Google “Heritage Pork” and you will find a lot of blogs, news articles and websites that profess the wonders of “Heritage” breed pigs. The claims about these pigs lead to a lot of wrong impressions and expectations. The truth is that heritage breed pigs are not all the same; they have widely different meat qualities; they are raised in many different settings. Just ordering “Heritage Pork” does not guarantee that you will get great, marbled pork from pigs that lived good lives. Perhaps some facts are necessary.
Myth 1: ”Heritage pigs are all rare and endangered.”
Loosely defined, heritage hogs are those relatively distinct breeds that were present and can be traced back to the period before industrial farming. That was the time when all hogs were kept out on the pasture. In order to survive they had to be able gain adequate nutrition from whatever food they could find. This included plants, bugs, worms, small rodents, fruit, etc. They also had to be able to live outside and endure the heat and cold of changing seasons. When industrial hog farms started to predominate, the hogs that were raised in those confined facilities slowly lost the ability to forage for food and endure temperature extremes. The old breeds gradually fell out of favor and some breeds disappeared altogether.
A few dedicated hog breeders, however, held on to some of the old breeds to keep them from becoming extinct. It is these old breeds, that we call “heritage” breeds, that are now so critically important. They retain the traits that were so valuable in their ancestors and are very desirable now that more people are becoming conscious of the inhumanity and ill health of raising hogs in confined facilities.
The only thing they have in common is the name “Heritage”. All this really means is that they can be traced back for some time as intact, singular breeds.
For example, Hampshires are heritage pigs. But you can find Hampshires in very large numbers practically anywhere in the U.S. In fact, the American National Swine Registry notes that this is the third “most recorded breed” of pigs in the United States. The only reason they qualify for the label “heritage” is that we can trace them, as a distinct breed, back to 1827. Their ancestors in England have been “improved” into the Wessex Saddleback, but the Hampshires we have today are still true to their 1827 importation.
Myth 2: ”All Heritage hogs are raised on pasture and treated humanely.”
Hampshires, Berkshires and Durocs are all examples of “heritage” pigs that are in great numbers in the U.S. Their numbers are in large part due to the management practices widely used. In addition to some small farms, these breeds are now being raised on modern, intensive factory farms. A Duroc breeder told me he was proud of the fact that he could raise hundreds of Durocs in the same space that I raised a couple dozen Large Blacks and Gloucestershire Old Spots. He asked, “Why are you fooling around with those silly floppy eared pigs? Business is business and if you want to make money you have to raise them in a barn. Those pigs aren’t real farm pigs, anyway.” By the way, he sells his pork as “Heritage” pork.
Myth 3: ”Their meat is better due to marbling!”
Well, not true for all heritage breeds. Large Blacks, Gloucestershire Old Spots and Berkshires do have marbled meat, but Hampshires and some other heritage pig breeds are known for their lean meat. Hampshires are used to improve more modern breeds, that are raised intensively in large factory farms, to make their pork even more lean.
Myth 4: ”Heritage breeds are all docile, easily managed hogs.”
Calling a breed “heritage” doesn’t tell a lot about their temperament. Some breeds are considered to be more docile while others as evil, killer hogs. Large Blacks are known to be easy to raise because they are pretty easy going. In contrast, Durocs are considered to be the angriest pigs around. Both “heritage” but not both thought to be like puppy dogs…
So, how do you know which breed to choose?
Well , if all you are concerned with is the taste of marbled pork, go order some Berkshire. You can find Berkshire in most any upscale restaurant at a reasonable price. But, get it soon; many Berkshire producers are breeding them to have leaner meat…
If instead you care about how the pig was treated, get some heritage pork that is advertised as having been raised humanely.
If you want to help sustain a rare breed, choose pork from those listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website.
If you want a pig that does well raised in a barn then get a Yorkshire, Chester White or Duroc. If you want your pigs to do well on pasture, buy Large Blacks, Old Spots, Tamworths or Red Wattles. If you want a truly unique heritage pig, get a Mulefoot. (But be careful, Mulefoot pigs are known to be pretty cranky…)
The point of this article was to dispel some of the myths about “heritage pork” and help you make better decisions based on facts, not hype. The label “heritage” really doesn’t help much, although I highly recommend supporting most heritage pig breeders if for no better reason than to preserve the unique DNA of these old breeds. But before you buy, do your research and learn more about the specific animal and how it was treated before it makes it to your farm or your dinner plate.
– by Brian Wright
Copyright © 2010 Homegrown Acres. Used with permission.