Editor’s Note: Two Things
Thing one – Forrest Pritchard, owner of Smithfield Meadows Farm and author of Gaining Ground, has written a new book with Molly Peterson, and just like with the first one, he’s sharing an excerpt with On Pasture readers! Growing Tomorrow is a behind the scenes look at 18 extraordinary, sustainable farmers who are changing the way we eat. It is a farm-to-table journey in photos and over 50 mouth-watering recipes that describe how small farms with big ideas are making a difference. He chose this chapter to share with On Pasture because he knows readers are interested in raising pigs on pasture. (P.S. I was lucky enough to visit Chuck’s farm and the pork I ate there was some of the most amazing of my life!)
Thing two – Forrest is supporting the On Pasture Fall Fund Drive by giving away copies of his book to folks who support On Pasture at the $50 or higher level! Woo Hoo! It’s a hard back book, full of beautiful pictures and recipes. It will make a great gift for your favorite person. So head over here to get your copy and support in On Pasture.
Black Oak Holler Farm
Fraziers Bottom, West Virginia
Chuck Talbott speaks pig.
“Whoo-oop! Whoooo-oop!” The farmer cradles a hand against his cheek, his voice echoing across a misty West Virginia meadow. The sound is a cross between battle cry and invitation, a melodious call to arms—or in this case, a call to hams.
In unison, forty barrel-shaped durocs raise their heads, abandoning a morning of glorious, muddy rooting to heed the clarion. Bounding and snorting, just short of a stampede, they gallop into a fresh pasture of millet, their rust-colored backs disappearing beneath the waving green forage. Moments later they’ve vanished entirely, abandoned in breakfast.
“One of the best parts of my job.” Chuck, sixty-five, smiles through a gray, grizzled beard. He gestures toward the field of grain, belt-buckle-high and thick as the bristles on a razorback. “A few months ago, that was a rooted-up paddock, just like the one they came off today. Now we’ll broadcast seed behind them, maybe barley, maybe pumpkins. It’s all fodder for the hogs, an experiment to see what will grow best.”
My mind wanders, and I imagine pigs in a pumpkin patch, munching their way into gourds that accidentally become stuck on their heads. Jacko’- lanterned hogs squealing blindly through the pasture? That would be a Halloween shindig of epic proportions.
Chuck, on the other hand, is all business. He strides across the field, reconnecting the electric polywire through which the hogs have just passed. It rained hard the night before, and the paddock looks like hand-mixed brownie dough—lumpy, moist, and rich. More accurately, I realize, the soil resembles a freshly tilled garden, its cover crop of field peas harvested and the residue turned beneath the ground as fertilizer. Forty sturdy snouts, it seems, can do the work of one man with a plow. While some farmers might bicker over the efficiency of free-ranging pigs, I’d argue that you can’t eat a tractor. Besides, where’s the fun in life without trying new things?
Experimentation, in fact, is part of the mission at Black Oak Holler. Just minutes from West Virginia’s state capital and a morning’s drive to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Lexington, or Charlotte, the farm is ideally located to serve metropolitan areas. That is, if pure production was all that mattered. But Chuck began farming with a firm goal: create a sustainable system for raising pigs on the Allegheny Plateau, fattening them—as is traditionally done in Spain—on acorns, walnuts, and hickories, and make it replicable so others could copy his methods. In a region most famously noted for logging and coal mining, he wanted to prove that fragile mountain soils could be restored, even enhanced, through carefully managed livestock. No easy task in this land of rolling hills, where farmers jokingly grumble they occasionally fall straight out of their cornfields.
A former professor at North Carolina A&T State University, the desire to teach seems to come naturally to Talbott. He founded the university’s sustainable swine program in 1994, spending the next ten years researching everything from the breeding of piglets to the curing of hams. But the farmer readily admits he’d rather be working the land than grading papers in an office, one of the main reasons he found solace in this isolated corner of the state. “Why would anyone want to wear a suit and tie?” he asks, garbed in a straw hat and suspenders.
“I was always meant to be outdoors, to be a farmer.”
