Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sustainable and delicious pork

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.

12 comments:

hippygirl said...

That is great information. We have a ton of those types of trees, too, including lots of black walnut trees right by our house.

I think raising pigs is a 5 year plan or so. I really want more animals, but I think I need to wait until the kids are a bit older.

Deborah said...

Great news for you, too, then! You might be able to find that article in the online archives of Mother Earth News.

clink said...

Personally, I was drooling over the hickory nuts. LOVE LOVE LOVE hickory nut cake! My grandmother baked it all the time because they had a large timber that they pastured cattle and hogs in.

Thanks for refreshing my memory. And interesting about the pork. Its been a long time since I've had pork that has been pastured in a timber. I buy pasture-raised pork but not mast-finished.

Mari said...

I searched the web a little. Here in the middle of Germany, you can get that kind of pig at price 5,72€/kg (I think that equals 3,6 USD/pound?) if you take the whole half of a pig (about 40 kg) and get it from the farm at the day they are slaughting. So that's the cheapest deal.

Delivered in pieces to your home is also possible, but the price is higher.
http://www.eichelschwein.de/index.htm

Michelle said...

Funny...I just finished re-reading "The Fiery Cross" (by Diana Gabaldon - a historical novel about pre-revolution America) and during that time pig generally fended for themselves in the woods, living off mast. It was just the way things were, and it seems to have worked very well. Funny how things get off track over the years, hey? And nice to know that I had actually learnt something moderately useful from reading a novel. :)

melanie said...

We are currently raising Tamworths in a forest/field environment with acorns available - and they do love them! Just curious - what does your research show about the amount they need each day? We will be moving them later this fall to an area with apple trees...do yours get any fruit?

Deborah said...

Melanie, I haven't been able to find anything that says how much they need. Our pigs get whatever scraps we have from the garden and our fruit trees. Looks like only the granny smith apple tree is producing this year, but they'll get the ones that aren't pretty enough for us humans.

MaskedMan said...

Another argument against sylvan monoculture. Mixed stands are not only more healthy, they also provide better browse for all manner of creatures, including those we find agriculturally useful!

london said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Angela Rountree said...

There is a letter in the most recent issue of Sheep! magazine describing how one shepherd commingles sheep and hogs in the same pasture. It is not accessible on-line. Please email me at arrountree at yahoo dot com if you would like a synopsis. Angela

Deborah said...

Thanks, Angela! "Sheep" is one of those magazines I keep wanting to subscribe to, but I just never get around to it.

Susan said...

We're going to be feeling very fortunate later this year! Yum.
Glad I caught up at the right time for that pork!

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