Hog wild: Local pig farmers let their stock roam free to feast on chestnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts, producing pork that butchers and chefs swear by

Caption page 1: Waynesboro’s Autumn Olive Farms crossed two heritage breeds—Patterson Registered Berkshires and Ossabaw Island hogs—to create the signature AOF Berkabaw, a six-year project that the owners call “the perfect pig.” Photo: Zack Wajsgras Caption page 1: Waynesboro’s Autumn Olive Farms crossed two heritage breeds—Patterson Registered Berkshires and Ossabaw Island hogs—to create the signature AOF Berkabaw, a six-year project that the owners call “the perfect pig.” Photo: Zack Wajsgras

The rain lets up all at once and the sun burns through the clouds, turning the dreary October day startlingly warm and pleasant. Clay Trainum, 58, walks swiftly along a dirt farm road behind his Waynesboro home, cutting across a 14-acre field toward a row of about 10 wooden lean-tos. The triangular structures stand at the edge of a forest and are overhung by tree limbs—nut-bearing walnuts, oaks, and hickories, Trainum is quick to point out. Spaced at comfortable intervals and surrounded by scattered piles of hay, the huts give the impression of a small village.

“Pig houses,” says Trainum. He owns this, Autumn Olive Farms, with his wife, Linda. “You ready for a show?”

As if called, the pigs appear: About 10 big sows waddle into the light. They have bristly black hair, long white snouts, sagging teats and strong, squatty legs. A cross between heritage breed Berkshire and Ossabaw Island hogs, the 300- to 500-pound moms look more like wild boars than livestock. The safari-esque impression, however, is curtailed by chubby-cheeked mouths that seem to smile and dozens of curly-tailed piglets that scamper about their mamas’ hooves, playful as puppies.

Clay Trainum started his sustainable pig farm with his wife, Linda, in 2005. Their raise their animals well, with sheltering tents and plenty of good stuff to eat. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

The early autumn has been hectic at Autumn Olive Farm, but in a good way. Trainum and his wife manage about 500 acres and more than 1,500 swine with the help of their two adult sons. When the full heat of summer relents, birthing season begins, and the sows have delivered about 200 piglets in the past five weeks. Ranging freely through parcels like this one, they nest where they please. Most choose lean-to villages or piles of hay tucked under nearby trees and brush. Some opt for wilder spots in the woods—a burrow under a fallen tree, or a leaf-filled nook beneath a rocky outcropping. The Trainums monitor them closely to avoid losing animals to delivery complications.

On top of butchering about 30 pigs a week and delivering meat to Michelin-starred chefs in a territory that includes Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Washington, D.C., and southern Maryland, the job is grueling.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work to raise pigs this way,” says Trainum. “And to me, this isn’t just the right way, it’s the only way.”

By contrast, he describes the cramped, concrete-floored, indoor confinement pins found at factory farms—a “perverse nightmare,” he says, where animals may never see the light of day, much less forage for nuts and berries. “Creating a superior product, being environmentally sustainable, treating animals humanely? If it isn’t required by regulation, if it doesn’t maximize profits, it doesn’t matter.”

Presently, the Berkabaw sows are marching toward a patch of sunlight in a staggered single-file line, trailed by a goofy procession of piglets. Crossing the threshold, the big pigs plop down and commence rolling on their sides like sunning dogs. Some of the piglets take the opportunity to nurse. Others mimic their moms. Most bustle about and play.

“Would you look at that?” says Trainum, like a besotted grandparent. He explains how the pigs prefer to take shelter from the rain and gloom, then “throw a party when the sun comes back out.”

“It always lifts my spirits to see it,” he says. “It’s one of the joys of being a farmer, getting to know these animals and their habits so intimately.”

For Charlottesville-area diners, that intimacy—and the husbandry practices it informs—has led to the creation of what chefs say is a world-class terroir pork product.

