Heritage hogs bring new markets
Tom Primmer says that living through the ag crisis of the 1980s taught him how to deal with adversity. “I look closely at my expense and debt load,” he says. “I try to keep it as low as I can.”
He says farmers cannot control the weather or markets, but they can control their own spending. “Since we don’t know what will happen in any given year, I have always tried to take a more conservative approach to my farming decisions.”
• Managing expenses and income can keep farms viable in troubling times.
• Heritage-breed hogs offer a niche market for farmers.
• Direct marketing allows communication with consumers on key issues like prices.
That mindset led Tom, along with his wife, Colleen, to create a unique pasture operation in Adair County. They supply the market with sustainable products from their farming system.
Reviving the breed
There are Herefords roaming the couple’s northern Missouri fields, but they are not cattle. The red and white four-legged animals rooting around the pastures are actually pigs.
The Hereford hog is considered a heritage breed. Unlike other heritage breeds, however, the Hereford is a standard-size hog, weighing roughly 200 to 250 pounds by 5 to 6 months of age. Mature boars weigh about 800 pounds; mature sows, about 600 pounds.
The breed was developed in Iowa and Nebraska during the 1920s from Duroc, Chester White and Poland China bloodlines. However, Tom is quick to point out that the Missouri town of LaPlata claims to be the home of the original Hereford hog. “That controversy still exists today,” he quips.
The name was inspired by the breed’s color pattern of intense red with white, the same as that of Hereford cattle. “The breed registry calls for hogs to be primarily red, with a white face and two or more white feet,” Tom explains.Over the years, the couple developed several niche markets for the hogs.
The Hereford breed began to decline in numbers during the 1960s, when the pork industry moved away from purebred pigs in favor of the crossbred hog. Today, with fewer than 2,000 Hereford pigs in the United States, the demand for breeding stock and show pigs keeps the Primmers busy.
The Primmers manage roughly 20 sows on a pasture system. Sows have access to huts for shelter in each paddock. They farrow twice a year, with the winter farrowing designated for the show-pig market.
“We sell roughly 50 pigs for show pigs each year,” Tom says. “They make a great 4-H or FFA project.” The family has raised a number of Missouri State Fair champion Hereford hogs.
They will sell another 50 pigs as breeding stock. “There are very few breeders left in the country,” Tom says. In the last five years, they have sold hogs to 18 different states.
The family markets the remaining 150 hogs directly at farmers markets and restaurants, and off the farm.
“Our consumers want to know where their meat comes from,” Colleen says. “They like to be able to talk with us and visit the farm to see the hogs in their natural environment.”
When the H1N1 (also called “swine”) flu made national headlines, the couple received telephone calls to discuss whether the meat was safe. “We felt good that they called us directly,” Colleen says. “And they trusted us.” The open communication with customers has also allowed the Primmers to share the effects of the drought.
“We tell them how our input costs are going up,” Colleen says. “They understand. They hear about it everywhere.”
The couple expects the direct-market aspect of their operation to continue to grow. “People want to know where their food comes from,” Tom says. “They want to buy local.”
CONSERVATIVE ways: Tom and Colleen Primmer credit their conservative approach to finances and farming for sustaining their hog operation during drought years.
RED rovers: Two Hereford pigs run throughout the pasture paddocks at Primmer Pasture Pork.
This article published in the January, 2013 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.