Foreign and Domestic: Pigs with Class — and Not

Halfway into the fourth season of Downton Abbey, Erin and I finally have found something in common with those ruined aristocrats: Pigs. Heritage pigs, to be exact.

This week’s episode not only has Jazz infiltrating the Manor but the improbable “pig” word rolling off Countess Grantham’s ultra-refined lips. Yup,  our royal farmers are in the hog-raising business.

If Grantham has his hand in it, you can guess this foray will prove imporkcunious. And wasn’t it surprising that the Granthams would choose the Tamworth breed (the world’s oldest) over the more famous pug-nosed Yorkshire? The Tam, afterall, is the result of a cross with an Irish pig, while the eponymous Yorksire was started in their backyard.

The history of domestic pigs is as fascinating as the animals themselves. Even more interesting is how their wild forebear, the Eurasian Boar, has played a central role in European culture, food, and mythology. This Christmas, Erin gave me “The Golden-Bristled Boar”, a book chronicling its history. (Coincidently, the Paris-based author, Jeffrey Greene, also wrote a book on Bamberger ranch, which explains his frequent references to our Texas-sized wild hog problem.

Just hours before watching the Downton Abbey pig scene, Erin and I had released our latest litter of heritage hogs onto fresh pasture at the river farm. It was, in many ways, a new and long-awaited chapter in our 8-year pig enterprise.

First and foremost, these pigs are a unique hybrid, a genetic mix-up of wild and domestic — the farming equivalent of an inter-racial marriage that was completely unexpected. On Xmas morning 2012, we were greeted with an anonymous gift– a baby wild boar that had found its way across busy Decker Lane and into our pig pens. A victim of suburban sprawl, his turf had been reduced to the scrubby floodplain of Elm Creek. Green Gate offered not only reliable food but the protective services of Spot, our  1000-pound Duroc, who adopted him at first sight.

Our guest soon had a name as well. Erin called him Ugly because, well, he was at first. The name stuck. With good food and fine company, however, Ugly grew into quite a stud.  Standoffish, hypervigilant, and slightly menacing, he had but one purpose – to expand his gene pool – and he began practicing almost from day one on sows five times his size.

Fast forward three months and we had on hand a lean, mean breeding machine surrounded by a dozen bored sows and their lazy, overweight male partners. Ugly literally ran circles around them — a blitzkreig mounting campaign so swift and incessant it can only be described as acrobatic.

If you’ve never seen the newborns of wild boars, you might think their forebears were chipmunks. They possess identical brown horizontal strips that slowly fade beneath a coarse coat more gray than “gold.” By the time Ugly attacked Erin and sealed his fate, he was the father of nearly 30 offspring.

In less than six months, our uninvited guest had nearly doubled the size of our herd and single-handedly created a hybrid line with increased vigor and, we hope, a uniquely Green Gate taste.  Which made it that much harder to send him to the butcher this winter. Ugly was an orphan whose uptown ambitions brought him in from the wild. Seeing that wildness up close gave us a rare chance to better appreciate the “last ferocious beast in the forest.”

This spring we will be offering the first shares of this new line. In addition to spent grain from Hops and Grain brewery, we are finishing them off on a certified organic cover crop of rye grass, Essex rape, daikon radish and purple top turnips. In pig world, that’s about as upper-class a diet as you can find around here.

Lord Grantham would be envious.


Pigs on Pasture at Green Gate River Farm

Pigs on Pasture at Green Gate River Farm