Conversations with organic farmers are a happy treat for me, since I always learn something, and Friday was no exception. I was talking to a farmer I hadn't seen in a few years, and I mentioned that we now raise pigs. He started talking about how mast-finished pork was getting popular, and I asked him, "What's mast?"
"Nuts, hickory nuts, acorns," he said. Supposedly it makes the most delicious pork in the world, selling for as much as $5,000 a pig. My jaw nearly bruised my chest as it dropped. Without even knowing we were doing it, we've been raising mast-finished pork. We cannot not raise mast-finished pork, because our property is covered with oak and hickory trees. And now I know why the pigs two years ago kept getting out and rooting up our front yard, while completely ignoring the field across the street. The pigs were rooting up the area under the oak and hickory trees to get the nuts.
This explains why everyone raves about our pork. I always thought it was the breed, since we raise Tamworths, a heritage breed of pork. I was considerably confused when a customer told me that she bought a Tamworth from a farmer in Wisconsin last year when we didn't raise pigs, and it wasn't as tasty as our pork. (When she heard we were raising pigs this year, she immediately reserved a whole one.)
When I got home from my visit with the farmer, of course, I went straight for Google and searched for "mast-finished pigs." One site said that they sell for hundreds of dollars a pound in Europe, but they didn't give a source for that info, so perhaps it's exaggerated somewhat. It would be $25 a pound if the $5,000 pig price is accurate, which is still amazing, considering that we sell our pigs for $3 a pound. I did find a farm in Connecticut that sells their mast-finished, whole pigs for $5.50 a pound, so we're still considerably under-priced.
Mast-finished pork is rare because there are only so many hardwood forests where pigs can be raised, which was the traditional way of raising pigs. Buying nuts to feed pigs would be prohibitively expensive! The practice has been lost almost completely in the last hundred years. The nail was put in the coffin of chesnut-finished pork in Virgina by a blight that killed many of the chestnut forests. Bakers have to share some of the blame too, because they preferred the solid lard of corn-finished pigs. The lard of mast-finished pigs is considerably softer, sometimes even liquid at room temperature. Not so good for pie crusts, but that means mast-finished pork is healthier for you, because it's lower in saturated fats. Of course, mast-finished pork is the ultimate in sustainable meat, because the trees just keep producing their nuts year after year without any chemical inputs. If you want to learn more about mast-finished pork, Badgersett Research Corporation has the most information on a single page.
Saturday we took a walk through our woods to see how many hickory and oak trees we really have. We talked about how to get the pigs to the trees, so they can get even more nuts to eat. The sheep live in the east pasture, which is a grove of oak trees. I wonder how they would feel about sharing their pasture with pigs. I picked up a couple acorns and hickory nuts to take back to he pigs. I dropped them in their pan of corn, and they immediately gobbled them up and started rooting through the pan of corn looking for more. They definitely prefer the nuts over corn.
Last night when I walked into our library, a 20-year-old copy of Mother Earth News was staring me in the face with a cover story about raising acorns. The article briefly talked about finishing pigs on acorns and gave me good numbers on how many pounds a tree can produce per year. As you can imagine, I'm really excited to learn that we have exactly what we need on our little farm to produce the most sustainable and delicious pork in the world.
This post is part of Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade.