Red Wattle Hog Stewardship

A Mother Earth News editor visits her grandparents to learn about their contributions to the conservation of a unique heritage hog breed.

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courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

Red Wattle hogs are among the struggling livestock breeds that a small group of dedicated farmers and ranchers are working to preserve. Join an editor on her visit to two local heroes (and relatives) who explain their efforts to revitalize one heritage hog breed.

When I was a kid, my grandparents lived on a rural Kansas farm surrounded by fields of alfalfa and, later, adjacent to a wind farm. We’d drive by the turbines with their giant blades slicing the wide sky, and continue down dirt roads until we saw the “Lazy S Farms” sign in front of their wooden farmhouse, which doubled as a rustic bed-and-breakfast. I savored these trips, during which I’d read books while lying on plush fur hides in front of their fireplace and admire their eclectic collection of antiques. Outdoors, we’d visit the horses in their pen, the kittens in the barn, the chickens in the garden, and the Red Wattle hogs in their run. I loved the piglets, but at the time, I gave no thought to what breed they were, or those distinctions beyond “pig” or “hog” even existed.

So when my grandparents, Larry and Madonna Sorell, were featured in Time magazine when I was a teenager for raising a special breed of hog in high demand among well-known chefs in big cities, I read the article and glimpsed a world I’d never considered — where a pig isn’t just a pig, and where my grandparents were highly regarded for their work.

Only after years of working for Mother Earth News, where we often publish articles about heritage breeds, did this memory resurface. After an online search, I turned up other articles calling my grandfather “an avatar of the heritage food movement, a salt of the earth farmer, a true believer who was destined to become the Guardian of the Red Wattle.” Reading these words, I knew it was time I paid my grandparents a visit at their new farm in Missouri to learn more about these pigs and their years of raising them — and to learn more about my grandparents themselves.

So, in the summer of 2021, we sat on their porch to talk, and as they spoke, they seamlessly finished one another’s sentences to tell the story of our family history and how it came to intersect with the history of Red Wattle hogs.

Red Wattle’s Roots

Red Wattle hogs are immense, reddish pigs with fleshy appendages that dangle from each side of their necks. These namesake “wattles” are thought to be useless — though perhaps only the pigs really know. Their upturned noses and upright ears with drooping tips give them a friendly demeanor that matches reports of the breed’s charm. “I love the docility of the Red Wattles. They’re just so easy to work with. They’re not aggressive,” my grandmother Madonna said.

According to The Livestock Conservancy (TLC), this pig’s gentility lends itself well to small-scale, independent producers, and its foraging skills make it suitable for pasture production. Further, this hardy breed is adaptable to a wide range of climates, and it grows rapidly — usually reaching maturity between 600 and 800 pounds, but individual hogs can weigh as much as 1,200 pounds. Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager for TLC, says, “They’re a pig that has great growth rate, almost similar to commercial pigs, which makes them a really viable option if you’re looking to market pork beyond just raising it for the family.”

Despite these qualities, Red Wattle hogs remain on TLC’s “Threatened” list. TLC says the origins of this hog in its modern form, while obscure, likely trace back to ancestors in Texas that were introduced through the Gulf of Mexico in the mid-1800s. Nearly a century later, in the mid-1980s, TLC attempted to unite the efforts of three separate Red Wattle breeding registries, to no avail. In its 1990 census, TLC reported 272 registered Red Wattle hogs, but by 1999, only 42 registered animals belonging to six breeders remained.

But in 2001, TLC persisted in its efforts to preserve the breed and supported the founding of the Red Wattle Hog Association, an organization “dedicated to recovering and promoting the critically endangered Red Wattle Hog.” Currently, the Association lists approximately 100 members, with more than 100 purebred hogs registered annually. The existence of the association is essential, Beranger says, because “the breeders really need the support of a strong breed association that can help them market the product and get the word out there and promote the breed.”

My grandparents, Larry and Madonna, are among the farmers helping the breed flourish, as well as finding — and forging — markets for its meat. But before they got their start with Red Wattles, they learned the pig-rearing ropes from decades of raising commercial hogs.

From Commercial Pork to Heritage Hogs

Larry and Madonna grew up helping their families farm, and together, they’ve upheld this tradition. “We’ve been farming ever since we’ve been married, so almost 65 years,” Larry said. Madonna added, “To me, that’s the only place to live.”

Over the years, as their family expanded to nine children, Larry and Madonna’s part-time grain and cattle farming grew to include the farrow-to-finish rearing of 300 sows on their farm in Glasco, Kansas. At the time, Larry drove a truck to support the family, delivering beef he had to unload and haul himself. Eventually, the work weighed on him too heavily — literally — and in 1979, he decided to retire and focus on farming full-time. His efforts paid off that same year when he was named Pork All-American, a prestigious recognition for pork producers.

Still, giving up trucking pinched the family’s income, so in the ’80s, Larry and Madonna transitioned to working at Pig Improvement Company (PIC) facilities, first in South Dakota (1984) and then back in Kansas (1988), where Larry managed a confinement operation.

