October 1, 2011
Porcine Perfection
Mason pig farm hits hot market for high-end ham in W.Va. woods
Douglas Imbrogno
Kenny Kemp
Three heirloom pigs wander out of the woods where they forage acorns, nuts, greens and other forest mast in autumn. The varied diet produces pigs with a high fat content conducive to a long curing process for high-end hams.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Woo-oop!"

Chuck Talbott's voice reverberates through the woods above his farm as he rides an ATV along a rough path up into the hills. The thunder of three dozen 300- to 350-pound pigs lumbering down a ravine answers his call.

Raised and grazed on pastureland and field crops at Black Oak Holler Farm in Mason County, these specially bred heirloom pigs are released into the woods in autumn, where they gorge on acorns, hickory nuts and wild greens for the last few months of their lives.

Their active life and natural diet produce hams that rival high-end European hams and charcuterie when dry-cured for two years. The acorn and nuts they eat give the meat and fat a nutty flavor.

Talbott and his partner, Nadine Perry, teamed up with ham aficionado and Washington, D.C., investor Nic Heckett to produce Appalachian dry-cured hams under the label Woodlands Pork LLC. Their Mountain Ham won the prestigious American Treasures Award for 2011.

Big-city restaurant chefs, whose diners recognize the difference between a generous platter of country cured ham and a taste of fine ham, will pay the $25 price per pound for Woodlands Pork hams.

"This is not something you dine on, it's something you taste. It's the most flavor you can put in your mouth with the smallest amount of food. It's a very special taste," said Heckett, who places Woodlands Pork in ham tastings, events similar to wine, chocolate and cheese tastings. Some people can guess a ham's origins from its terroir, a term used more often in the wine world in reference to the specific tastes produced by the vineyard's soil and growing conditions.

"The hams have an Appalachian terroir," said Talbott, based on the native soil in which they rut, and water, plants, grains and mast they eat.

Talbott, who is the West Virginia University extension agent for Putnam County, considers the promotion of small-scale

farms and local consumption his ultimate goal. The farm serves as a development and teaching facility for agriculture students. Talbott plans to teach his system to future pig farmers throughout the state, who could fill a unique market niche.

"I was looking for a way small farmers could compete with the big boys," he said. "We can't. We have to do something different."

Restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Cincinnati purchase Woodlands Pork hams. Heckett lists Rouge Tomate, Marlow & Daughters in New York, Bourbon Steak in San Francisco and Local 127 in Cincinnati as customers. The New York restaurants sell the ham for $75 to $80 a pound.

"The difference is that our ham has better taste and color, and is well-marbled. Its fat profile is different. It's deeper tasting because of their diet and the exercise they get," Talbott said. "In Europe, they say American pork is bland."

Heckett agrees with the Europeans. His preference for Italian meats solidified when he visited Tuscany and tasted locally produced hams.

"I went far and wide. In Tuscany, I was exposed to a whole other side of pork," Heckett said. "This was forest-fed pork."

Heckett considered an import business in Italian meats, but expensive USDA requirements for on-site inspectors made the plan impractical.

"When I was back in the United States, I wondered why we couldn't do that here," he said. As he researched the concept of forest-fed pork, he realized the method was nothing new. American pioneers raised pigs in penned pasture, and then released them into the woods to feed on the mast. The practice had continued through the 1940s, when industrial pork production took over.

Talbott's background in swine and cattle farming made him an ideal agricultural partner. Earlier in his career at North Carolina A&T University, Talbott worked with a nomadic tribe's dairy cattle in Africa. They grazed cattle on riverbanks during the dry season and used the manure-enriched soil in the pens for next year's garden.

"Pigs are even better suited for this. They're always turning the soil," he said. "My background is in dairy, but I'll never go back. Pigs are fascinating."

The Black Oak Holler pigs' maternal stock is heirloom pig. The male line comes from Ossabaw boars, wild hogs introduced to America by Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto in 1539. The pigs have a larger layer of fat, which allows a long curing process, and a more complex, intensely flavored ham.

Talbott's concept for raising pigs in a farm's natural environment creates an efficient organic system. The pigs start in a pen and graze on the grasses. They rut in the ground, turning the earth and mixing in their waste.

They move to the pasture, and the first pen lies fallow for a season while he works old straw and hay into the soil.

Later, Talbott plants a field crop for the pigs to eat and that thrives in the newly enriched dirt. To prove the success of the method, Talbott turned the soil, and revealed rich, black earth that was previously clay soil.

Several times a day, Perry and Talbott check on the pigs, which are separated by age groups in their pastures and pens.

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