What Kunekune Breed Conservation Means to Us…

No doubt, we have a unique farm model compared to most. Our small farm is based on rare and heritage breed conservation, while most small farms are based on producing healthy & wholesome locally produced food. The rare breed heritage pork we produce is dependent upon how strict we are with our breeding program, and as such it also gives us the flexibility to “cull hard”. In other words, to be able to remove certain animals from our breeding program based on their quality and adherence to the breed standard (and our farm’s goals) without stress or anxiety, as we know the animal will be utilized for breed-specific pork, which will in turn contribute to the breed conservation effort. We tell our pork customers, “Every bite of our pork helps us to continue our work with conserving the breeds we love”, and this couldn’t be more true. Our weekly pork sales keep our animals fed and hayed, and our farm running. Conservation through utilization is crucial for rare & heritage breed animals, because without a use or purpose for them, there is no reason for farmers to continue working with them. For our pigs, that use is pork. This is difficult for many people to understand.

Conservation breeding programs aren’t easy, and they don’t exactly lend themselves to efficient food production (smaller pigs, longer grow out times versus large pigs that grow fast- you get the picture, what we do is very much a niche, premium product). They require one to continually make tough decisions and look upon the animals in their herd with a keen and unforgiving eye. One cannot be wearing “rose colored barn glasses”, in which they see every animal as one that should be registered and sold. It often helps to enlist a second set of eyes, as it can be difficult to evaluate your animals with a critical eye, and it does take time to learn the visual and comparative skills necessary to make such judgment calls. We are, and always will be- learning, and refining our gaze. How we see our pigs will change from year to year, as we learn more and continue gaining experience.

We are several years in to working with Kunekune pigs, and they are our true love, above and beyond all breeds of swine. In wanting to do our very best work with the breed, we’re constantly seeking to improve the quality of our herd, and conducting a yearly herd cull in which we thin our herd and shift our focus based on the previous year. Anyone can breed two registered Kunekune pigs together, produce offspring, sell them as registered piglets, and be part of conserving a breed… but when it comes to this breed’s future, that isn’t enough. The Kunekune breed needs breeders who are extremely serious about the breed, willing to cull hard and make sacrifices (even if it means culling a registered breeder they paid a lot of money for!) and having a meat cull program, whether on site or in partnership with another farm.

To us, Breed Conservation means the following, and more…

 

Doing the best you can, with what you’ve started with. Not everyone is able to start off with the best of the best. In fact, most of us don’t start off this way.


Becoming a member of your breed’s society or registry. Membership has it’s perks!


– Working with registered stock. Papers DO mean everything in terms of breed conservation efforts. Documenting pedigrees and having the option for others to utilize the genetics you are working hard to produce on your farm, is important. Without DNA testing & registration, this becomes futile. Last year, we sold four homestead pairs to people we knew personally, for pork production use. This year and from now on, no unregistered intact pigs are leaving our farm. We don’t believe that working with or selling unregistered stock helps with our breed conservation goals (or anyone’s). This is our viewpoint, it is a controversial topic and others may feel differently. For us, we see our area inundated with cheap and poor quality unregistered pigs. Many are crosses, but people are led to believe they have bought and are working with Kunekunes. Many buy these for pork production and end up with small pigs that never make weight, or there are temperament issues related to pigs not being pure Kunekune. Then there are the aesthetics of conformation, which is a whole other topic.

Did you buy unregistered pigs when you started off? Only in very rare cases will a breeder who sells unregistered pigs be willing to register them for you. Only the breeder can register and truth be told, some people just don’t want to do it even though it is quite easy. In many cases, your unregistered pig probably isn’t registration quality, anyway. If you bought unregistered pigs, you have two choices: use those pigs to produce bacon bits for your farm’s pork production OR process those pigs and start over again with registered stock.


– Learning anything and everything you can about the breed’s history. For Kunekune pigs, this involves learning the breed’s history in New Zealand, as well as in the UK. Becoming familiar with the import history and the imported pigs.


– Retaining pigs and building your own herd. If you’re utilizing your original seed stock over and over again, and not retaining offspring to breed into future generations, then you’re only at the tip of the iceberg of conservation breeding. Conservation breeding always looks to the future and for us, is about developing our farm’s own characteristic lines that suit the needs of our climate, environment and usage.


