Edible Columbus — Fall 2013
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The Poetry in Pigs
By Nancy McKibben Photography by Catherine Murray

Heritage hogs flourish at Stonefield Naturals By Nancy McKibben, Photography by Catherine Murray

A l Dolder grew up in Columbus, far from rural life. Nevertheless, he dreamed of becoming a hog farmer. He is a man who finds poetry in pigs.

On our way to Al's Stonefield Naturals, photographer Catherine Murray and I drive south, then east of Columbus, meander along country roads and eventually pull up to a long driveway flanked by old stone pillars. At the end of the drive stands a faux Tudor home, modest but well landscaped.

The day is beautiful with birdsong, sunshine and wildflowers. We pass two black pigs in a field before we arrive at our destination, where Al, wearing overalls and a welcoming smile, climbs down from his red truck and greets us as we unload cameras and muster notebooks.

After high school graduation in 1974, Al moved to the farm that his father had purchased to grow nursery stock, working with him in the landscaping business and raising commodity hogs on the side. In 1982, he married wife Bonni and sold his animals.

Landscaping was steady, but Al still dreamed of hogs. After 9/11, when landscaping business began to slide, Al and Bonni decided to focus on a business centered on need – food – rather than want. In 2003, he purchased an "old-line ge netics" (see sidebar) Hampshire sow named Miss Annie from Joe Malone of Lancaster, Ohio. Al had always been intrigued by Hampshires, which the National Swine Registry calls "possibly the oldest, early-American breed of hogs in existence today." They are a black-skinned hog with erect ears, belted in white around the middle and forelegs.

"I wanted sows that could raise piglets outdoors," says Al. "Modern hogs can't – their legs are too short. You need a sow with mobility."

Meat packers want conformity. "On the kill floor, every hog needs to be the same, because it's mechanized," Al says. "My hogs are not all the same." Butcher Dale Phillips from Zanesville processes Al's hogs.

Hog meet

We walk out to the field to meet some hogs, who turn out to be the two black pigs we passed earlier in the car. Their white belts are hidden by the mud they've wallowed in – in that, at least, they match the stereotype – and they follow Al and a bucket of feed to a more picturesque portion of the field, so that Catherine can get a shot of pigs in clover.

But the hogs, which stand waist-high and weigh 450 pounds at this point, are curious, and Catherine and I beat a retreat over the kneehigh electric fence, as Al swings a plastic bucket to discourage them from sniffing us with their muddy snouts.

"Sis," he says reprovingly to one, seeming a little embarrassed at this display of hog mischief.

Al has one boar and five sows, which he breeds in turn to produce one litter of eight to 12 piglets per month. When we step into the barn, a sow heaves herself to her feet and her piglets scatter. They are cunning at 1 month old, weighing just 15 pounds.

Al had to alter his vision of little pigs running free after he saw the coyote tracks outside the barn. He now keeps them safe inside until they weigh 75 pounds, big enough to make a coyote think twice.

Sows can weigh up to 700 pounds, and Al describes with reverence how they ease down on their elbows, listen to make sure there are no pigs underneath, then slowly lie down, careful not to crush their relatively tiny offspring.

"That's good maternal behavior, and I can select for that," Al says. Sows that are raised in confinement, of course, can hardly stand up in their close quarters, and are separated from their piglets by barriers. Maternal behavior is, in effect, being bred out because it isn't needed.

The sow silhouettes herself against the open door of the barn. "With the morning light shining," Al says, "you can see the pink of their skin." I can't see it, but perhaps the light isn't quite right. Or perhaps Al looks at his hogs through different eyes.

"Breaking Even Is Not an Option"

Despite the poetry, raising hogs is an expensive proposition. Corn costs rise. Hogs have to be trained to the electric fence. Marketing is difficult.

Al's meat has received stellar reviews from OSU's Steven J. Moeller, professor and swine extension specialist, who evaluated a carcass at the University's Meat Science Laboratory; from Adam Welly of Wayward Seed, for charcuterie; and from Jim Budros, for porchetta.

Still, Al and Bonni were ready to kiss the hogs goodbye, so to speak, when Adam suggested another route. Today Al sells at the Worthington Farmers Market and his Stonefield Naturals products include organically grown vegetables as well as pork: whole, half or by cut.

"Twenty years ago, I would never have believed the food scene today," Al says. "Thank goodness for farmers markets and the opportunity to sell people one pork chop at a time. Then they realize what pork should taste like."

He would like to expand, but not to the point where he again becomes a commodity breeder, his economic destiny determined by the whims of the packer.

"For me, satisfaction is a fine sow raising a large litter of pigs, and knowing that I have done my genetic homework."

Al cannot resist a final metaphor. "If I don't stray off the path that these Hampshire hogs have cut through the brambles of modern pork quality, they will be here for the next generation after I am gone."

Purchase Al's meats and vegetables at the Worthington Farmers Market. Phone him for custom orders. Al Dolder Jr., Stonefield Naturals: 1499 Blacklick Rd., Baltimore OH 43105; 740-862- 3165; stonefieldnaturals.com; stonefieldnaturals@ gmail.com.

The Hampshire Hog: Modern and Old-Line Genetics

The Hampshire hog developed from the Old English Breed imported to Kentucky from Britain around 1825. Good mothers and foragers, they were easy to raise outdoors.

"I always loved the history and lore of the old-time Hampshire hogs and the men who bred them," says hog farmer Al Dolder. "They were rugged and tough hogs and equally tenacious breeders."

However, in the 1990s, when food trends stigmatized fat, farmers began breeding Hampshires with the Belgian Pietrien, a heavily muscled, lean hog. In Al's opinion, "it reduced flavor and fat and made the meat grey."

That's why he raises animals bred from oldline genetics rather than modern stock.

"Genetics are everything," Al insists. "The best way to keep the genetics good is to look at the carcasses and select daughters from the sows who have the best meat qualities in their pigs."

According to Al, Smithfield Hams "destroyed the hog market in 1988" by refusing to buy commodity pork from farmers and becoming "vertical integrators," raising and butchering the hogs themselves. "A lot of family hog farms went out of business."

When a huge company like Smithfield controls the quality of pork, Al says, "after a while the consumer doesn't know what pork should taste like."

With his old-line Hampshire hogs, Al is working to change that.

Author's note: On May 29, 2013, Smithfield Hams agreed to be bought out by China's largest meat producer, Shuanghui International Holdings, for $4.72 billion.