Standing at the foot of his valley, gazing upward into the rugged mountains, who could blame him? Colloquially known as “hollers,” the Appalachians are replete with steep, hidden valleys and wooded canyons bisected by rambling brooks, the moss-slick rocks composing a topographical braille. Hickory and walnut trees punctuate the rocky terrain, with impenetrable thickets of rhododendron and sassafras softening rock breaks of shale and sandstone. Chuck’s
270 acres is textbook Appalachia, mountains meeting at precipitous angles, ephemeral springs trickling water clear as moonshine from the gray, lichened stones.
Once towering as high as the Alps and the Rockies, the Appalachians are among the oldest mountains on earth, now weathered nearly to their roots. The ancient orogeny still echoes through this wild hollow, with a cobbled, single-lane road the solitary access to the valley’s head. Chuck seems at home with the wildness, the wilderness. In fact, he’s spent a lifetime acclimating himself to the challenges, gaining experience through decades of world travel.
“I grew up in Upstate New York, north of Syracuse. Dairy country. My dad was big into breeding horses, but he passed away when I was twelve. So to make money, all through high school I rented out the stalls and worked on neighboring dairies. Once high school was over, I started traveling.”
He spent a season as a ranch hand in Cody, Wyoming, then a summer as a trail guide in Montana. After a few years at Colorado State University, the travel bug bit again. “I always remembered watching those Westerns as a boy, asking, ‘Dad, can men still be cowboys?’ ‘Sure,’ he told me. ‘In Australia.’ I guess I always had that in the back of my mind, being a cowboy in the Outback. So one day I just dropped out of college, and that’s where I went.”
He pauses, reflecting. “In those days, Americans couldn’t get work permits, and I ended up in New Zealand working sheep for a year. Then someone told me, ‘Hey, just go to the Outback, tell them you’re Canadian. They’ll never check.’ And he was right. I spent a year and a half in the Northern Territory, near Katherine. But it was too complicated to settle there, so I ended up coming back to the States, getting a master’s at Virginia Tech. Then I spent six years in Africa, in Cameroon, helping with their dairy genetics. After I wrapped up my PhD at NC State, I started the sustainable hog program at A&T, and never looked back.”
So how does a world traveler end up in the mountains of West Virginia? Evidently, by possessing a farmer’s intuition. In 1978, a side trip to visit his sister in nearby Huntington led him to an old tobacco farm, wild and wonderful and with jaw-droppingly cheap acreage compared to anywhere else he’d been. Knowing that he was only passing through, and not even certain about what he’d do with the land, Chuck pulled the trigger and bought himself a farm. It would be twenty-five years before he officially returned.
When he finally did, in 2004, he arrived with a fully conceived plan, and the appropriate experience to execute it. “Let me show you my new barn,” he beams, gesturing to an opensided pole building with a concrete floor. “My own design; the only one like it. We’ll farrow our sows in here—have piglets, you understand—then when we’re ready, turn them loose straight onto pasture without having to transport them.”
Hands in pockets, he admires the humble splendor of the building. “Hardly anyone farrows like this, out in the open air. It’s modeled after a British farmer named Keith Thornton; he’s been doing it successfully for years.” A tractor rolls noisily past, hitched to a low-riding wagon that barely clears the ground. “But come on,” the farmer says. “We’ve still got hogs to move. Let me show you the boys.”
The boys, it turns out, are two enormous Eurasian wild boars named Bert and Ernie. “A friend called me one day,” Chuck recalls, “and said he’d come across a litter of wild piglets—the mother had been killed by a passing car. He asked me if I wanted any of them, so I took the males, and raised them myself.”
The farmer nods at the boars, bristle-backed with bright white tusks protruding from their lower lips. Why breed wild boars to domesticated stock? To pass along desirable attributes, the professor explains. Wild genetics add natural vigor that can’t be found in commercial hogs, pigs specifically bred to live out their days in concrete feedlots. The concept makes sense; if you’re going to successfully breed hogs in a wild holler, I reason, then you’d better stack the genetic deck, placing the odds in your favor.
And that’s precisely Chuck’s goal: to raise hogs that thrive on the mountain slopes, naturally fattening on acorns. In a state where mining is the primary economic engine, the farmer is banking on a loftier commodity, one that drops straight out of the sky.
“That’s the whole goal here,” he explains, “matching the hogs to the terrain, like they’ve done for centuries in Spain. Pigs have an uncanny ability to find acorns, and in abundant years, the mast falls like rain.” Chuck gestures toward the hills, where the tree canopy is so dense it nearly blocks out the sky. Released into the woods at just the right time, the pigs will fatten on nature’s bounty, gobbling up acorns and nuts, and be ready for harvest before the heavy snows of winter.