– Having a cull program. For us personally, this involves registering or retaining for observation, only the best piglets. All others are ear-marked for our meat herd. We make promoting and selling our pork a top priority so that we will always have a market for our product.


– Focusing on your own unique breeding program and pork production, that is geared towards the demographic for your area. We don’t focus on pet sales, at all. This is just a personal choice, as well as a controversial topic. Conservation breeding is not about trying to price fix or control what other breeders do, nor is it about trying to force other breeders to do/see things the way you do. We all have different situations and business models. This blog post is just our opinion- not an end-all, be-all for Kunekune conservation breeding. Everyone will have a different situation, price structure and manner in which they work. The ultimate “seal of approval” is the legacy you leave behind as a breeder.  If you’re a bad breeder, people will stop working with you, period. The Kunekune community is small and close-knit. Honesty is always the best policy.


Making hard decisions, every year. Looking hard at the animals in your herd and what they have produced and deciding who stays and who goes. And by who goes… I don’t mean selling a problem pig to an unsuspecting buyer. I mean pigs that haven’t produced as hoped. These are ones that should be utilized for pork. Last year we culled numerous registered pigs, that we had paid a good deal of money or traded time/labor for. It was painful to do it, but there is no way to make forward progress in a breeding program without culling ruthlessly and making sacrifices.

Yes, they equated to the most expensive pork chops ever… but our herd is better off for it. And each year as we thin the herd for improvement, we will be producing stronger pigs in the future based on those decisions. We just did our 2018 cull and have 8 registered breeders slated for meat production. Four of them were purchased from another breeder and could certainly be sold to someone else, but at this point they are worth more to us in terms of meat sales, and if they don’t meet our goals, why pass them forward to someone else? Another four of them were pigs we had retained and registered, but who didn’t make the cut. Culling hard is the only way we are going to meet our goals. It’s already taking us longer to do it because of pitfalls related to registration mishaps and working with pigs that ultimately didn’t meet our farm goals.


– Making plans for the future, identifying the traits that are weak (and strong) in your herd, and what steps you need to take to improve upon them. This could include retaining more pigs with certain type traits, or planning to add future foundation stock that has the strengths you need to carry on.

 

What conservation breeding means to us will surely change as we grow and progress in our own breeding program. What does it mean to you?

“Tapeka Trait” Kunekune piglets are coming to South Carolina!

 

We’re incredibly excited to announce that “Tapeka Trait” piglets will be arriving on the farm in the near future.

These beautiful babies are coming to us all the way from Washington State, bred by Pamela Farris at ROCK STAR Vittle Piggies – RSVP

We are adding a boar and a gilt that display the high white/black/ginger color blocking known as the “Tapeka Trait”. You can find full information about the Tapeka & Ivanleigh Belly Band traits on the AKPR Facebook page.

These piglets will potentially produce belting, color blocking and more high percentage white with accents of black and ginger, when paired with certain pigs in our herd.

Not only that, but the Tapeka bloodline has some of the fastest growth rates/size and largest litter sizes of all Kunekune bloodlines. Growth rates are very important to our farm goals.

So without further ado, please meet our upcoming Tapeka Trait additions:

The gorgeous high white gilt (with ginger/black spotted head), “RSVP Siouxsie Sioux” (Wilsons Gina/Tuahuru x BH Tutaki/Tapeka) and the high white/black boar, “RSVP Freddie Mercury” (Tapeka/Boris x Mahia Love or Andrew)

Stay tuned for more pictures, and their eventual arrival!

100 Herbs & Flowers: Creating l’acqua di San Giovanni

Establishing tradition is something that means a lot to me, as does reconnecting with the Italian ancestry my Grandfather kept shrouded for his entire life. The creation of the “cento erbe” (100 herbs and flowers) is a tradition from rural Umbria, in central Italy- nowhere near where my Grandfather was born and raised, but it is a tradition that I began with my Son, the summer of 2011 that we lived in Umbria. Introduced to us by our hosts, I found the tradition beautiful and vowed to continue doing it each year and share it with people so that they could enjoy this little Italian bit of rural summer tradition, on their own.