“I serve pork from Autumn Olive Farms exclusively,” says Matthew Bousquet, executive chef of 1799 at The Clifton and previous owner and chef of northern California’s Mirepoix, where he won a Michelin star. In terms of flavor and uniqueness, “I’d put this meat up against anything in the world. It’s that good.”

High on the hog

The success of heritage-breed operations in Virginia like Trainum’s and the now-famous  Polyface Farm, in Swoope, has inspired other farmers to follow suit. In turn, increasing awareness and demand among customers has fueled the rise of artisanal abattoirs and butcher shops.

“What we’re seeing is essentially a niche [culinary] renaissance centered around heritage-breed pork products,” says Mark Estienne, a Virginia Tech professor who oversees swine-related research at the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

A butcher at J.M. Stock breaks down an AOF pig. “If someone takes home a Berkshire tenderloin from Autumn Olive, they’re gonna come back for more,” says Stock manager Alex Import. Photo: John Robinson

Though there are no official statistics (the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services neither keeps track of breeds nor categorizes swine farms by size), Estienne says that, of the state’s give-or-take 1,000 hog farms, the vast majority are small-scale producers raising heritage breeds. Most sell their products at local farmer’s markets or by contract with regional restaurants and shops.

But before the current boom there was a bust. By the close of the 1980s, the shift toward “vertically integrated” farming models had reduced the number of Virginia swine farms from about 4,000 to well below 500. In short, says Estienne, one or two corporate farms “bought out the competition, contracted with most of the remaining farmers and dominated the market.”

Though once the norm, the number of heritage animals in Virginia had been in sharp decline since at least the early 1960s.

The animals are finicky, need plenty of space, and perform poorly in intensive farming models, says Estienne. Through time, heritage breeds were replaced by hybrids bred for placidity, and speedy maturation for increased yields. As a result, traditional favorites like Ossabaw Island Hog, Mulefoot, Large Black, Guinea Hog, Choctaw, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Red Wattle nearly vanished.

But that started changing in the mid 2000s, says Estienne. The heritage breed renaissance began at farmer’s markets feeding the locavore and farm-to-table revolutions. Discerning customers looked for environmentally sustainable, humanely raised meats, spurring the demand for free-range pork.

“Ten, 15 years ago, everybody was rediscovering heirloom tomatoes,” says Alex Import, who manages JM Stock Provisions. “Now, the same holds true for heritage-breed meats.”

First and foremost is the taste.

“Farmers like Clay Trainum go insanely over the top to produce meat that tastes fabulous,” says Bousquet. Of course, there’s the freshness factor: Meat from an Autumn Olive Farms hog slaughtered on Monday arrives at 1799 within 48 hours. But that’s just the beginning.   

The pigs are left to forage, feasting on nuts that have fallen from the reforested hickory, oak, and chestnut trees. Farmers supplement their diets with organic grain. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

Roaming hills and hollows for forage builds healthy muscles. Forests and grounds are curated to maximize edibles like wild roots and tubers, nuts, berries, and fruits. Fields are planted with a mix of rotating seasonal crops like pearl millet, winter barley, sunflowers, buckwheat, cowpeas, beans, sun hemp, squash, pumpkins, peanuts, and more. Supplemental feed is made from organic, sustainably-raised local ingredients. Hormones and antibiotics are anathema.

Combined with a climate Estienne says is ideal for raising pigs, the practices minimize stress, which produces better meat, according to studies by food scientists and agronomists, including Estienne.

“On one hand, you have a natural dietary diversity that’s unparalleled throughout the world,” says Import, who has traveled to porcine hot spots in Europe to study under artisan butchers and charcuterie makers. “On the other [hand], you have farmers that truly care about, and are hyperattentive to, their animals’ well being. And I’ve yet to have a customer that doesn’t taste the difference. If somebody takes home a Berkshire tenderloin from Autumn Olive, they’re gonna come back for more.” Though Import declines to provide specific numbers, he says JM Stock sells out of pork products made with Autumn Olive meat each week, and the shop’s clientele is steadily growing.

