Farmers’ market pig-out

Dec. 14, 2013 @ 06:33 PM

At the South Durham Farmers’ Market, our hog farmers are working to make our state’s pork production small and sustainable again. North Carolina has risen to become the second largest producer of pork (after Iowa), but this has come at a cost to our environment, the small family farmer and the welfare of the animals we consume.

Despite exponential growth in our state’s hog populations, from 1986 to 2006, there were 85 percent fewer farms raising pigs. The benefits of the hog industry expansion have been reaped by the largest industrialized hog operations, which rely on toxic waste lagoons, antibiotics and hormones. That is one of the reasons it is especially important to support small-scale hog farmers like Green Button Farm, Fickle Creek Farm and Walters Unlimited, who continue to be dedicated to raising hogs humanely and naturally.

Roland Walters and his wife, Stacey, started Walters Unlimited when they took over his family’s beef cattle operation in 2004. They soon added chickens, hogs and even catfish to the farm.

His pork production started out small with just a couple of weaned piglets from a neighbor. Six years later, Roland now shares six sows with that same neighbor. The sows are all Tamworths, one of the oldest and rarest pig breeds, and the farm’s sire is a mellow, red Duroc boar. The Tamsworth is a lean, medium-sized hog, only reaching 400 to 450 pounds, which is considerably less than the 600 to 700 pounds typical of pigs raised in industrialized operations.

They are extremely resilient, with a thick coat of bristles and tawny-red skin to protect them from sunburn. With long snouts and long legs built for covering ground, they are also avid foragers, well adapted for rummaging through soil for the vitamins, minerals, insects and plant materials that make up a pig’s omnivorous diet.

The Walters Unlimited sows spend all their time roaming and rooting over 15 acres of pasture, finding shade under clusters of trees and the forest-lined fence. Pigs that are approaching their slaughter weight are moved to an acre of paddocked woodlot and rotated every 2 to 4 weeks to a new paddock, depending on the amount of forage available. As a livestock nutrition specialist, Roland augments their diet, especially in winter, with his own special mix of grains, minerals and probiotics, making sure not to provide too much feed, so they remain motivated to forage.

Hogs raised this way do take longer to reach slaughter weight than those raised in the confined animal feeding lots that populate southeast North Carolina. Still, they only take a couple of months longer, reaching weight in just over six months. This past year, Walters Unlimited processed about 40 hogs to bring to local farmers’ markets, his lean and flavorful pork reflecting the active lifestyle and natural diet of his hogs. Personally, I have never had better chorizo. Browned in chunks, it adds spicy sweetness to my vegetable soups and frittatas.

As with all of our meat vendors, the story of how Roland raises his livestock is not one that can be easily conveyed on a supermarket label, but at the South Durham Farmers’ Market, it’s as easy as asking Roland himself.

Elizabeth Zander is market manager of the South Durham Farmers’ Market.