ACORNS FOR PIGS // the local food report

Good morning. That up there is my friend Drew Locke's pig, digging into a tote of veggie scraps from the juice bar at 141 Bradford Natural

Drew raised five pigs this year. He raised a few last year, too, as did my friend Tamar Haspel. George Mooney raises twelve on his farm in Truro every year. And Steve Junker just slaughtered his first two this fall. This week, I asked all four of them the same question: What should a pig eat?

I was all ramped up after my research on grass-fed beef. It was so clear! So to the point. COWS SHOULD EAT GRASS! It's better for everyone that way. Turkeys and chickens seemed pretty straight forward, too: some bugs, some pasture, a lot of running around and scratching in the dirt. Some kitchen scraps and supplemental feed if you like.

Well. Not so with pigs. Some things about local pigs are uniform: apparently just about all of them come from a farm in Bournedale, from a man named Bob Flynn. They are all pink, all regular-looking. Everyone I talked with who's raising pigs is pretty health conscious. But they all feed their pigs different things. Pigs, it turns out, are the classic omnivore's dilemma for farmers. 

In the wild, pigs exist mainly on a diet of plant material. About 10 percent of their food comes from animal sources, but the rest is roots and seeds and leaves and nuts. Plants make good eating for pigs. But pigs are also referred to as "opportunistic scavengers." In plain English this means that if they happen upon a bag full of jelly donuts or a corn cache, they will stay until they've eaten every last bite. They remind me of black labs and toddlers in this respect. And, as with black labs and toddlers, just because a pig likes something doesn't necessarily mean it's good for them. 

That said, most diets treat a pig just fine. Most pigs don't live much longer than six months, which means there isn't time for diet to cause the kind of chronic diseases it does with some humans. But there are certain diets that can make pigs taste better, and also certain diets that can make the pigs' meat and fat better for us nutritionally. Thankfully, these diets tend to line up.

The best is acorns. Let loose in a forest, wild nuts are pigs' favorite food. They like them all: beechnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, and especially acorns. The Spanish have figured this out. For jamón íberico de bellota—jam from black Iberian pigs raised on acorns—they raise the pigs to slaughter size on 7 million acres of "dehesa," mountainous meadows populated by oak trees. Here the pigs forage on grass, fruit, and most importantly, the acorns that fall to the ground. Some growers finish the pigs free roaming, others on a specialized diet of acorns and olives, and others on acorns alone. The jams reputedly taste amazing—they sell for upwards of $50 a pound, and even more in the United States, where they weren't allowed to be imported until 2008.

But wait. We have acorns, right? That's what some local farmers are thinking. Three of the four people I talked with had heard of the Spanish jams, and two actually tried finishing their animals on local tree nuts. The tough thing is that the Spanish farmers allow about 6 acres for each animal—not exactly a workable model on the Cape, where land is at a premium. So instead, Tamar and Drew collected acorns and brought buckets of them to their pigs. Drew says his weren't so sure about them; Tamar says hers ate them up like candy. Both said the resulting meat was delicious, and based on the findings of numerous studies, it was also probably healthier.

With all the oak trees we have on the Cape, it's something to think about.

P.S. If you're interested in finding local pork, there's a list of producers here. You can change the zip code to search closer to home!


Ed Miller said...

Jamon iberico from acorn-fed pigs is unbelievably good. And the "dehesa" you refer to is in Extremadura, the far west of Spain, where pigs and sheep (whose milk is used to make the phenomenal cheeses called Torta del Casar and La Serena) greatly outnumber tourists. Teresa and I were there this past spring, when those mountain meadows were blanketed with wildflowers. You, Alex, and Sally should come on the next trip.
And, oh yes, we know farmer Bob Flynn in Bournedale. He supplied the pig for our last pig roast. Charming fellow.

Anonymous said...

There's an old English proverb that "Acorns make the best bacon" - universal truth!

Patrick said...

Folks -

I live in Bourne and I had no idea there was a pig farm here. How do you go about buying pork from Ten of Us Farm? I notice their website hasn't been updated since 2011.. Any info would be appreciated. Thanks.

Elspeth said...

Hi Patrick,

I'm not sure whether or not they sell pork. I know you can get a live piglet, but not sure how much that helps! You might get in touch with Steve Junker at WCAI—he got his piglets there and may know more about whether or not the farm sells pork too as he's visited. I also noticed their webpage looked a bit out of date.

Sorry not to be of more help...


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