Over the past century, many heritage hog breeds have gotten dangerously close to extinction. Heritage refers to breeds that were common before the rise of industrialized agriculture, particularly prior to World War II. Hog breeds like Red Wattle, American Guinea Hogs and Wessex Saddlebacks are prized for their superior flavor, excellent marbling and even friendly personalities. No pigs are native to North or South America – breeds like Gloucestershire Old Spots and Berkshire were brought to the U.S. from England – although others, like Red Wattle and Hereford, were developed in North America.
Many of these breeds are currently in danger of being lost to history: Not many farmers raise them in the U.S. today, as they’re more expensive to take care of and require sufficient land to graze and forage. There are only a few hundred Choctaw hogs in the world, for example, and most of them live on a handful of farms in Oklahoma; the vulnerable Ossabaw Island breed, concentrated on its namesake island in Georgia, descends from prized Spanish Ibérico hogs and hovers around a similar number.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the best way to save these breeds is to create customer demand for this type of product. In Missouri and Kansas – two of the 10 top states in hog sales in the U.S. – farmers are raising heritage pigs in a sustainable way. Here, we’re talking to nine farmers to learn more about their work and why these breeds are worth preserving for future generations.
HERITAGE BREED CROSSES: Not all heritage hogs are single breed like the nine we’ve profiled here. At Rain Crow Ranch in Doniphan, Missouri, farmer Jack Whisnant raises heritage cross breeds of Berkshire, Duroc and Red Wattle for great-tasting pasture-raised pork. In Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, Meyer Hog Farm raises Berkshire and Berkshire-cross pigs without growth hormone or antibiotics. And in Washington, Missouri, fifth-generation farmer Todd Geisert specializes in cross-bred Berkshire, Duroc, Hampshire and Chester White Hogs. These heritage hybrids retain and blend the qualities farmers love in single heritage breeds.
VOLPI HERITAGE PROSCIUTTO: This year, Volpi Foods, which first opened in St. Louis in 1902, debuted heritage-breed prosciutto, aged for 18 months – considerably longer than most prosciutto. The rich, dry-cured ham is made from single breeds, usually Berkshire, but also Red Wattle, Duroc, Gloucestershire Old Spots, Large Black and Tamworth. Pork is sourced from farms in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa, including Newman Farm in Myrtle, Missouri, and Lazy S. Farms in La Plata. Pork is then hand-rubbed, salted and air-dried at Volpi’s new state-of-the-art, 120,000-square-foot prosciutto facility in Union, Missouri. “We receive the meat fresh, within 36 hours of harvest, from Paradise Locker Meats [processing plant in Trimble, Missouri], and begin prepping the ham immediately,” says Deanna Depke, marketing manager at Volpi and a fourth-generation member of the Volpi family. The company stresses that its product development responds to demand, and consumers are increasingly aware of where their food comes from. The prosciutto is sold in presliced three-ounce packages for retail customers at Volpi Foods on The Hill, St. Louis-area Schnucks and Dierbergs Markets locations and in eight-pound boneless hams for wholesale clients.
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Local Farm: Good Farms in Olsburg, Kansas
Duroc hogs are one of the most popular and well-known heritage breeds. They first appeared in the early 1800s in New England, and some historians claim Durocs are descended from either Berkshires or hogs imported from the Guinea coast of Africa. They’re characterized by hardiness and their calm demeanor, as well as quick muscle growth and their dark-orange color. Durocs produce flavorful, well-marbled meat, great for spare ribs and shoulder roasts, and are sometimes compared to Black Angus beef. In Olsburg, Kansas, Craig and Amy Good of Good Farms raise Durocs. “Duroc pigs are a very hearty, robust breed, noted for very good meat quality,” Craig says. “They generally have meaty bellies that have a very good lean-to-fat ratio. There’s also a nice amount of fat with good marbling in the pork chops.”
Good Farms’ products can be purchased online at heritagefoodsusa.com. Most products are not sold under the Good Farms’ label, however, the farm is one of Heritage Foods’ few suppliers of Gloucestershire Old Spots, Duroc and Tamworth.
