This week, I invited John Jennings from Jennings Brae Bank Farm to give us a little insight on pasture raised pork. Be sure to read on to learn how he and his wife Mollie are raising their pigs much like his grandparents did and why the flavor of local meat is superior.
We have a diversified enterprise here at Jennings Brae Bank Farm. Often customers ask which part I enjoy working with the most. Pigs are the most fun for me. I’ve had a garden and grown vegetables my whole life and our Highland Cattle were an early edition to our farm. Working with these does bring satisfaction. But, man, watching pigs be pigs on our pasture can be pure joy.
A generation ago, almost all pigs were raised outdoors. Farmers would feed them food scraps, leftover milk and whey, and feed raised on farm. My grandfather raised hogs on our farm in the thirties and forties in this manner. The hogs were often turned loose into the woods during the fall to get fat on acorns and other nuts. In the middle part of the century it changed to larger commercial hog operations raising thousands of pigs indoors. These hogs were bred to be quick growing and lean. Losing their fat and varied diet turned pork into the bland meat I remember from my childhood. Here at the farm, we are raising the hogs much as my grandfather did seventy years ago, albeit with aid from a few technological advances like electric fencing and self-feeders.
Weaned piglets come to our farm at about six weeks of age. We usually purchase them from local farmers who have a few extra to sell. Whenever possible we try to find older breeds like Berkshire, which we believe has superior flavor. They are started in our old bank barn, which has been housing pigs for nearly a century, until they are ready to head to the pasture at a few months old. Mostly we wait that amount of time because young pigs can be incredible escape artists. They live out the next few months roaming a mix of hardwoods, brush, and pasture that we fence with a single strand of electric wire. We feed them a commercial feed mixture, but the flavor is enhanced by all the insects, berries, paw paws, acorns and whatever else they might find in their surroundings. When they reach roughly 250-300 pounds they are transported to a local meat processor to be slaughtered, processed, and vacuum packaged into a wide range of cuts and sausage.
Pigs are inquisitive by nature. Turned out on new section of woodlot or pasture they will explore every corner. I love to watch them turn over rocks or dig around stumps looking for grubs, bugs and other pig delicacies. The snout, as durable as hardened steel, quickly makes furrows through hardened ground. Within days they will have turned a small seep of water into a mudhole where they play and cool off on a hot day like kids at the pool. Taking a break from farm work, I love to watch them play and relax.
Occasionally they do create some mischief and headache for us. With an impeccable sense of timing, they always seem to escape their confines when we leave the farm for a night out. Invariably during dinner at a restaurant, I will get the call from a neighbor saying, “Your pigs are headed towards my potato patch”. We must rush home and lure them back in with a bag of marshmallows. Pigs love marshmallows if you ever need to get one moving in the right direction! One time a friend even found them running down the highway near our house. He was kind enough to herd them with his sedan back to their patch of pasture. While occasionally frustrating, the pleasure of raising hogs generally outweighs the trouble.
The flavor of pasture pork far exceeds that of what is available in most supermarkets. Growing up I didn’t care for the grocery store pork I was served. It was at the height of “The Other White Meat” marketing campaign and I found it to be bland and dry. My first bite from our original batch of pastured hogs turned me into a convert. I will gladly take a thick-cut pork chop with a nice fat cap over a steak any day. If you haven’t experienced pasture-raised pork I would encourage you to stop by Bridgeport Farmers Market and give some a try, either from our farm or one of the many wonderful vendors selling local meats.