Berkshire Pigs Good for the Small Farm
Berkshire pigs are an excellent choice for farmers who want to raise heritage livestock with a taste consumers appreciate. Not so very long ago, almost every farm had a few pigs, which were often dubbed “the mortgage lifter” thanks to their easy profit potential.
But in recent decades, pigs moved from the farmstead to the factory as small farmers couldn’t possibly compete with corporate operations with 1,000 or more animals raised under one roof.
Small farmers are once again finding that there are potential profits—and lots of excellent meat in again keeping pigs: The trick is to keep niche breeds that produce higher-quality meat and to market directly to consumers (and chefs) who are interested in taste, humane treatment of animals and better stewardship of the environment.
One of the breeds that farmers are finding to work well for these consumers is the Berkshire. They’re hardy, they have good mothering capabilities and they perform very well outdoors, especially when grazing on pasture. Their meat is darker than commercial pork and far more flavorful than the pork found in your grocery store freezer.
Back from the Brink
Berkshire pigs are one of the oldest identifiable breeds. These black hogs, with white “points” (white areas on their feet, snout and tail) were documented in the English “shire of Berks” over 350 years ago and made their way to the United States in the early 1800s. In 1875, breeders formed the American Berkshire Association (ABA), making it the first breeders group and swine registry in the world.
Initially the Berkshires thrived, thanks largely to their exceptionally tasty meat, but as the pork industry consolidated under the control of just a handful of large corporations in the 1980s and 1990s, and efficiency of production became the name of the game, the Berkshire population plummeted. The “pork industry” simply wasn’t interested in Berkshires because they were slower growing, didn’t produce as much lean meat (which the industry believed was the only thing consumers would buy) and didn’t perform as well in confinement as the Duroc, Hampshire and Yorkshire breeds.
Despite these setbacks, some independent farmers who were members of the ABA kept breeding registered hogs. “Berkshire producers didn’t open their books [to non-Berkshire bloodlines], they never changed and the breed is intact,” says Mike Telford, Marketing Director for the ABA’s Berkshire Meat Products program. “The breed has tremendous meat quality and today’s consumers, both nationally and internationally, are really seeking out high-quality meat products.”
Thanks to this consumer-driven demand for good meat, Berkshire numbers are again climbing and there is opportunity for small producers to profit from these pigs.
This article first appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Hobby Farms Magazine