Just a few weeks from giving birth, Crystal sprawled in southern Wisconsin quack grass, her swollen nipples exposed to the April chill. Cong ambled over and kissed her on the face.
"He's just asking for sex," said Mark Kessenich, observing from beyond the paddock's wire fencing. "He's a typical male." Crystal, a ten-month-old black American mulefoot pig, wasn't having it. She lumbered to her feet, offered her hindquarters to Cong--the boar that bred her in January--and directed a jet of urine toward his snout.
Crystal and Cong are two of fewer than 300 registered purebred mulefoots alive today, members of the most rare and endangered of domestic swine breeds. Their stewards are hoping to save them by convincing people they're good to eat.
"If you treat them just like precious zoo animals that's how they get extinct," says Linda Derrickson, who's Kessenich's wife and partner on the 154-acre Hillspring Farm outside of Blanchardville. "That does not create enough farmers raising them. Farmers have to see some kind of monetary incentive to really do it on a scale that preserves these breeds."
Derrickson and Kessenich, former Madison restaurateurs, have been raising rare-breed cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens for more than 12 years. But these are the first pigs Kessenich has ever bred and the first for Derrickson since her youth. The couple has two other mulefoots aside from Cong and Crystal--another male, named Churchill, and another gilt, or female that has yet to give birth, called Cherry.
Derrickson and Kessenich plan to sell most of Crystal and Cherry's offspring, but they don't expect to make a killing. They've lived on this particular farm for about two and a half years trying to grow their own organic food, with a little left over to sell. What they're really interested in is fat.
"Our goal was to have some pork and some lard that we can actually use in cooking," says Derrickson. "Right now our diet has olive oil in it but, hey, there's no olive trees around here."
It's almost easier to describe what mulefoot raised on pasture doesn't taste like than what it does. It has a clean, unadulterated flavor as opposed to that of supermarket pork, whose mealy, mushy texture and oily unsavoriness you don't notice if it's all you've ever had. Mulefoots have rosy, rich, tender meat, and the quantity and quality of their fat make them good for ham and bacon, something that's been bred out of the factory-farmed "other white meat."
Unlike other swine breeds, the mulefoot has solid, not cloven, hooves. That's thanks to a genetic mutation called syndactylism, which has been observed in pigs for centuries. Aristotle mentioned it, in The History of Animals, but no one's really sure where the purebred American mulefoot, also known for its hairy black coat, floppy ears, docile nature, hardiness, friendliness, and good mothering, came from.
The mulefoot became a recognized standard breed in the early 1900s, when there were some 235 breeders in 22 states. But, as George E. Day reported in his 1913 Productive Swine Husbandry, "The National Mule-foot Hog Record Association, which has its office in Indianapolis, has issued the following statement: 'Up to the present date, the Mule-foot hog is a hog without an authentic history. Rumors and reports offer Denmark, Holland, South Africa, Mexico, South America, and the Sandwich Islands as the country of his birth. . . . Reports are so contradictory that this Association cannot, without further research, endorse any of them.'"
These days the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving rare and endangered livestock and poultry breeds, suspects the mulefoot might be descended from Spanish hogs brought to the New World in the 1500s.
By the 1950s, as the mulefoot, along with other distinctive breeds like the tamworth, the red wattle, and the choctaw, was disappearing, replaced by leaner, less flavorful breeds fattened in pens rather than on pasture, a Missouri breeder named R.M. Holliday took up their cause.
Nearly a century ago, Holliday's grandfather began raising mulefoots on islands in the Mississippi River. The Army Corps of Engineers commandeered the land in the 50s and built dams that flooded it, and Holliday's grandfather went out of business. "More corn on them islands than there was in a lot of the elevators, I expect," he says. "The government took them all away from them and didn't give them nothin.'"
Holliday himself raised all sorts of swine--Durocs, Spotted Polands, Hampshires, Yorkshires--but in 1961 he began to seek out mulefoot breeding stock. By then they were almost gone, but he found some in Iowa and North Dakota, and there were some in Arkansas too, though "they wasn't any good hardly," he says. "Too little. They were roguish little sons of bitches." As Holliday developed his own line of breeding stock he regularly shipped feeders--as many as 240 a month--off for butchering, where they fetched a 20 percent premium over the going rate. "That was something I never heard of," says Holliday. "Course I put some fat on. Hogs they're killing now are poor. They ain't fit to eat, of any kind."
He says he took some ribbing for raising mulefoots. "Well, I was just foolish enough to keep bothering with them," he says. "They made all kinds of fun of me. Yeah, some still call me Mr. Mulefoot. That's the only thing that's hurt 'em--who wants to eat a mule?"
