ORLAND, Maine — Black, blonde, brindle, red and racing stripe, the Mangalitsa piglets at Joe Brown’s Longshot Revival Homestead in Orland squealed and pranced, rooted in the mud and suckled on their mothers Monday afternoon.
The wooly piglets, some of which were only 2 weeks old, don’t all look alike. But they have something in common: They are descended from the heritage pigs that lived at Jerry Ireland’s farm in Swanville.
Ireland may face a jury as soon as next month to be tried on 13 counts of animal cruelty. He was charged after allegedly killing and burying about a dozen Mangalitsa pigs at Ireland Hill Farms in March 2018, just a day before state animal welfare agents were scheduled to check on them. Angus — the ailing Mangalitsa rescued and named by workers at Peace Ridge Sanctuary in Brooks — was thought to be the lone survivor of Ireland’s farm.
But Brown told the BDN last week there were five other pigs rescued just hours before state agents conducted their raid on Ireland’s Swanville farm. They arrived at Brown’s homestead in rough shape — but three of the five made it.
“These pigs didn’t die,” he said. “I got them, and I did my damndest to do the best by them I could.”
It all started more than two years ago, when the Army National Guard veteran bought three bred sows from Ireland, paying him $1,800 total without seeing the animals. But Brown said Ireland delivered five pigs to him, not the three they had agreed on. At that time, the Orland farmer did not know much about pigs, but he said it didn’t take long before he realized that there was something wrong with these animals. They were skinny, with lice, parasites and chemical burns on their rear, which Brown said likely happened from bedding in their own feces.
“It took us a long time to get through the disease,” he said. “We had a lot of negative stuff.”
Efforts Monday to speak with Ireland’s attorney, Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor, were not immediately successful. In a prior interview, the lawyer said that his client treated all the animals on his farm humanely and that the criminal charges against his client stem from the state’s misunderstanding of how to properly care for Mangalitsa pigs. The heritage breed is not common in Maine but is prized for the flavor of its meat.
Brown’s own path toward raising the rare pigs was winding. The 28-year-old grew up on Long Shot Farm in Corinth, where his family raised miniature horses, chicken and other livestock before the Great Recession and illness in the family forced its closure in 2008. He joined the Army National Guard at 19, and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. Although his time overseas was “fairly inactive,” he said, without any casualties, his transition back to life back home was not easy.
“I had a hard time adjusting,” he said, specifying struggles with both mental and physical health. He sought treatment, including an operation for tumors on his spine, and things were improving. That’s when a vocational rehabilitation counselor encouraged him to get a desk job of some sort. It didn’t appeal to Brown.
“I found out about this group called United Farmer Veterans [of Maine],” he said.
At that time, Ireland was the head of the nonprofit, which seeks to help veterans like Brown get into farming. Ireland resigned not long after being charged with animal cruelty. But before that, he had talked to Brown about the possibilities of raising the heritage pigs.
“I thought, that sounds cool,” Brown said. “I grew up speciality farming and figured maybe I could raise 20 or 30 pigs. It would be like therapy.”
But when he received the pigs, it became something of a crash course in pig veterinary science. The animals were friendly but ill and malnourished. Three were pregnant, and one died when she had her piglets. When the first set of piglets were born, the other pigs tried to attack the babies.
“I stopped that,” he said, adding that he learned that the attack likely was a sign of extreme protein deficiency.
Today, the three surviving sows from Swanville are Magnolia, Lulu and Lemon, a very large pig, that no one would call “skinny.” Bobo the boar, friendly and protective, was one of the first litter of piglets born on the Orland farm. All these pigs are lively, healthy and, he hopes, happy.
“Happy pigs are better pigs,” Brown said. “Low-stress pigs is kind of my goal.”
Raising the pigs, though initially stressful for him in some ways, has worked out. He found a mentor and friend in Mark Baker, a retired Air Force veteran from Michigan who raises Mangalitsa pigs. Brown also has reached out to organizations such as the Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to help him as he learns more about pigs and running his own small farm. He even was accepted into the MOFGA Journeyperson program, which provides two years of support to new Maine farmers.
“I’m trying to make it as a full-time farmer,” he said.
And even though the pigs had a rough beginning, he is delighted with how far they have come.
“It’s kind of sad they didn’t have the best life, but I’ve given them the best life I can every day since then,” he said.