Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Free-roaming hogs more flavorful

By Estes Thompson
The Associated Press

NEWTON GROVE, N.C. - Unlike the future hams sandwiched together in industrial-style swine factories, the hogs that roam and root their way through Wade Cole's farm seem a contented lot.

They trot out to meet Cole at the fence and gather around, grunting and jockeying for position at feeding time. The rest of the day, they're free to roll in the mud, flop in the sun or root through a former soybean field for leftover beans.

Cole's 60-hog operation may be small compared to commercial farms where hundreds of hogs are raised in metal barns without a glimpse of the sky, but some see a return to traditional methods as a way to revive family farms and maybe even produce better-tasting pork.

"This is how you used to raise hogs," Cole said as he walked through the pig lot. "It's pretty easy. I come down and water them and check on them. The electric fence keeps them in."

A program financed by tobacco settlement money could make more of these small-scale farms a reality in a state where the billion-dollar-a-year swine industry has been growing.

Over the last two decades, the number of small hog farms has declined from 23,000 to fewer than 2,000, according to Chuck Talbott, a professor at North Carolina A&T University, which administers the free-range hog program.

Through funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation, the program supplies breeding stock hogs and equipment such as fencing. It also arranged for Cole and others to sell their hogs to an Iowa meat company, which offers a premium price for free-range pork. The foundation gave the project $250,000 last year and $200,000 this year.

Cole, 52, has lived about three decades on his family's 75-acre farm in Johnston County, where he also has a small tobacco crop and raises soybeans, corn, cucumbers, squash and peppers for the wholesale market.

When Cole wanted to supplement his income from his day job at a utility, he thought of raising hogs as his father had done. That was about seven or eight years ago. Cole couldn't afford to get into the hog business, and survive, until last year. The problem wasn't raising the hogs, it was finding someone to buy them.

Under the guaranteed price offered by the buyer - Niman Ranch Pork Co. of Thornton, Iowa - Cole figures he can make a profit of about $2,200 on the hogs he sells.

"The reason I got into it is I get a set price for the hogs and I can grow them in a more humane way," Cole said.

Cole's pigs live in small metal shelters in a 5-acre field where he had grown soybeans. The animals root out leftover beans to supplement their diet of mash made from beet pulp, soybeans, corn and molasses. During the summer, Cole will move the fence so the hogs can live in shadier woods.

A&T's Talbott said the idea isn't to compete with large farms.

"We just want a place at the table. You can't do it if you don't have a market," Talbott said.

That comes from pork connoisseurs who swear hogs raised in a freer environment have less stress, which makes the meat more tender and flavorful.

At Durham's Magnolia Grill, chef and owner Ben Barker said the free-range pork is a hit with customers because of taste that comes from intramuscular fat.

Leaner pork produced on corporate farms "wasn't delivering what we wanted," Barker said.

Paul Willis, manager of the Niman pork operation, buys free-range pigs from North Carolina and other states to supplement the 2,500 raised on his Iowa farm.

Willis said his company pays 40 cents per pound to more than 250 farmers from North Carolina and eight other states - about 8 cents higher than the price for regular pork.

"We've had people say they hadn't had pork like this since they were a kid," Willis said. "The hogs live outdoors and are exposed to dirt and natural sunshine. They tend to be less stressed and that all affects the meat quality."

Kansas City-based Premium Standard Farms, which produces about 4 million hogs in North Carolina, Missouri and Texas, agreed there's a place for the smaller producers but wouldn't cede any ground on the question of flavor.

"Taste is very subjective," said vice president Charlie Arnot, who noted that the company's pork has won taste contests in the United States and Japan. "Different consumers have different tastes and we think that niche markets have opportunities for lots of producers."

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