Genetic diversity in farm animals insures the food supply against threats such as famine, drought, epidemics and the changing winds of consumer fancy.

Saving Barnyard Diversity, One Bite at a Time


MARGIE WYLIE , Newhouse News Service

30 May 2004

"We've got piggy today! Tasty piggy!" Travis Potter sings out cheerily to shoppers one recent Saturday in San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace.

Standing behind a meat-packed refrigerator case, the proprietor of Potter Family Farms in the Willamette Valley near Eugene, Ore., is doing a brisk business in pork marbled with sumptuous streaks of fat. "It's not 'the other white meat,' " said Chris Cosentino, chef at Incanto, a hot San Francisco restaurant that regularly serves Potter's heirloom breed pork and other meats. Far from the tough, dry stuff of the average supermarket swine, Potter's pork is juicy with "an intense, full flavor," Cosentino said.


Across the country, farmers are raising and food enthusiasts are embracing older, sometimes nearly extinct, breeds of pigs, cows, turkeys, chickens and other domesticated animals. Their efforts aren't just bringing more delicious eats to the plates of foodies, but also helping small farms to survive while, perhaps most importantly, preserving breeds of farm animals that are otherwise disappearing.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has warned that of the 6,379 known domestic animal breeds, a third are threatened or already extinct.

In the United States, a mere handful of highly refined breeds produce the majority of food. Holstein cows produce nearly all the milk. White Leghorn chickens lay nearly all the eggs. The breed of nearly every turkey in the United States is the Broad-breasted White. Angus predominates in our beef supply.

It may seem irrelevant whether America's eggs and skinless, boneless breasts flow from one chicken breed or 1,000, so long as the pipeline remains open. However, genetic diversity in farm animals insures the food supply against threats such as famine, drought, epidemics and the changing winds of consumer fancy, said Harvey Blackburn, coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Animal Germplasm Program, which preserves livestock genetics by collecting and freezing embryos and sperm.

The high-production farm animals that keep U.S. food so cheap and so plentiful have been inbred to grow quickly, or to produce prodigious amounts of milk or eggs. But, as a result, many no longer can resist disease or parasites, some have lost their mothering instincts, and industrial turkeys, the most inbred, are sterile, Blackburn said.

Heritage breeds, by comparison, were cultivated since their domestication about 12,000 years ago to thrive in difficult climates, to resist disease and to reproduce well. But these breeds are not favored in modern farming, which stresses high yield over hardiness, Blackburn said. The older breeds also forage - which adds flavor to the meat - and prefer open pastures to the confinement of factory farms, Potter said.

At Cherry Grove Farm just outside Princeton, N.J., Kelly Harding's Tamworth pigs live outdoors year round, giving birth in the cold of February and raising large litters of piglets without ever going indoors. "They're just a hearty breed and good mothers, too," he said. Likewise, Gulf Coast sheep and Piney Woods cattle are naturally resistant to many common parasites, said Peter Borden, director of the Swiss Valley Farm Foundation in Newport, R.I.


Despite its idyllic setting and name, the Swiss Valley Farm concentrates on freezing embryos and sperm of the most endangered breeds, "so that if there's an epidemic or other problem later, we've got the genetics in the tank,'' Borden said.

But even Borden admits the best approach to preservation is to keep raising animals on the hoof.

"The way you save Tamworth pigs is you eat them," said Charles R. Bassett, executive director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, N.C. "Otherwise they simply won't be kept around."

One notable success so far has been the turkey. Slow Food, an international network of food lovers, launched an effort in 2002 that helped popularize, and thus pull back from the brink of extinction, several old-fashioned varieties of turkeys.

For small farmers struggling to keep their heads above water, heritage breeds have provided a profitability boost, though by no means a magic bullet.

"People like the idea that we're saving a part of America by raising these (rare) breeds," said Robin Bowman, owner of Rancho de la Chuparrosa, a small farm near Sabinal, Texas. But she admits what her customers like most is the taste.

Last year, Bowman and her husband, Peter, pre-sold all 30 of their Thanksgiving Heritage turkeys by Sept. 1. This year she'll raise 100, including Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Blue Slate, Royal Palm and Black Spanish breeds.

Even though Bowman can fetch $3 per pound for her birds, that's not all gravy. Her heritage turkey chicks, called poults, cost two to three times as much to buy from a breeder as Broad-breasted Whites.

And, the birds have to grow for four to five months, instead of the 14 to 16 weeks of commercial turkeys. The extra time allows heritage turkeys to come to maturity, giving them tastier meat and a thin layer of fat that keeps the bird succulent when roasting.


Overall, however, the heritage market remains a tiny, tenuous fraction of the American food supply. Potter Family Farms, one of the larger heritage breed swine operations, hopes to raise 2,000 to 3,000 pigs on the farm's 88 acres next year. According to the USDA, 75 percent of all pigs in the United States are produced in facilities that raise 5,000 animals or more at once. And big industrial swine operations can cram as many as 150,000 pigs into a single barn, said Potter.

But for heritage meats to escape a niche market of deep-pocketed, picky eaters, Americans have to be willing to pay more for meat and change their eating habits, said Tom Gardner, president of the Heritage Breeds Conservancy in Richmond, Mass.

"We have to stop thinking about $1.29 per pound for hamburger and not eat a half-pound of burger when we sit down at the table,'' said Gardner.

Potter admits that at $10 to $15 a pound, he's selling his meats to a rarefied crowd in San Francisco, but he thinks there's room to grow. The rancher, who also raises buffalo, sheep and beef cattle, struck a deal to sell meats at Trader Joe's supermarkets. And this year he'll open a processing plant to make jerky, prosciutto, sausages and other processed meat products on a larger scale.

"All the chefs are going crazy for (heritage breeds), and articles are being written" in food magazines, he said. "Now that there's more awareness, the market is expanding."