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Artisanal pigs and the artisans that produce them

  • Fieldwork:
    Fieldwork:  Anthropologist Brad Weiss poses with Eliza MacLean, owner of Cane Creek Farm. One of Weiss’s sources for “Real Pigs,” MacLean was one of the first North Carolina farmers to obtain a meat handler’s license, allowing her to market meat from her farm directly.  Courtesy photo
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Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork      

There are alternatives to Big Pork, and they make for interesting reading as well as excellent eating.

Brad Weiss is the chair of William & Mary’s Department of Anthropology, a researcher who went out among the people who raise and market heirloom pig stock in North Carolina. He was more than an observer, having worked selling artisanal pork products at farmers markets and at raising the animals himself. His book Real Pigs (Duke University Press) explores connections between modern fork-to-table consumer attitudes and traditional animal husbandry folkways.

Weiss includes anecdotes and interviews with people in the pig business as well as fascinating transcriptions of conversations during which a pig is “broken down” into marketable parts. In a large sense, Real Pigs is about esthetics, and Weiss offers a hopeful alternative to foodies and regular old meat eaters alike, folks who are missing something beyond flavor when they sit down to a plate of extra-lean, extra-bland commodity pork: “Thus, the fattiness of pork has the potential to suggest, for example, unctuousness of character, smugness and immoderation, but also humility, sincerity and modesty.”

Q: Nomenclature. You use “pig” as well as “hog” throughout the book, but mostly “pig.” Any particular reason?

A: Nope. Farmers use them both. I never noticed that one was used in one way more than the other. “Pigs” is more common, but “hogs” seemed acceptable. “Pigs” is also what laymen call “piglets,” so there’s the possibility that hogs are much bigger pigs.

Q: Your approach to artisanal pork has been/could be applied to any number of “real” foods: eggs, bread, pies, fish, etc. Is there anything about pork that makes an ethnographic study of the people who raise heirloom pigs different from, say, those who raise heirloom chickens?

A: It’s true, a lot of the concerns I address in the book are relevant to a wide array of foods. But there are material conditions of raising pigs that are substantially different from raising chickens. For one thing, you can raise chickens for eggs and not really have to worry about raising them for meat. The infrastructure for chickens is certainly simpler than what you need for pigs, and if you decided to raise a few pigs to enrich your gardens (which many farmers do) you have to be committed to slaughtering and marketing the animals. Processing is the primary difference between pigs and chickens. It is legal to process about 1,000 chickens per year on your farm and sell them (at least in North Carolina), but you must slaughter pigs in a USDA-approved facility. And there are not a whole lot of these left for small farmers to use. On top of all that, you need a processor to break down your pig into viable parts for sale, and then you need the storage space to keep them, and a clientele that wants to purchase your shanks and feet and even hams, which can be a challenge to sell. With chickens, you just sell the whole bird. People who raise pigs have to be a little more committed to working with animal life and seeing the implications of that for their farm, as well as their bottom line, than are folks who focus on chickens.

Q: The people in Real Pigs seem to be real professionals, in the broadest sense. They are interested in the knotty esthetic and theoretical issues of pig production, in addition to the immense practical lore.

A: That’s so. There is so much educational outreach surrounding agrarian economics, swine science, organic/pasture-raised husbandry practice, etc., that it is an activity that demands intellectual skills as well physically strenuous work.

Q: This “real pig” movement has been a thing in the Piedmont for less than 20 years. It seems to be driven as much by the supplier’s aesthetics to raise animals in an interesting way as it is the desire for a good, authentic, flavorful pork chop.

A: It is true that producers are interested in treating animals in a distinctive fashion and consumers are looking for flavorful protein. But it’s also true that consumers — in lots of places — are taking a strong interest in husbandry practices and in animal welfare, and a lot of farmers are studying tastes and cooking techniques to engage in customer outreach. One thing I find is that direct marketing (farmer’s markets, or producer sales online) make these two concerns much more directly connected than is the case for industrial processes. In the Piedmont of N.C. there are a lot of well-informed consumers, people with relatively high paying jobs in tech, medicine, and education. These are the people who seek out alternatives and this same community also has a lot of experience with agriculture, and they are working to change production.

Q: Is pasture-raised pork sustainable? I mean economically sustainable. If you were to remove the incentives, grants and what your sources call “public jobs,” can a person make a go of a real piggery?

A: Right now, the answer is no. If farming is the sole source of your income, and you are committed to local markets, and you do not farm on family land, it is really hard to make a go of it. Even the relatively abstract models of how such farming could be economically successful assume that farmers have supplementary sources of income. I’m not sure this is unique to pigs, though. Most of the small-scale farmers of anything I know, even the ones who have been at it for a number of years and feel that they are “successful” by whatever measures you’d apply, depend on off-farm income.

Q: All animals are individuals, yet pigs seem to have more individual personality than other food animals. You mention early on that your farmers had to make allowances for individual pig proclivities. How much does the pig personality factor drive the farmer’s interest in raising pasture pigs?

A: This one really depends on the farmer. Some farmers really didn’t have any feelings at all about individual pigs. The pigs were there to do the work of eating garden scraps, turning soil and making money. But certainly a lot of farmers do feel they need to pay attention to the interests of the animals they work with, to “think like a pig” as I often heard, and try to accommodate these interests to improve their husbandry. Most of the farmers I know that love pigs love all sorts of goats and sheep and ducks, etc. The pigs with personalities are really the breeders, the sows and boars that are going to hang around until their reproductive days are over. Pigs that are raised to go to market tend not to be sentimentalized, or even named.

Q: The Ossabaw Island Hog’s story is very interesting. It seems that the original Georgia stock developed its characteristics in isolation, producing qualities that from the farmer’s point of view are both desirable (fattiness, flavor, ability to thrive) and undesirable (propensity for diabetes, etc.) I am unclear about whether these properties developed after stranding or were they were part of the breed’s characteristics all along.

A: These are definitely attributes that are adaptations to the island environment of Ossabaw. At the same time, many folks claim that Spanish Pata Negra pigs make the best hams and have a wonderful fat profile, and it’s possible that the Ossabaws are predisposed to those attributes. But there really were no such things as Spanish “breeds” as such when the Ossabaw were abandoned in the 16th century. So I think the attributes described are primarily worked out in the interbreeding of this small community of pigs in a resource-poor environment.