12 June 2019

HERITAGE PIGS: CONSERVING THE PAST THROUGH AGRICULTURE

A Muse Bouche | Jordan Fee


Squinting my eyes from the sunlight, I step over a small wire fence and approach a large grouping of animals, all of whom are breathing heavily between bites. Just moments before this, a farmhand has tossed a box of eggs into the pen, letting them all shatter on the ground. Staring at the collage of brightly coloured shells and yokes, I wonder why the decision was made to throw all of this valuable produce away. Noticing my perplexity, the farmhand informs me that the calcium in the eggshells holds great nutritional value for the animals. Smiling, I think to myself how consumers in the downtown core of Toronto would happily pay seven to nine dollars for a carton of the very same eggs. What a life to lead.

Photograph courtesy of Jordan Fee
Why is it that these animals were eating so well? Perhaps it is because of the story they tell; theirs is a story that could have ended a long time ago had it not been for the efforts of a small handful of passionate farmers, dedicated to conserving the biological wealth of a time long gone. It is a story of intangible cultural heritage, one that is generally overlooked in a time when the word agriculture is met with general disdain.

Photograph courtesy of Jordan Fee
Tamworth, Berkshire, Old Spot, Saddleback, Hereford. Do any of these names ring a bell? Perhaps not, since we tend to know them all by one name: pig. It is not unreasonable that we think of pigs in the singular; in fact, there has been much effort put into ensuring that producers and consumers alike have had a singular view of these animals. In 1955, following the end of WWII food rations, the British government issued the Howitt report, which claimed that the largest threat to the British pork industry was the diversity of breeds that existed throughout the country. The report advised farmers to limit their production to just three breeds: the Large White, the Landrace, and the Welsh. 

To be honest, I had never thought that the words “pig” and ‘biodiversity” could be placed within the same sentence. That was until about three years ago, when I visited a small farm, located about an hour and a half west of Toronto. I had heard of some specific breeds of pig at this point, like the now relatively famous Black Iberian pigs, which produce the most expensive ham in the world. 

Photograph courtesy of Jordan Fee
When I arrived at this farm three years ago, I noticed immediately how unique and colourful the pigs were. Tamworth pigs have reddish-brown hair (hence their nickname, the Ginger Pig), while Berkshires are black like the Iberico pigs, only with white hair around their hooves. The Saddleback pigs, which as I have learned are a particularly rare breed, have a long pale stripe running along their shoulders. Each of the breeds also have distinct ears and snouts by which you can distinguish them. I was amazed when the aforementioned farmhand listed off all of these names, none of which I had really heard before. Just two weeks ago, I found out about yet another breed of pig, the Meishan, which is at this point critically endangered.

Photograph courtesy of Jordan Fee

I understand that this topic may seem like somewhat of an odd choice, but I honestly believe some of the breeds that I’ve mentioned are a part of Canadian heritage, and that these animals should be acknowledged as such. In some cases, I am saddened by the lack of communication between Toronto and the surrounding areas. Anyone with access to a car (which, I understand, can be quite difficult) can spend time on a summer day learning about the amazing agricultural work taking place just outside of the GTA in Ontario's Green Belt. I may have learned more at that farm than I ever have at a museum.



Photograph courtesy of Jordan Fee

Finally, I want to say that I completely acknowledge and understand the ambivalence that some people feel towards the agricultural industry. However, the farm that I have written about in this article is not engaged in mass production in any way, shape, or form. In fact, he is part of a global population of farmers that are working very hard to sustain their livelihood for years to come.  It is certainly true that industrial agriculture has become somewhat of a sprawling mess, but I do think that one could probably make the same argument about cities like Toronto.

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