Demand for 'Local' Pork Opens Market for Small Producers

10/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Linda McNatt Va./N.C. Correspondent

SUFFOLK, Va. — Wally and Christina Jones drove for several hours on a weekend morning from Zebulon, N.C., to Suffolk,Va., to talk about pigs.

He’s a firefighter. She’s the mother of two youngsters, ages 5 and 7. And neither have degrees nor great knowledge about producing, raising and marketing hogs on a large-scale basis.

But the couple had just enough knowledge in the basics to speak at a conference held by the Virginia Tech Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center on Small Scale and Niche Market Pork Production. That means raising a small number of pigs for individuals or smaller markets searching for healthier, local food.

Pete Edwards, a retired row-crop farmer in Isle of Wight County, Va., said at the conference that he was looking for something to do after he turned the crops over to his son. He turned to naturally-grown beef and pork. He was amazed at the demand for the meat.

“People wanted local, and they wanted antibiotic-free,” he said. “We were already doing some cattle. I said, let’s do pigs.’ Now, we’re still trying to meet the demand. You’ve got to do volume and you’ve got to keep your overhead down.”

About 50 people attended the conference held Oct. 18-19. They ranged in age from young, newly-married couples, to individuals just entering their retirement years. Attendees came from North Carolina and all over Virginia. Most participants had anywhere between two and 100 pigs, said Mark Estienne, a professor at the Tidewater agricultural center, which put on the conference. Some who attended the conference were just looking to get involved in the market.

They heard experts talk about alternative housing systems for swine, enhancing reproductive efficiency in batch farrowing systems, a newly available product used to immunologically castrate boars and the economics of niche market pork production.

Estienne, along with Virginia Tech graduate student Drew Lugar, conducted an experiment on the immunological castration of boars at the research center. The castration of animals is now outlawed in several countries including the Netherlands, Lugar said.

Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Mexico and Brazil were among the first countries to approve immunological castration as a strategy to prevent boar taint in the meat of boars destined for slaughter. Boar taint is an unpleasant odor emitted from the pork fat of male hogs approaching sexual maturity, but have yet to be castrated.

Pork producers in the U.S. have typically used surgical castration to prevent boar taint in meat. The castration causes extreme pain and is typically done without pain medication.

Otherwise, hogs are fairly easy to raise, with few health problems. But you have to make certain the animals get wormed routinely, said John Parker, executive director of the Virginia Pork Industry Board. He said hogs multiply like cats in the natural state, breeding at least twice a year. That ability to multiply is one of the concerns in a state where feral hogs are beginning to show up, said Parker. The animals can multiply and can do more crop damage by routing in fields than almost any other animal.

Growing up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, Parker was a member of a family of organic farmers, but he never knew it.

“My daddy had 65 sows,” he said. “We didn’t give pigs antibiotics because we couldn’t afford antibiotics. People pay today for what they perceive is better than other products. They go to these shops with locally-grown meats because the people there know the names of their customers.”

Niche market specialists also recognize ethnicity, Parker said. More than 13 percent of the population in the U.S. is Hispanic and the Asian population is also growing rapidly. Parker said ethnic groups have needs for and desire naturally-raised meats.

“Be creative,” he said. “Bring your product home and name it. Create your own product.”

Wally Jones, who now raises eight hogs, admits he hadn’t thought that far ahead when he first got involved in the market. Like the others, he said he’s been surprised with the demand.

Jones also grew up on a tobacco farm. His dad raised three or four pigs a year for the family’s needs. When his first child was born seven years ago, he said, he was the seventh generation of his family to be living on the family farm.

There are only about 45 acres of his family farm left, with 14 cleared acres. He’s thinking about increasing his small herd.

“I wanted my kids to know more about the farm,” Jones said. “I wanted them to know where their food came from.”

The children have accepted growing their own food without any problem, Christina Jones said. They know when the baby pigs come to the farm that they are there to produce food.

“I could have 20 or 30 more right now without any problem,” Wally Jones said. “The rumor got out that I was raising hogs, and people wanted them. They come to me.”

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