In theory, it all makes perfect sense. But as Chuck reminds me, it’s the small details that sometimes sabotage success, and without superior woodland genetics, the puzzle can quickly fall to pieces. To that end, Bert and Ernie have each been penned with two sows for a month, and today, thirty consecutive date nights have come to an end. Assistants Steve and R.D. coax Bert through a gate with a bucket of grain, into analley where Chuck showers handfuls of cracked corn to keep him distracted. Before long, they’ve loaded the sows onto the low trailer, and Bert is back in his bachelor pad; the same routine goes for Ernie. Minutes later the sows are being trundled to their farrowing area, four rustic A-frame structures where the piglets will be born—by standard gestation, three months, three weeks, and three days from now.
Chuck affectionately scratches Bert behind the ear, then glances at his wristwatch.
“Whoops. I told Nadine we’d be in for a late breakfast, not late for breakfast.” We head uphill to the cabin, where the warm smell of biscuits and bacon greets us at the front door.
Inside, Nadine has prepared a platter of crisp bacon and a pan of steaming biscuits, placed beside a jar of homemade blueberry jam. We sit down to a midmorning feast of savory pork and sweet, buttery biscuits, washing it all down with a cup of strong black coffee.
Nadine and Chuck met in North Carolina, while he was still a professor at A&T. “My daughter convinced me to buy a little farm in a town called Silk Hope,” Nadine recounts in a Carolina drawl. “And before I knew it, people were whispering: ‘You know, there’s a single man living across the road . . . and he’s a professor!’”
She glances Chuck’s way. “At first I was like, ‘Whatever.’ But one day I decided I’d check him out, you know? And would you believe, that very day he came walking across the road, carrying tomatoes and figs . . . and flowers. Coming to meet the new neighbor.” Nadine winks dramatically, and I notice Chuck blushing straight through his thick, white beard. “I mean, that was kind of it, right?”
They’ve been partners ever since. For ten years the couple has worked to create the ultimate acorn-finished pig, turning the fat of the land into the fat on the ham, an artisanal alchemy prized by chefs worldwide. It’s the fat, after all, that’s key to beautiful pork—a thick rind not only ensures flavor but also locks in moisture during the two-year curing process. Nadine and Chuck work with a partner to sell their hams to restaurants, slowly expanding as more chefs rave about their products.
Chuck ceremoniously rises from the table, unfurling a white cloth. There, held aloft in a wooden vise, is a solitary, prized, acorn-finished ham. It might be my imagination, but in the distance I suddenly hear a celestial choir ringing through the wooded hills.
In three deft slices the meat is plated, transparently thin and curled at the edges like a pink rose petal. Exquisitely salty and profoundly rich, the pork melts on my tongue like communion bread, palpable for an instant, then gone forever. My taste buds are delighted, craving more. I finish the slices with a balancing bite of biscuit, savoring the woody traces of walnut and hickory.
Grazed on hand-sown grain, finished on autumn acorns, Chuck might have invented a culinary fusion all his own: Spanish Allegheny. An ocean apart, perhaps, yet tantalizingly similar.
After breakfast, we climb the rough road that transects the farm, ducking beneath the supple limbs of pawpaw and hemlock, wild apples inherited from lost homesteads. Here, where the trail is too steep for work boots and the laurel too dense to pass, hogs will be loosed in a month’s time, foraging for sustenance, a distant perimeter fence their only impediment.
We stand wordlessly, surveying our circumference. The land here is old, sacrosanct, silent in the dappled shade of summer. A thousand acorns born into a thousand oaks, time surpassing all understanding. Light bends everywhere— untenable, wild. A farm like Black Oak Holler is tamed only where clashing mountaintops intersect with startling blue sky.
Excerpt from Growing Tomorrow: A Farm-to-Table Journey in Photos and Recipes, copyright © Forrest Pritchard, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.
I’m looking forward to reading this book. Thanks for the excerpt. Our pigs are foraging for acorns these days too, although we still supplement with a GMO-free feed. I’m curious whether Chuck is supplementing with feed too. Maybe the book will answer the question.
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