Holliday placed ads for his breeding stock in farm journals, and was just as selective with buyers and breeders he traded with as he was with the stock itself, especially after another breeder's pigs introduced white feet and wattles into his herd, forcing him to cull them. He had other disputes with breeders over the years. "I always tried to start more breeders but a lot of them wasn't hog people, they was bums."
Eight years ago Mark Dibert of Tekonsha, Michigan, had no idea the four hogs he'd inherited from his father were among the last of their kind. "My pigs were getting old," he says. "So I thought, 'I'll just get another pig.' We had the Internet. Shoot, you can find anything on the Internet. But when I got on the Internet there was nothing."
The records of the National Mulefoot Hog Record Association in Indianapolis, the last existing registry for the breed, were destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. Dibert, a retired Michigan state worker who also raises heritage sheep, got a list of three or four breeders from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which had been attempting to track down surviving mulefoots since the 70s. But no one had any more pigs.
Dibert heard about Holliday and in 2000 he bought some pigs from a breeder in Iowa that were said to have come from Holliday's herd--but he got rid of them. "When I got them home I didn't care for them that much," he says. "I'm not sure they were pure enough. They just didn't look right as far as what I grew up with and as far as what the breed book standards are."
Dibert and his wife, Jessica, contacted Holliday himself but he wasn't ready to give any pigs up. "Mr. Holliday didn't sell to many people," says Jessica, who's writing a book on the history of the mulefoot. "He was very, very picky and for many years he sold to nobody."
The Diberts were so alarmed at the breed's precarious state that in early 2000 they took out ads looking for the owners of the mulefoots Holliday had sold in the early 90s. In 2003 they started the American Mulefoot Hog Association and Registry, putting up a Web page and establishing strict breeding standards taken from a 1954 husbandry textbook. Though some small white points are allowed in the purebred mulefoot's black, hairy coat, pricked ears and cloven hooves aren't. And since Holliday had the only known purebreds, the Diberts decided that to be eligible each animal had to be traceable to its herd. At first, the only other pigs they could register were their own.
"We were concerned that if [Holliday] passed they would all be sent to market," says Jessica. "At this point we knew in order to preserve them you have to have a geographical record of where these purebred pigs ended up."
Holliday himself knew he had to do something with his pigs. "I'm 89 years old, and that's enough reason to stop everything," he says. "I'm gonna die, of course." Three years ago he started selling off small breeding groups. The Diberts picked up two boars and six sows from him, dropping three off with a breeder in Tennessee and integrating the others into their own small herd.
They collected pigs in their registry slowly, but after a year they'd logged animals from some 20 different breeders. In February 2006 Holliday sold his entire remaining herd--about 60 hogs--along with his notebooks, correspondence, and old registry records to a South Dakota rancher named Arie McFarlen. McFarlen, who has PhDs in theology and nutrition, runs Maveric Heritage Ranch in Dell Rapids. She and her husband raise a variety of rare breeds--American guinea hogs, Jacob sheep, miniature Sicilian donkeys, and belted Galloway cattle. Eight years ago she was hog shopping. "I wanted to raise a particular breed of pigs that could do well on our production methods," she says. "Meaning that I didn't want to confine them. I didn't want to power feed them. I wanted to be able to turn them loose with the goats and sheep on the pasture and only give them supplements for their feed in the wintertime. And commercial pigs--just no way. You won't get anything with them. They'll just be skinny things and they're not hardy." She bought some mulefoots from an Iowa family that had Holliday stock and fell in love with the breed.
"The mulefoots are really friendly and they're curious and they want to see everything you're doing," she says. "They'll follow you along and talk to you. They're just really interesting pigs, and when you line them up with some of the other breeds they're just a lot more fun to have." Now with some 25 boars and close to 60 females, she owns the largest herd of mulefoots in existence and has become a vocal advocate for the breed.
Last year, after a series of articles about mulefoots appeared in farm publications, the Diberts and McFarlen were swamped by inquiries from homesteaders looking to buy and requests from breeders to register their hogs with uncloven feet. Dibert says he sometimes gets as many as 100 calls a week. But many of these pigs don't make the cut, having wattles or white feet or some other deviation from the standard.
"I have people call me all the time from the southern states and say, 'Hey, I got mulefoot hogs. What do you want us to do with them?'" says McFarlen. "And I say, 'Well, what have you been doing with them?' And they say, 'Aw, we just shoot them when it's deer season so we can get the fat for our sausage.'"