Fat is flavor

Added value for heritage breeds comes from the fact that, like heirloom tomatoes, different types bring different culinary qualities. Whether evolved or developed through centuries of selective breeding, musculature and fat-storing characteristics can vary drastically from breed to breed, says Estienne. From a culinary perspective, the result is a wide range of flavors, textures, and taste sensations.

Ossabaw Island hogs, for instance, are descended from Iberian swine released by Spanish explorers on an isolated island on the Georgia coast in the 1600s. The animals subsequently developed exquisite foraging instincts and a feast-or-famine gene that supercharged their capacity to store fat. In an ecosystem like the one at Autumn Olive Farms, Ossabaws produce what Import describes as a “crazy, funky, ultra-woodsy, deliciously nutty, hard fat.” Its unique texture and low melting point combine to create a sumptuous and velvety mouthfeel, making the fat ideal for charcuterie blends.

Berkshires, meanwhile, hail from England—the shire of Berks—and are believed to have entered the historical record sometime in the mid-17th century. Their popularity led to the founding of the American Berkshire Association in 1875, the world’s first breeders’ group and swine registry.

“From a butcher’s standpoint, Berkshires produce an ideal carcass,” says Import. “The meat-to-fat ratio is essentially perfect. You get these amazing dark red cuts with hard, white fat and exquisite marbling.”

Bousquet serves dishes incorporating both breeds at 1799. He uses lard from Ossabaws to make breads, as well as for frying and seasoning. A favorite fall dish pairs Berkshire pork belly with foraged chokeberries, pureed butternut squash, kale, and slivers of caramelized heirloom apples.

“I’ve worked with a lot of pork in my career and this is the best I’ve ever eaten,” says Bousquet. (Other chefs with Michelin stars who serve Autumn Olive Farms pork include Patrick O’Connell from The Inn at Little Washington and John Sybert from Tail Up Goat, in Washington, D.C.) Bousquet adds that heritage breed producers in Virginia’s mountain region (and greater Appalachia) have the potential to become for the U.S. what Black Iberian farmers are for Spain. “This meat is a true and authentic expression of the terroir. It’s as close as anything I’ve ever seen, anywhere, that absolutely goes with the region.”

The good earth

Trainum says he’s thrilled eaters have rediscovered heritage pork—and are thereby helping rescue rare breeds and related flavors from the brink of extinction. But he’s equally happy the sustainability practices he uses at Autumn Olive Farms are being adapted elsewhere.

At 1799 at The Clifton, chef Matthew Bousquet serves Autumn Olive Farms pork shoulder with escargot, garlic butter, pinot noir sauce, fried parsley, and a sunny-side-up egg. Photo: Tom McGovern

“In my experience, folks that raise heritage breed pigs strive to be good land stewards,” says Estienne. “They believe in going the extra mile to minimize negative environmental impacts.”

Trainum takes the ethos a step further. “Our goal is to have a net-positive effect,” he says. “And everything we do keeps that goal in mind.”

Fodder crops like legumes work double duty, feeding pigs and adding nitrogen to soils depleted by decades of monocultural farming techniques. Allowing crops to decompose naturally builds topsoil and increases water retention. Rotational grazing techniques distribute manure evenly and obviate the need for artificial fertilizer. Forested stream buffers are a minimum of 100 feet wide (about three times the recommended distance, according to Trainum). Pigs cool off in sequestered man-made lagoons and drink from watering tanks. Estienne says such measures help control runoff and keep pollutants out of waterways.

Meanwhile, acres of fallow corn fields have been reforested with hardwood trees; over 1,000 have been planted on the farm to date, and more are added each year. Trainum envisions a future where farm and delivery trucks run on electricity or biodiesel produced onsite.

“To me, this is a win-win-win-win situation,” says Import. He works with a topshelf product and serves as a go-between for customers and farmers that, together, want to improve the way the world eats. “I think of it like, we’re all holding hands, dancing together toward a future where this is the model.”

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