Picking Cento Erbe (and identifying plants) in Paciano, Umbria, Italy:

And so, tonight is Notte di San Giovanni Battista (night of Saint John the Baptist), which we celebrate by gathering 100 types of leaves, herbs, flowers, etc… these go into a large bowl of water, which sits outside all night, collecting the dew. Before going to bed, we burn last year’s dried cento erbe. This is an old Pagan Italian Midsummer ritual, marking the halfway point of the year- burning the old, and giving birth to the new. (the Catholic church basically created religious holidays on or around all of the Pagan holidays, to make the church traditions more palatable to the Pagani). The Feast of San Giovanni takes place on June 24th, to celebrate this patron Saint. Traditionally, all members of the family wash in the floral water at sunrise, and babies are completely immersed in it. The water smells absolutely incredible, and is rejuvenating in every way.

It’s a beautiful tradition that Connor and I have done for the last 4 years. Every year, our gathering looks completely different. What we gathered today will look very different tomorrow morning when I wake up, too! This can really be done every month, in particular on the night of the full moon.

Here are some of our past year’s “cento erbe”. You can collect any type of flowers, herbs, leaves, berries, nuts, or wild plants. They infuse into the water overnight and the result is always different.  I can’t wait to see what this year’s looks like when I wake up tomorrow morning…

 

 

 

 

Saturday Market at the Pumpkintown Mountain Farmers Market

We started doing our first farmers market this year, and it’s been a wonderful experience thus far! You can find us every Saturday afternoon through September, at the Pumpkintown Opry on Highway 11, near Table Rock. This is a wonderful venue for a market, and the Opry Cafe has delicious lunches, coffees and ice cream to enjoy. In our hot summer weather, being able to attend a market in the mountains and under a beautiful shady porch, is a joy!

It’s truly wonderful to connect with all of you in person and be able to share what we’re so passionate about- providing heritage and heirloom nourishment to our community, which allows us to focus on our breed and seed conservation efforts!

Every time a piece of pork goes from our hands to yours, I’m truly excited about the potential to turn others on to just how wonderful and unique this pork is, and how rare breed animals must be utilized in order to be saved.

I’ve been taking pictures of our weekly setup, to document how we grow and change. Each week something is a little bit different as we learn more about how to best present our farm at market.

 

Our historic first litter of Meishan piglets has arrived!

 

We are ecstatic to announce the arrival of our first Meishan litter, out of God’s Blessing Farm “MooShu” (Illinois/Iowa) by God’s Blessing Farm “General Tso” (USDA/USDA). 100% Foundation bloodlines.

This is a historic litter for us and for the breed. It’s our first litter of Meishans, and (to my knowledge) the first Meishan litter born in South Carolina). It’s also the first litter born in the world that combines the bloodlines from all 3 research herds (Iowa State (via Carl Blake/Rustik Rooster Farms stock originally from the Iowa State Herd), University of Illinois and USDA)- 0% COI and incredible genetic diversity previously unknown in this country. (Prior to the Illinois and USDA herd dispersals in 2016, all Meishans in the USA were descended from the Iowa State herd’s 2008 dispersal)

This unification of the three research herd bloodlines is one of the goals that we and other foundation breeders are working on. The reason is that after the original Chinese imports arrived, they were kept separated, with no cross breeding between herds, for over 20 years. Genetic drift studies (The Blackburn Studies) revealed that they had become differentiated from one another. “[Blackburn’s authors] confirmed that to truly breed a hog most similar to the classic Chinese Meishan ,and to assure the broadest genetic base for the breed, a coordinated effort to interbreed the bloodlines (but still preserve pure examples of these bloodlines) would be in the best interest of the breed.” MooShu’s litter is the first litter to do just that. (More extensive breed history: http://www.meishanbreeders.com/breed-history/ )

Ten month old MooShu farrowed ten piglets- 6 gilts and 4 boars, all healthy and active. MooShu was bred at 150 lbs and today is approximately 225. She’ll potentially be 300-350 lbs when fully grown. Meishans are a hyper-productive breed with early sexual maturity, this litter was successfully sired by a 16 week old boar (He was born October 1st and sired this litter on January 21st)- on his first pairing with our gilt (and her first exposure!). We’re thrilled with the profligacy of this rare heritage breed.

As champions of Heritage breeds, my Son and I were immediately drawn to the Meishans after learning about them early last year. At the time, 14 year old Connor had written about them for a 4H project. When I read about God’s Blessing Farm’s incredible acquisition of the last remaining Meishans from the USDA and Illinois herds, I knew this was a breed conservation effort that we had to be a part of.