McFarlen says she replies, "Well, just keep doing that then. I don't know what else to tell you."
The Diberts figure there are between 250 and 300 pigs in the registry now. It's likely there are purebreds out there that haven't been registered yet, and Jessica estimates that at the current rate the registry will grow by a third every year.
Despite her promotional efforts, there are a few aspects of the mulefoots' comeback McFarlen is secretive about. Shortly after she bought Holliday's herd, she says, she began taking blood samples of all the known purebreds and submitting them to researchers--she won't say where--for a genetic mapping project. She hopes the research will benefit breeders who want to increase diversity in the breed by determining family lines in the hogs registered with the Diberts.
Last spring McFarlen and other breeders gave hair samples to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which sent them on to Spain. The University of Cordoba is comparing their DNA to samples from Spanish hogs to determine if the mulefoot is in fact descended from Spanish stock.
Normally only livestock that'll be used for breeding gets registered, but registering all mulefoots helps create a market for their meat, says McFarlen. She says she's supplied mulefoot meat to restaurants in Colorado, Wisconsin, and New Orleans, though she won't name them. In 2005 the mulefoot was voted into Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste, the movement's promotional organ for rare and endangered foods. "We are trying to promote heritage pork and its own independent, exclusive niche," says McFarlen. "And by getting people to register the whole litter we're adding traceability to that piece of meat. You can follow it back to where it came from. And by registering the whole litter you're now validating when someone says, 'Hey I'm selling purebred heritage mulefoot pork.' You can go back and see that that pig was in fact registered as part of the litter. You know who his parents were."
Last August Linda Derrickson and Mark Kessenich drove up to McFarlen's ranch in South Dakota to look at pigs. She cooked them a mulefoot roast, and the couple loaded four young pigs into a truck filled with zucchini and hauled them back to Wisconsin.
"That's a vacation for us," says Derrickson. "Going and getting pigs in South Dakota."
Crystal, Cong, Cherry, and Churchill bedded down in the barn over the winter. On January 20 Kessenich saw Cong breeding with Crystal, but they weren't sure she was pregnant, or "with pig," until her nipples started swelling in the middle of March. The farmer's rule of thumb says a pig's gestation period is three months, three weeks, and three days. Mulefoots can farrow (birth) anywhere from two to a dozen piglets. Derrickson figured Crystal would farrow on or about May 15.
In mid-April Kessenich moved the pigs to a fenced-off area on the side of a pasture where he and Derrickson will eventually grow squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, corn, and maybe potatoes. The pigs have been eating the quack grass, pulling it up by the roots, along with the occasional earthworm, helping to turn the soil in preparation for planting. Kessenich has been supplementing their diet with a mixture of cracked corn and kitchen scraps, and when he dumps a bucketful into their plastic troughs they emerge from their tin shelter in the middle of the paddock and scarf it down noisily.
With Crystal's graduation from gilt to sow imminent, she and Cherry will soon get their own tin shelters in the paddock, to reduce the chances of an adult rolling over on a piglet. The farmers plan to keep only one piglet for themselves and to sell the rest to people who want them for either their meat or their genes. "If we can register them we can sell them and spread them out a little more," says Derrickson.
As the hogs finish off their kitchen slop the couple's herd of Scottish Highland cattle appears on a rise above the paddock and slowly makes its way down to the fence. The shaggy blond matriarch of the herd saunters over to the wire fence, and Cong moves to investigate. As the cow lowers her great head to snout level the two animals simultaneously extend and touch tongues briefly through the fence.
Derrickson and Kessenich have been struck by how intelligent and curious the mulefoots are. When humans or other animals approach them they get up and follow them around, grunting and squealing conversationally and investigating with their snouts--giving wet "pig kisses."
"Cong, he is just a terrible flirt," says Kessenich. "He'd been here about a week, and Wendy the milk goat hadn't really come over and made their acquaintance yet. I'd just taken some summer squash out to them. We're standing talking to the pigs and Wendy came over and put her hooves up on the fence and Cong took one look at her and picked up this big piece of squash and took it over and handed it to her through the fence."
That's the sort of personality that can make it difficult to let go of animals when it's time for slaughter. But Kessenich manages to maintain an attitude both sentimental and pragmatic. And he's up front with the animals about it.
"When we ship animals there's some uneasiness," he says. "But I sit down with every animal that I ship and explain that it is their relationship with the farm. We give them names and we become very attached to them. But I'm always straightforward with them. 'Part of what you're doing on this farm is to get big so that you can bring capital back to the farm.'"
For updates on Crystal's litter and other mulefoots at Hillspring Farm, watch our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Sula.