In the beginning of June we buy 2-3 weaned piglets that are about eight weeks old from a few local breeders in Addison County, including Alethea Bahnck who owns a farm in Bridport. She started a bit of an heirloom pastured-pig revolution here (her talks at the NOFA-VT conferences are always well attended), and we’re all fortunate to have access to the offspring of her efforts. Her pigs are a Tamworth-Bershire cross, both of which are an old British breed. She also tries to match her method of raising them as close to their social habits in the wild as possible, such as letting the sows farrow singly in the woods, and grouping the teenager piglets into wandering herds. It’s a world away from the intensive pig farms where 5,000 animals never leave a concrete floor, and we are grateful.
Tamworths are red-haired, and adapted to cold climates and are very good at foraging on pasture and in woods. Tamworths have very distinct personalities; they are intelligent and playful and enjoy the company of their human counterparts. They also have a reputation for producing the best bacon, but their lean meat makes the entire pig ideal for taste and health reasons as well. If you’re considering raising them be aware that they also love to wander. Despite solid fencing, I have spend more than one evening tromping up the hedgerow with a flash light to find the waywards, and even once had to stop traffic to herd 200-pounders back home that were on a neighborhood acorn tasting tour.
Berkshires are black-haired, and are prized for the high quality of their meat. Berkshire pork has recently earned the reputation as the next Kobe beef, enjoyed in the best restaurants for the same reasons the House of Windsor adopted it as their swine of choice over 300 years ago. Berkshire pork is fatter and darker than the pork you buy in the store, and it remains rich and juicy when cooked.
The cross of the Tamworth and Berkshire breeds creates a perfect pasture-pig for Vermont – piglets are hardy, resourceful and size up by late November. Sometimes the piglets look more like Tamworths (like George and Walter) and sometimes they look more like Bershires (like Jelly Bean and Licorice in the photo above).
The real challenge with pastured pigs is that they like to root up pasture, like all of it, which can be an advantage if you’re trying to till an area, but a disadvantage if your sheep want to keep grazing the clover. So we don’t put them on the permanent pasture with the sheep. Instead they get their own pasture, and once they tear up a whole section we rake it out and re-seed it with a hog pasture mix and some Mammoth Red Mangels from Johnny’s Seeds. They also get a local natural grain, and they get windfall apples from the orchard. Their favorite thing of course is the left-over croissant dough and veggie scraps from The Vergennes Laundry bakery – we supply them with eggs and get all their amazing compost. Lucky piggies indeed.
Once they reach 200 pounds around six months of age, and our root cellar is cold enough to be used for chilling, we humanely slaughter the pigs here on-farm, and then we butcher and process the meat here as well. See a related blog post “The Art of Pork” about how we process sausage, bacon and hams. We’re always happy to share our experiences with others, so let us know if you have questions or you’d like to visit the farm.