Jurassic Pork: The Heritage Breed That Could Make Life Better for Farmers and Pigs Alike
When King William I of Württemberg crossbred the Russian wild boar with the Chinese Meishan hog in 1821, he created a pig like the world had never seen. Dubbed the Swabian Hall, the prized new breed had bright red flesh, marbling like a Kobe steak, and unsaturated fat that would melt at the touch of a finger. It won the pork championship at the 1892 World's Fair, but owing to export restrictions, it never made its way to the U.S.
One hundred eighty-seven years later, computer programmer–turned–pig farmer Carl Egar Blake finally figured out a workaround to German Confederation–era laws, re-creating the storied breed himself. More important, he's doing it in an ethical, sustainable, and downright revolutionary way. Now that factory farms and big corporations are closing in on his Iowa property, he’s moving the operation to Missouri, where he plans to quadruple the size of his herd and pioneer a system of rotational pasturing. If Blake’s model—which he calls the “wagon wheel method” because of its uniquely circular and segmented arrangement—works, it could provide other independent farmers with a blueprint for sustainably and profitably raising animals.
Documenting the whole process is Brett Kuxhausen, a student in Montana State University’s MFA program in science and natural history filmmaking. His film, Pork.0, started out as a master’s thesis but has turned into a passion project documenting a pivotal point in domestic pork production. He is seeking $6,000 on Kickstarter to finish the documentary.
Unlike the others who have followed Blake on his quest to raise the Iowa Swabian Hall—National Geographic recently produced a reality show, Little Pig Man, about his farm—Kuxhausen comes at the project from a personal angle. He grew up spending time on his grandfather’s farm in Iowa, where he saw a good farmer forced into raising a high volume of animals to make ends meet.
“One of the reasons I wanted to capture Carl’s story was to show there’s an alternative way to do things,” Kuxhausen told TakePart by phone. “Even though you might not necessarily make a ton of money, you’re not selling out to a corporation—you’re not sacrificing your morality in raising the livestock.”
Blake certainly isn’t sacrificing his morality in raising the Iowan Swabian Halls. He lets the pigs roam free and feeds them hydroponically grown barley and acorns that fall from the oaks on his property. Not only is Blake able to save money by growing his own feed, but after he stopped using a traditional soy and corn diet, his pigs got healthier.
“The fact of the matter was, when I started feeding them barley roots, all of a sudden, they had no more coughs, they had no more colds—I had the healthiest pigs you could imagine.” Blake told TakePart in an interview. “I didn’t even have to use antibiotics anymore that year.”
The pigs aren’t just healthy; they’re also world-class tasty. One of Blake's Iowa Swabian Halls won the heritage pig cook-off Cochon 555 in San Francisco, and some of America’s best chefs—including Michael Anthony of New York’s Gramercy Tavern—are using it in their restaurants.
If using hydroponics is producing such amazing pigs at a fraction of the cost, then why isn’t everyone doing it? According to Blake, part of the reason is that farmers are flat-out being lied to. Even though the original Swabian Hall pigs were fed fodder, it was a widely held belief in America that pigs couldn’t survive on a grass-and-root-based diet. Also, as Kuxhausen puts it, "Around the older farmers in the Midwest, there’s still the idea that sustainability is 'just that hippie shit.' "
Showing people that the traditional way can be improved on, if not completely done away with, is what makes Pork.0 so important, and—according to Blake—what makes Kuxhausen the right filmmaker for the job. He’s not trying to profit off of Blake’s big personality, and he’s not trying to manufacture some easily consumable, Green Acres–type story line. Kuxhausen is going about the project in an informative, sincere, skilled manner.
“He understands the story,” Blake said. “He knows what it’s about, he knows why it’s important, and he knows to put the eye of the camera on the right spots to make the elements work.”
Kuxhausen has filmed most of the documentary but needs funds to make another trip down to Missouri, where Blake is partnering with a sister farm to implement his new design. The farms will be shaped like a wagon wheel, with the feed, water, and electricity all placed at the center and pastures for different-aged pigs coming off like spokes. Each pig pen will be triangular, with the narrow end funneling the pigs toward the central hub. This design is important to both sustainability and scalability because it allows one farmer and one herding dog to efficiently transport a large number of animals. Anyone who has ever tried to catch a pig in a square pen can attest to the difficulty.
Blake sees his farming method and Kuxhausen’s documentary as key steps in allowing independent farmers to start competing with mass-scale, environmentally destructive confinement facilities.
“If Brett can capture this on film—our struggle, what we’ve done, how we’ve done it, why we’ve done it—I believe that we have a technical model for others to follow and [can] develop systems that will be more sustainable in the long run.”