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.