A few months later, we picked up MooShu (Illinois/Iowa) and her sibling, a barrow. In November we picked up ShuMai (USDA/USDA gilt), General Tso (USDA/USDA boar) and KungPao (Iowa/Illinois boar). Thank you Ricardo Silvera and Angelia Silvera for making the opportunities available for us and others to access these valuable genetics and continue the lineage of these incredible pigs!

Photos include this new litter, some of the incredible Meishan pork we just picked up from our USDA processor, and some of our Meishan herd.

A few select piglets will be available as breeding stock from this litter. I don’t sell Meishan as pets.

Feeding our Pigs for health, happiness, progeny and future flavor!

When you think of what pigs eat, most people envision long troughs full of slop. From my early childhood memories of one of my favorite books, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, Wilbur was fed buckets of slop (often depicted pictorially in a rather gross manner) and his pen attracted a rat named Templeton, who also sorted through the slop. I never imagined that pigs ate grass, or hay. Most of the time we see pigs in muddy pens, being fed in a trough, after all. Or we see them in confinement farms, indoors in artificial environments.

The truth is that pigs love to graze pasture and eat the leaves off low-hanging tree branches. They eat various types of hay, and just about any type of fresh produce. After a good soaking rain, they’ll root for grubs and bugs, or eat the starchy roots of various plants. In a forest environment, they do the same- constantly seeking out nuts and insects.

At Corva Bella, our goal is to have happy, healthy and eventually, delicious pigs. We feed a widely varied diet to achieve all of these goals. We are set up for rotational grazing in both open pasture, silvopasture, and wooded pastures. Our gardens produce a variety of fresh vegetables and greens all year round, and we grow trays of barley fodder in the greenhouse when temperatures are cold, and outdoors when temperatures are stable. The pigs also love eggs, moderate amounts of yogurt and outdated milk, and whey.

Last Fall into Winter, the pigs enjoyed large amounts of apples, melons, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, along with box after box of acorns, beech and hickory nuts we gathered on our property and from neighbors. We also ferment a 14% and 16% locally milled grower feed with added milk to create a mash with increased nutrition and healthy probiotics- this is the bulk of their diet.

The Kunekune and Meishan pigs are unique heritage breeds in that they evolved very close to people. The Kunekune pigs with the Maori tribes of New Zealand, and the Meishan pigs in close quarters with the Chinese of the Taihu Lakes region of China. Pigs are excellent foragers and are very adaptable to their environment. Part of our goal as a permaculture-based sustainable small farm is to create an environment in which everything we plant and grow has a purpose towards sustaining our animals, our selves, and our emerging market farm/CSA offerings.

Spring is just around the corner and we’re already planning what the pigs are going to be eating into the Fall and Winter. This Summer, the pigs will be primarily pasturing, eating produce and hay, and the hopefully, banana leaves. We are planting numerous banana trees in a carefully chosen area and hope that this food source holds true in it’s claimed production. Our climate doesn’t produce fruiting bananas, but the leaves should be plentiful. We planted 25 apple and pear trees last year and will be planting more this year in hopes of one day having plentiful fall apples for the pigs. In the meantime, we’ll visit local orchards to pick up their fallen apples and help clean their orchard floor, while providing a food our pigs love!

Did you know pigs love sunflowers, and will eat the entire head? I learned this last year when I watched a sow stand on her back legs to reach and pull down a sunflower that had dipped into her paddock. Sunflowers are easy to grow and grow very well in our region. We’re planning to devote an entire area of the garden to a large sunflower crop this year. We’ll harvest the heads and be able to store them well into the winter to feed the pigs.

Regular potatoes shouldn’t be fed to pigs, but sweet potatoes are a type of yam and are in a different class altogether. Best of all, both the expansive vines and the tubers themselves are a wonderful food for pigs. We’ve got ten hugelkultur beds we’re currently filling with compost, and last year’s sweet potatoes will be creating this year’s sweet potato slips. Growing in compost, they should reach a sensational size and be an easily stored food source for the pigs throughout the winter.

