Pink pigs & white chickens: Why I choose not to farm heritage breeds
These days small-scale farming makes you a bit of a rebel. It groups like-minded farmers together who flip the middle finger to large commercial agriculture. While those running commercial farms often deem us 'hobby farmers' and 'hippies' we're proudly doing things our way.
Farmers specializing in pasture-raised animals often point out the negatives of commercially bred animals and are quick to tout the benefits of their heritage breeds of chickens and pigs. You'll see spotted brown and black pigs filling the Instagram feeds of every local small-scale producer. So why in the world are my pigs pink?
Because, when it comes right down to it, the majority of customers will only pay for so much 'different'.
Now let me explain. And, please keep in mind that these are simply my opinions. I'm in no way insulting the choices made by other farmers who choose to raise heritage breeds. We all have choices to make as farmers and this is how I came to mine.
Take heritage bred chicken for example, these birds take at lease double the amount of time to raise than a commercially bred broiler chicken. So with that increased lifespan also comes substantially higher feed bills, especially if you feed a high-quality feed like we choose to with our non-GMO feed that's free of corn and soy.
Also, since they're older at processing, they produce much tougher meat. Which is fine so long as you know how to cook it, but not everyone knows how to cook a chicken like this, and consumers who don't, aren't willing to pay $50 for a chicken that tastes like a tough old bird.
By choosing to raise a commercially bred meat chicken I'm giving customers meat they're more familiar with. Chickens with larger breast meat that's tender yet with hands down better flavour than you'd get from a factor farm. And, I'm raising them ethically.
Our birds get a lower protein level to slow their growth rate once they mature into their adult feathers. They're given substantially more space while inside the barn to run around than their commercial counterparts not to mention their access to the outdoors where they can dig and forage for bugs and grubs. And, at night our birds get a lights-out period allowing them to sleep instead of the 24 hour lights-on at commercial farms -- If birds don't sleep they also don't stop eating and they therefore grow faster.
All of this allows us to slow down their growth rate so we can avoid that 'Frankenstein' chicken syndrome commercial farms face, where birds grow so rapidly they're no longer able to move around as their legs can't support the weight of their bodies.
We raise a commercial breed of chicken the right way and in the end we have delicious chicken that you can feel good about feeding to your family and at a price that you can afford.
Now what about those pink pigs?
Heritage breeds like Berkshires are well-known for their fat composition and marbling, with chefs regularly complement the flavouring of their fat.
But, there's a heck of a lot of consumers out there who have no issue with digging a pack of cheaply produced pork chops out of the meat bin at their local mega-grocer. It's the meat they grew up with, it's what they know.
We live in a time where customer are scared of consuming animal fat so the complaints I hear most regularly is that heritage meat produces too much fat for many customers. They say the bacon off many breeds of heritage hogs is far too much fat for them. And, same goes for cuts like ham -- By the time to cut the fat off you're left with far less meat. These days, fat scares people -- whether it should or not.
I've raised heritage pigs before, after hearing other farmers tell me heritage is best, I took a break from my pink pig ways and tried my hand at heritage and at the end of the day I wasn't as happy with the meat it produced. Chops with too large a fat cap just aren't appealing to me.
We raise our pink pigs on pasture without the use of confinement systems where they can run around supporting their unique physiological needs like digging and wallowing in the mud. This space to roam slows down their growth compared to a factory farm raised pig. We also feed them a superior diet free of commercially produced grain -- Our hogs are on a diet of fruits, veggies, honey, nuts, and granola all recovered from our food waste program.
These slower growing breeds in the end often come with a substantially higher price because the feed costs are much higher.
So I raise meat for the people like me. Those who want great tasting meat from animals that were raised right and meat that they know how to cook and that's at a price point they can afford.
Getting customers to understand the true cost of food production is already something farmers like me struggle with, so the last thing I want to do is give customers a product that is too 'different' than what they're used to and at a price that's out of their budget.
Because customers are only willing to pay for so much 'different'. And, the 'different' that I chose is a superior diet free of medications and raising our animals on pasture -- So far that's the right combination for me.
Kendall ~ The Boss Chick at Central Park Farms