The debacle in Michigan — with small farmers of certain heritage pigs having to kill their stock to prevent being put in jail or face a fine — has me concerned. It is the principle of food freedom and the right of Americans to own private property at stake — not simply heritage pigs — so I thought I would take a look at why heritage pigs are preferred by many and why you should care.


First of all, what are heritage pigs?

Some confuse heritage pigs with endangered breeds. While some heritage pigs are endangered, many are widely raised by small farms across the United States. Heritage breeds are the pigs that were once owned by small farms everywhere. They lived as part of the natural cycle of the farm. Pigs were often used to help root out fields, allowed to forage in the forest, fed scraps from the table and skim milk or whey from the cow, and eventually became juicy bacon for the table. However, when we had the bright idea to mass produce pork, pigs weren’t well suited for the task, so specific breeding developed pigs that were at least more tolerant of living in uncomfortable, cramped quarters.


The pigs of yesterday were largely forgotten, but they have seen a recent wide resurgence with chefs, gourmets and those interested in traditional food supporting farmers who raise heritage pigs. Here are six reasons heritage pigs being raised on small farms are worth your support.


1. Heritage pigs taste good

Like most revivals of traditional practices, it only happens if the product is worth going back too. Unlike the uniform, plastic-wrapped pork that is mass-produced and found in the stores, heritage breeds vary in flavor. They go from the mild and fatty flavors of some breeds to the meaty, dark lean meat of others. Some of the breeds are naturally lean, some make good bacon, others are perfect for lean hams. There is a lot of variety to be found in heritage breeds.

Most people find heritage pigs better-tasting, and for that reason they have made a comeback in America. At a restaurant within walking distance of where I live, there is a popular burger made from heritage pork. It's not the name of the burger but the juicy flavor that makes this a favorite.


2. Heritage pigs are well-suited to small farms

While conventional pig breeds were breed with the thought of indoor confinement and mass production, older breeds are suited for outdoor lives. Some are very well-suited for cold weather making it possible for small farms to raise pigs outdoors with success. These pigs thrive in their natural environment.


One of the farms affected by the ISO (Invasive Species Order) in Michigan raises pigs that are especially suited to the cold winters there. Breeds are often chosen not only because of the taste, but also because of the animals' suitability to the local climate.


3. Small farmers raising heritage pigs give them a good life

For those of us concerned about the welfare of pigs raised in the conventional manner, small farms raising heritage breeds allows us to support farmers who treat their pigs kindly. We can buy knowing that the pigs we consume were given a healthy, happy life. One should note that not all marketed “heritage pigs” are raised on small, healthy farms. Buying directly from local farms is your best bet.


4. Pigs raised in their natural environment are healthier choices

Lard from pastured pigs contain high amounts of vitamin D, while conventional pigs contain minimal amounts. Vitamin D levels are low across America; lard from pastured pigs is an excellent source. Pastured animals as a general rule have better vitamin content, better ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty-acids, and are healthier in general than their confined counterparts.


To quote two studies found at


Pigs raised on pasture have 300 percent more vitamin E and 74 percent more selenium (a vital antioxidant) in their milk than pigs raised in confinement, according to Don C. Mahan, professor of Animal Sciences at Ohio State University. This bounty of nutrients promotes healthier litters, shorter farrowing times, and good milk let down. The pigs' meat is enriched with vitamins as well. Fortifying the pigs' diet with synthetic vitamins, the standard practice in confinement operations, does not achieve the same results because the artificial vitamins are more poorly absorbed.
(Mutetikka, D.B., and D.C. Mahan, 1993. Effect of pasture, confinement, and diet fortification with vitamin E and selenium on reproducing gilts and their progeny. J. Anim. Sci. 71:3211.)

A herd of pigs that had not been exposed to antibiotics for 126 months was divided into two groups and either housed on pasture or in standard indoor units. Over a 20-month period, fecal coliforms from both groups of pigs were tested for resistance to standard antibiotics. Samples taken from the pastured pigs were far less likely to be antibiotic resistant. "The data from this study suggest that exposure to antibiotics is not the only factor that influences the prevalence of bacteria that are resistant to single and multiple antibiotics in the feces of domestic animals and that considerable research is needed to define the factors influencing antibiotic resistance in fecal bacteria.
(Langlois, B. E., K. A. Dawson, et al. (1988). "Effect of age and housing location on antibiotic resistance of fecal coliforms from pigs in a non-antibiotic-exposed herd." Appl Environ Microbiol 54(6): 1341-4. )

5. Heritage breeds that are pastured help the environment

The Union of Concerned Scientists share:

“Most conventional production of swine, poultry, and eggs in this country is done in large confined operations in which animals are fed grain-based diets, given no access to pasture, and fed antibiotics to prevent disease and accelerate growth. These confined or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) pose environmental, animal health, and public health hazards due to the enormous quantities of manure produced in these operations and the large number of animals raised in close quarters.
Well-managed pasture systems can minimize environmental damage to soil, air, and water, and build soil fertility. Animals that can engage in natural behaviors outside as opposed to being crowded indoors tend to be healthier and need fewer antibiotics, which reduces the rate of antibiotic resistance in food-borne bacteria. “

6. Heritage breeds promote diversity
Diversity is good because not only does it provide a wide array of tasty pork, but it also is a better protection against disease. If a new (or old) disease gains the upper hand with one breed of pigs, other breeds are often resistant. If all pigs were raised in CAFOs, diversity would be nil. This would be an unwise situation. Diversity in plants and diversity in animal stock is always a safeguard.

MNN homepage tease photo: Shutterstock

6 reasons to buy heritage pork from small farms
With heritage pork from small farms becoming widely available, I share a couple of reasons why you should support these farmers.