Local Farm: Newman Farm in Myrtle, Missouri
Although originally from England, Berkshires – lovingly dubbed “Berks” – are one of the most popular heritage breeds in the U.S. thanks to the meat's excellent marbling. This, in conjunction with a high fat content, makes Berks great for cooking over several hours or at a high temperature. “The Berkshire breed, above all other breeds in the swine business, has the greatest potential for consistently delivering tenderness, juiciness and flavor,” says David Newman of Newman Farm in Myrtle, Missouri. “They’re known to have more fat, and fat equals flavor. Most of our hams go into prosciutto, and Berkshires deliver a nice balance.” Berkshires are so prized that they’re raised across the globe, including in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Newman Farm products can be ordered by phone or email. Visit the farm’s website at newmanfarm.com to learn more.
Local Farm: Briar Rock Farm in Sullivan, Missouri
By far the smallest breed raised in the Midwest, American Guinea Hogs were on the verge of extinction just a decade ago, with fewer than 150 accounted for in the U.S. The breed’s relatively small size – about 125 to 250 pounds at the largest – makes it ideal for family farms. “Guinea hogs are much gentler and easier to handle,” says Ethan Joyce of Briar Rock Farm in Sullivan, Missouri. “The taste is fantastic. The fat’s really soft and well-marbled throughout, so it keeps it really moist; you can cook this pork to more doneness than others without it becoming dried out.” Compared to other heritage breeds, farmers can get a relatively high yield from American Guinea Hogs, although Joyce cautions that they require fencing that's lower to the ground than larger pigs. “The good farms y’re a bit of an escape artist,” he says with a laugh.
Briar Rock Farm products are sold on a limited basis through the farm's online store. Check its website or Facebook page (facebook.com/briarrockfarm and briarrockfarm.com) for availability announcements.
Local Farm: Good Farms in Olsburg, Kansas
Gloucestershire Old Spots are indeed spotted and are known for having a considerable amount of fat. Old Spots began as a peasant breed in England, but today, even Prince Charles has a herd of Old Spots on his Gloucestershire estate. “I’d describe it as fine-textured, delicate meat: It’s not a strong flavor [but rather] a very delicate flavor,” says Craig Good, who, along with his wife, Amy, raises Old Spots at Good Farms in Olsburg, Kansas. “They have a lot of marbling typically, and the fat on the pigs seems to have a creamier texture. [It’s a] very smooth and creamy fat.” Good says Old Spots never reached much popularity because they’re relatively slow-growing; however, they’re now experiencing a rise in demand thanks to a renewed interest in fat-heavy pork products such as charcuterie.
Good Farms’ products can be purchased online at heritagefoodsusa.com. Most products are not sold under the Good Farms label; the farm is one of Heritage Foods’ few suppliers of Gloucestershire Old Spots, Duroc and Tamworth breeds.
Local Farm: White’s Hereford Hogs in Joplin, Missouri
Hereford hogs are known for their red and white coloring, just like Hereford cattle. Developed in the 1920s, Herefords were especially popular in the Midwest, but herd numbers dropped off in the 1960s as more modern hybridized pigs became the go-to for industrial pork operations. “To me, it almost tastes like you’re eating a juicy steak,” says Daniel White of White’s Hereford Hogs in Joplin, Missouri. “The pork chop alone – it’s hard to describe. You feel like you’re eating beef. The bacon is the brightest, reddest bacon you’ll ever see, with amazing marbling.” It’s estimated that there are fewer than 2,000 Herefords in the U.S. today, with White raising just 12 of those hogs. Herefords are a docile, friendly breed, making them a popular pick to work with kids.
White’s Hereford Hogs specializes in sales for show pigs, but when butcher hogs are available (by the half or whole) announcements are made on the farm’s Facebook page at facebook.com/whitesherefordhogs.
