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Rare wooly pig goes from near-extinction to a Maine farm near you

Posted April 23, 2016, at 8:17 a.m.
Last modified April 23, 2016, at 6:18 p.m.

SWANVILLE, Maine — The two fleecy pigs turned heads even before they were unloaded from the trailer that had brought them to the rich Swanville farmland, where they’ll make their new home.

“They’re so cute!” exclaimed Aana Ireland, the 2½-year-old daughter of farmers Jerry and Emily Ireland of Ireland Hill Farms, as she peeked in on the two wooly Mangalitsa pigs that had come all the way from Michigan.

Their thick coats of curly blond fleece, similar to that of a sheep, certainly make the pigs stand out. But that’s not the only reason why this Hungarian heritage breed is appealing to more and more Maine farmers, who are deciding it’s worth their while to bring the pigs from the Michigan breeders.

“There’s been an explosion recently of Mangalitsas in Maine,” Deborah Evans of Bagaduce Farm in Brooksville said. “They are fabulous. And they grow up to make fabulous meat.”

The story of the Mangalitsas, which also are called Mangalicas, nearly went in a very different direction. The breed was bred for lard in the 1830s by Archduke Joseph and was in high demand when lard was the preferred fat for cooking and baking. According to D’Artagnan, a New Jersey-based purveyor of fine meats, the Mangalitsa is one of the fattiest pigs in the world, with fat making up an average of 65 to 70 percent of its body weight.

But herds shrank with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, according to The New York Times, and they dwindled even more when less expensive vegetable oils became popular after World War II. By 1991, when Hungarian animal geneticist Peter Toth went looking for purebred Mangalitsas to keep the strain alive, he found fewer than 200 in the country.

“Sometimes, I would rescue the pigs right from the slaughterhouse,” Toth told The New York Times in 2009.

But Toth persevered, and the wooly, fatty pig has gone from being all but forgotten to being highly sought after by chefs, who love the marbled, flavorful meat. Today, there are more than 50,000 of the pigs available each year, according to D’Artagnan, and a few American farmers are dedicated to raising the specialized breed.

Enter Mark and Jill Baker of Bakers Green Acres in Marion, Michigan. The family has been raising Mangalitsas since the pigs came to the United States in 2009 and said the breed is well-suited to Maine’s harsh climate. The Bakers were in Maine to make their Mangalitsa deliveries to farmers here.

“We’re trying to get them established in different parts of the country as best we can. … Maine’s probably the biggest [market] for us,” Mark Baker said. “Chefs really like them because this breed is what they call a lard-type breed. The meat is not the other white meat.”

To demonstrate what he means, the farmer used a knife to cut a few thin slices off a leg of prosciutto that had been curing for a year and five months. The salt-cured meat was succulent, nearly melting on the tongue, and it was a rich red color — very different in flavor and appearance from the pale pink sheets of prosciutto that often can be found in Maine supermarkets.

“The pig is part of the equation,” Mark Baker said. “But the method it’s raised is another part. These pigs need to be out on pasture or in the woods to reach their full potential. They’re the happiest when they’re foraging and digging.”

He said he checks out would-be Mangalitsa farmers to make sure they can provide what the pigs need before he will deliver them. The pigs don’t require a lot of infrastructure, in part because their fleece keeps them warm in the winter, Baker said, adding that they do need at least half an acre each.

“If it’s a factory farm operation, we can’t help them,” Mark Baker said. “If the meat has that Mangalitsa stamp, chefs are expecting something special.”

In December, the Bakers brought 48 pigs to 10 different farms in Maine. This time around, they were making deliveries of 22 pigs to different Maine farms, and they will come back in October to run a couple of nose-to-tail workshops to butcher Mangalitsas and process the meat.

After Jerry Ireland backed the pig trailer up to the enclosure and let his new Mangalitsas out, they rolled ecstatically in a pile of potatoes and trotted around to explore their new home.

“Although this just looks like grass to you, which it is, they’ll turn it into high quality pork,” Mark Baker said. “It’s a magic animal.”

Ireland said he is happy to add the Mangalitsas to his 82-acre diversified farm, which was started 3½ years ago on land his wife’s family gave them. Ireland is a U.S. Army veteran, and he is the executive director of the Maine Farmer Veteran Coalition. He said the uncommon Mangalitsas should be a good match for his farm and that he would like to see others in the Farmer Veteran Coalition raise them, too. There are 142 veteran-owned farms in the state.

“One of the critical things that veterans bring to the table is out-of-the-box thinking,” Ireland said, adding that he is looking forward to providing regular Mainers with high-quality pork from the new pigs. “I think they’re a very durable pig, and we have an awesome agricultural opportunity here.”

 

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