North Carolina Hog Producers Gain by Raising Pastured Pigs
|Michael and Russell Wright of Bladen County, North Carolina, have begun raising hogs outdoors, part of a project that combines land-grant university, foundation and community- based organization support to introduce low-cost hog systems. |
Photo by Chuck Talbott
At a time when most of North Carolinas hog industry is corporate-run, a group of independent-minded producers is experimenting with raising small herds of hogs outside. The farmers are gambling that pasture-based pork systems, gaining in credibility and acceptance, will bring them a slice of the marketplace and, perhaps more important, a satisfying livelihood.
In 2002, 10 North Carolina farmers each received 12 pregnant sows and a boar as part of a program run by North Carolina A & T University, funded by a private foundation and supported by a nonprofit organization that provides free livestock. The farmers also received portable huts for hog farrowing.
They are participating in a project that builds hope that small-scale producers can raise their own hogs, something rarely done in at least a decade in North Carolina because of the dominance of corporations. The corporations have a virtual lock on markets and own most of the processing plants, effectively blocking independent producers from the wholesale pork market.
I want small-scale producers to have an option, said Chuck Talbott, an animal science researcher at North Carolina A & T State University who conceived of the project. I thought that people like to raise hogs and want to raise hogs but not if they have to lose money.
The NC A & T project seeks to give independent producers another choice: raising small herds outdoors. Talbott is researching pasture-based systems rotations of pigs and organic vegetables in dry lots and in forest settings as part of a SARE grant, and has reached out to small producers.
Hog farmers in the NC A & T project can choose their markets, but all of the participating farmers have the opportunity to sign contracts with Niman Ranch, a high-end retailer, or pursue other direct-marketing channels locally. The Iowa-based Niman Ranch buys pork from small-scale producers who adhere to a strict code of animal husbandry, including raising hogs on pastures or in deep bedding.
The North Carolina program is targeted at low-income, primarily African American farmers with an interest in raising hogs outside. All must have some experience raising hogs and fall within income thresholds required by Heifer International, the nonprofit organization providing the animals as part of its pass-on program.
Everyone Ive met is excited about the opportunity, said Steve Muntz, Appalachian project manager for Heifer, whose program requires farmers to give the same number of animals to another producer after the hogs have produced offspring. Theyre getting inexpensive facilities, and the hogs are coming without cost.
The herds will stay small because North Carolina slaughtering laws require that farmers raise fewer than 250 hogs if they are going to process independently.
Farmer coordinator Mike Jones, who trains participating farmers for NC A & T, said the six farmers who enrolled for the first shipment seem ideal for the assignment.
Most of the people Ive met do not lack intelligence or education, but they feel depressed or discouraged because theyve had so much difficulty, said Jones, who bred and grew out the sows. The ones Ive worked with have become more motivated and excited. Thats the greatest benefit Ive seen.
Jones will work with the group throughout the season. North Carolinas mild climate should prove perfect for the portable huts, which will be placed under trees to shelter them from the heat. While the outdoor system may be new for the farmers, others in the Midwest and Texas have achieved great success lowering input costs, eliminating manure buildup concerns and raising a premium product that brings higher prices.
Small-scale hog farmers in North Carolina
|Educating Team |
North Carolina A & T University and Heifer International
|Challenges Addressed |
Little capital or equipment
Little access to processors
Few profitable markets
|Connection Strategies |
Identifying farmers through extension contacts
Providing free structures, livestock and market opportunities
|Teaching Methods |
Technical advice as needed in the field