, when we industrialized agriculture, heritage breeds were out-competed by hybrid pigs that were better suited to CAFO conditions. As a result, many of these breeds are considered endangered by the Livestock Conservancy.
Your next question, then, might be, "Why should we eat an endangered species?" Endangered livestock are not like endangered wildlife. "Unlike endangered animals in a zoo, farm stock has to pay its way." By eating these animals, we create a demand for them. We become a market to encourage farmers to keep them. The more demand, the less rare they become.
Rare and traditional breeds are well-suited to small family farms and receive more individual care and attention. We treat them like something special, rather than as a commodity. We choose to raise them because we believe in the importance of genetic diversity. And we feel there is still value in a breed that may produce fewer offspring or take longer to reach market weight.
In other words: It's bacon you can feel good about.
We've started with two pigs, a gilt (female) and barrow (castrated male), to try it out. Like I said, we are cautious. Start small, fail small. It's always my mantra (although experience has taught me that I over-worry). After a couple of weeks, if all goes well, we'll add a few more. And in about 6-7 months, we'll have our first offering of grass-fed orchard pork available for customers. If we like keeping Kune Kunes, we intend to acquire a breeding pair and begin a farrow to finish operation.
There will surely be many more photos of our new dynamic duo to come. If you're not doing so already, follow us over on Facebook and Instagram (@sunnycabanafarms). You wouldn't want to miss a glimpse of these gorgeous faces!