We’re going to be actively seeking out farmers of pumpkins and watermelons in hopes of trading pastured pork for trailer loads of damaged or leftover produce, but in the meantime will also be growing our own here. Manure compost and old straw/hay are things we have in plentiful amounts and these favorite pig foods grow exceptionally well and even volunteer in our compost areas. Last year a single compost area, without any help from us… grew around 50 melons and watermelons! The pigs also eat the vines.

Our pigs also enjoy eating their hay bedding, and our Kunekune pigs are huge fans of alfalfa.

A varied and healthy diet is important for the health or our breeding stock and growing piglets and junior breeders, but it’s also infinitely important for our meat herd. Why? Because fat holds flavor, and our well-marbled heritage lard breeds are known for their wonderfully textured and delicious fat. What they eat matters. Acorn-finishing is an age-old process, well known in Europe and believed to have been practiced in Ancient Rome. Producers of pastured pork all have their special finishing methods they use to impart the most marbled meat and flavorful fat in their pork.

At Corva Bella, we spend a lot of time ensuring our pigs are receiving the best nutrition from a wide variety of sources. We hope to one day be able to afford to add a Non-GMO feed to our process, in lieu of the locally milled 16% grower we are currently using. This is important to us and is one of our near-future farm goals!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancestral Farming: linking ancestry and tradition with modern day farming and foods

“There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home. Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city. For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe. We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without ever feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.”  ― Josephine Hart

I first found the perfect pieces of my internal landscape lock into place when I became a Mother. I found it again, so perfectly… when we began our farm.

 

Above is a quote by author Josephine Hart, from her novel “Damage”. Certainly about as far removed from farming as one might venture… but words that resonate within me as I contemplate the path my son Connor and I, are traveling down as we work daily on our farm.

 

I am a family historian. An amateur genealogist, a person passionate about the traditions that link us with our past. To some, the term “ancestral farming” is the process of employing ancient farming techniques, such as the three sisters, when corn, beans and squash were planted together in Native American tradition. It is all of those things, but for me it is also paying homage to my ancestors. The foods they grew, the flavors they cooked with, the traditions they held. Today I weave the gardening lessons my Grandparents taught me, into my everyday routine. These childhood memories become a comforting routine as we work our way through each day. It can be as simple as growing a flower or herb that is a subtle reminder of a person or a tradition, or sowing the seeds of a certain vegetable that quite possibly was grown in fields plowed by your ancestors thousands of miles away on another continent.

 

Just as much as Heritage breed animals by default ensure that we are maintaining part of our history and a deep connection to our past food and farming history, the simple act of planting a row of a very specific type of squash grown only in a certain part of Italy that just so happens to be where your Grandfather grew up… is a conscious and comforting act which gives your food and farming process infinitely more meaning.

 

I am grateful at garden planning time for rare and heirloom seed companies that cater to my every whim and desire when it comes to my hopes to create an Italian-inspired garden that my Bisnonna Augusta would have been proud of. I’ve heard only stories of her legendary culinary skills, as she passed away before I was born. I find joy in learning about the foods and flavors of the area in which she raised my Grandfather, Dante Giuseppe Rosario Calderan… for thirteen years on her own. My Great Grandfather embarked on his journey to the USA in January 1914, when my Grandfather was only a few months old.

 

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My Great Grandmother Augusta, and my Grandfather Dante. A postcard sent from Corva, Italy to my Great Grandfather, in the United States.

 

When we visited Italy and made a pilgrimage to Corva di Azzano Decimo, we walked on the street where she and my Grandfather walked. The house my Great Great Grandfather, Domenico Calderan, built- still stands on Via San Pietro in Piagno. And I was told that my Calderan relatives still live there, although I sadly was not able to meet any of them on my visit. Corva is a tiny town. A blip on the map that one might miss with a blink of an eye, but to me, walking through it’s main street, going into it’s two churches to light a candle, visiting it’s small cemetery and standing at the gravestones of my Great Grandparents, Great Aunts and Uncles… was the experience of a lifetime, which brought tears of my eyes.

 

 

To me, ancestral farming is the act of consciously fostering a deep connection with the past, through the foods and culinary traditions of one’s ancestors. A garden isn’t just a garden, but a piece of your history. Join me here on the blog as I venture on this journey. I’m slowly learning about the foods and flavors of my ancestry, which is dominantly Italian (Friulian), but which may take us on a journey to Switzerland, Cornwall or Scotland as well!

I will return to Corva and the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, again one day…