October 31, 2018 2:43 PM ET
Josh Davis likes to name his pigs after flowers: Petunia, Iris, Violet and Daisy.
That’s not the only thing that sets him apart as a hog farmer.
For the past three years, Davis and his wife, Alicia, have been raising one of the rarest pig breeds in the world on their farm in Pocahontas, Ill. The American mulefoot hog was a popular breed in the Midwest in the early 1900s, but now, there are only a few hundred left. The Davises are among a small group of farmers hoping to revive the breed — by putting it back on the menu.
“The reason why this hog is going extinct is people aren’t eating them anymore,” Josh Davis says while loading buckets of fermented grain onto a wagon.
He thumps the buckets together and whistles, luring his herd of “beautiful flowers” from the trees. The 500-pound hogs roam 12 acres of forest and pasture at Green Finned Hippy Farm, a small organic farm about 40 miles northeast of St. Louis, Mo.
The American mulefoot hog doesn’t look like your typical pink pig — it’s charcoal black with a solid hoof, like a mule.
A century ago, hundreds of herds spread across more than 20 states, including Missouri, where it was nicknamed the “Ozark hog.”
Jeannette Beranger of the Livestock Conservancy says the mulefoot’s “rough and tumble” nature made it particularly attractive to farmers in the Midwest.
“A lot of the time, American mulefoot hogs were managed on river islands,” Beranger says. “They’d forage all summer long, then when it came to butchering time in the fall, people would just go out to the islands and take what they needed.”
The mulefoot hog started falling out of fashion after World War II, with the rise of commercial agriculture operations that favored a few fast-growing breeds suited to confinement.
Missouri farmer R.M. Holliday saved the breed from near-extinction in 1964, when he gathered the few remaining mulefoot hogs in the U.S. and established a conservation herd at his farm in the small town of Louisiana, Mo.
There are about 200 breeding mulefoot hogs left in the U.S. today, all of which are descended from the “Holliday herd.”
‘How can you eat something that’s about to disappear?’
In Illinois, the Davises didn’t need much convincing to get their own herd started.
“It feels like there’s a lot more purpose when you’re doing something that’s not just for the sake of growing food for people,” Josh Davis says. “We’re also doing what we can to be conservationists at the same time.”
Alicia Davis describes the animal as a personable, mild-mannered pig that you can feed out of your hand. Plus, she adds, the meat “just melts in your mouth.”