Local Farm: Littrell Farms in Green City, Missouri
Mulefoot hogs are named for their hooves, which unlike most pigs, are uncloven and resemble – you guessed it – mule’s feet. Although the breed’s origins are murky, during the early 20th century, Mulefoots quickly became prized in the U.S. for how easy they are to fatten up, although they fell out of favor by midcentury in comparison to modern hybridized pigs prized by industrial farms. The American Livestock Conservancy estimates that there are fewer than 200 Mulefoot hogs in the U.S. – most of them in Missouri and western Illinois. They were thought to be extinct until a few were found on an island in the Mississippi River, and farmers like Eric and Barb Littrell of Littrell Farms in Green City, Missouri, have been keeping the breed alive with their pasture-raised and grass-fed herd. “I often refer to our full-grown boars and sows as gentle giants, as they weigh between 600 to 700 pounds,” Barb says. “Their meat is lean and as red as a beef steak with lots of flavor and marbling. All the cuts are great, but the bacon, ham and pork steaks are superior. We don’t eat any other kind!” The hog fat produces creamy lard, and the meat itself is rich and has even been described as melt-in-your mouth.
Littrell Farms sells cuts and weanlings for butcher or breeding stock through its Facebook page at facebook.com/mulefootpigs. To learn more, visit littrellorganicfarm.com.
Local Farm: Circle B Ranch in Seymour, Missouri
Heritage pork from breeds like Red Wattle – developed in 18th-century New Orleans by way of the French-occupied South Pacific – is usually compared to steak rather than lean pork chops. “[The breed] has never been put into factory farming; their instincts have never been bred out,” says Marina Backes, co-owner of Circle B Ranch in Seymour, Missouri. “They’re out rooting for food and in the dirt.” Thought to be extinct by the 1970s, experts estimate there are fewer than 1,000 Red Wattle hogs in the U.S. today, with 50 of those raised on pasture at Circle B. Charcuterie makers particularly prize juicy, hearty and well-marbled Red Wattle for salame thanks to its strong flavor. (Photo by Jennifer Silverberg)
Circle B products are sold at Cherry Picker Package x Fare, Mama Jean’s Natural Market, Hy-Vee and Harter House in Springfield, Missouri, and Local Harvest Grocery, Mac’s Local Buys and Larder & Cupboard in the St. Louis area. circlebranchpork.com
Local Farm: Metzger Farms & Fertilizer in Seneca, Kansas
Tamworth is a heritage breed prized for its “red” meat. Originally hailing from the United Kingdom, the hogs’ longer snout makes it a skilled forager, which in turn affects the flavor of the meat; they’re particularly suited for bacon. Tamworths are a bit larger than other heritage breeds and take a bit longer to mature. “Tamworth is more lean than [Berkshire meat] and makes good bacon, good ham – good everything, really,” says Doug Metzger, who began raising the breed in 1961, but then took a break until 2004. Today, he has a herd of about 45 on his farm, Metzger Farms & Fertilizer, in Seneca, Kansas. “They’re a little slower growing, and it costs more to raise them, but you get what you pay for," Metzger says. "Tamworth sure makes good meat.” Tamworths are considered hardy and do well in colder climates.
Metzger Farms distributes through Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Missouri. Look for Tamworth products under the Paradise Locker label in and around the Kansas City area. Products can also be purchased online at heritagefoodsusa.com.
Local Farm: Flint Hill Farm in Russellville, Missouri
Wessex Saddlebacks are black hogs with a band, or saddle, of white or light brown around their middle. The breed is particularly raised for bacon and ham, and the hogs are well-suited for small farms, as they thrive on a varied diet, often including pasture grazing and foraging. One of the last herds in North America can be found at Flint Hill Farm in Russellville, Missouri, where the Campbell family raises fewer than 100. “They’re really good-tasting hogs; they have a nice ratio of fat to meat, and the fat, of course, is where the flavor is, so chefs like [them],” says Ruth Campbell of Flint Hill Farm. “Everybody who buys them from me seems to really like them, and there are more people wanting the pigs, but there aren’t many people who raise [heritage] hogs.” (Photo by Anthony Jinson)
Flint Hill Farm is small, so orders must be planned in advance; products can be ordered through localharvest.com.