Those 18 years with PIC might’ve been the end of their hog-raising days if Larry hadn’t encountered Patrick Martins at a turkey conference in Lindsborg, Kansas. Martins is the founder and president of Heritage Foods, a mail-order and wholesale company founded in 2001 to preserve heritage livestock breeds. At a later growers conference in Columbia, Missouri, Martins was asking around to see if anyone wanted to try raising Red Wattle hogs. He was on a mission to increase demand for heritage-breed products, and he needed farmers to join the cause. His company’s goal is to offer an alternative to factory farming, which it says “focuses solely on faster-growing animals, and a bottom line that reflects little interest in biodiversity, sustainability, healthy food, or animal welfare. … The species that were once the foundation of our food supply can only be saved when popular demand increases and farmers have the incentive to raise them.”

Red Wattle piglet with sow

Intrigued, Larry agreed to start a small Red Wattle herd back on the Glasco farm, and brought home a few hogs right then. Madonna was surprised when he showed up at home with more pigs. “I thought we were done with hogs,” Madonna said, laughing. “But it’s been good. Very good.” They traveled 18,000 miles over the course of four months to purchase additional Red Wattle hogs for their herd. They also brought a handful of other heritage breeds to their farm, including Gloucestershire Old Spot, Mulefoot, Large Black, and Berkshire pigs; Katahdin sheep; and Standard Bronze turkeys.

Raising heritage breeds marked a new chapter in their history of livestock husbandry. They raised the animals outdoors without antibiotics or growth hormones, and they came to appreciate the heritage animals’ instincts, personalities, and place in the food system. “The outside hogs really got a place in your heart,” Madonna said. “You’re raising them in a humane way, not totally confined. You really enjoy them, and they each have their own personality. You get to learn their personality when you’re around them outside.”

Over time, they came to realize the noble potential of raising heritage hogs. “It was after we got started, it just grew on you. You realized what you were doing,” Larry said. “You know, you were saving a breed. And we met a lot of good people over the years.”

Red Wattle Resurgence

Some of the people they met included Amish families in Missouri with whom Larry traded horses. As this connection developed and trust grew between my grandparents and their Amish acquaintances, Larry began to partner with Amish farmers in raising Red Wattle hogs whose meat would be sold through Heritage Foods.

In 2015, Larry and Madonna moved from Kansas to Missouri to live closer to many of these Amish producers. Though they aren’t Amish themselves, Larry and Madonna admire the community’s values, self-reliance, and commitment to taking care of their own. From those shared values and a desire to empower Amish farmers to pull in extra income to support their families, Larry has worked exclusively with Amish producers over the years. Now, mostly through word of mouth, the Lazy S Farms network has grown to 18 Amish producers in four states who, combined, raise up to 75 finished hogs per week.

Each week, drivers managed by Larry and Madonna’s son and my uncle, Nathan “Thaz” Sorell, pick up finished pigs — from 40 to 70 per week — and bring them to Trimble, Missouri, for processing. Then, the meat is sold, retail and wholesale, through Heritage Foods, which describes the meat as “a cross between pork and beef … floral and robust, concentrated and bold.” Beranger, too, speaks highly of the meat’s marbling and flavor, and says the pig’s promotion is often met with enthusiasm: “Once people taste the product, it’s going to sell itself.”

Through the conservation efforts of these breeders and the marketing of the marbled meat, Red Wattle hogs started to see a resurgence. And as popular interest in organic and pasture-raised foods increased in the 2000s, chefs began calling around to locate heritage rarities — and my grandparents gained a reputation for their pork.

In addition to their feature in Time, Larry and Madonna entertained up to 100 chefs at their Kansas farm, taking them on tours and introducing them to the animals. They also sold their products to local markets and restaurants.

Time Magazine cover

And while they still lived in Kansas, Larry invited TLC’s Jeannette Beranger out to the farm. Long before I knew Madonna and Larry as skilled hog breeders, I knew them as my grandmother, a hard-working woman who’s exceptional in the kitchen and quick to laugh, and my grandfather, a man whose eyes light up when he’s teasing someone, which he does often. Beranger ended up on the receiving end of his mischief, as many do. “He was always messing with me,” she says. “And your grandfather said, ‘You need to come over so I can set you right on Red Wattles.’ That’s how I ended up going to his farm. So he could ‘set me right.'” Beranger was also on the receiving end of my grandmother’s food: “Your grandma’s a good cook!”

As Beranger toured their farm and tasted the meat, she witnessed the impact Larry was able to have on Red Wattle hogs through thoughtful breeding backed by years of experience. “He’s got an eye for it,” Beranger says. “And he produced really good-quality animals that were productive. When people get involved with rare breeds, they need to understand how to breed them well. Not just breed them, but breed them well. … And I think Larry has a good sense of what a good animal should look like. He looks for structure and productivity. And he’s a gold mine of information, if you just take the time to let him ‘set you right.'”

The stewardship of heritage-breed history — through committed breeders, distributors like Heritage Foods, and breed associations — is what keeps heritage breeds like the Red Wattle alive. “We love heritage breeds, we love supporting diversity,” Beranger says. “But the worst thing that happens to heritage breeds is when people get in and get out … and then they’ll disperse the animals without any concern for placing them in hands that are going to continue to steward them. If you’re going to get into rare breeds, it is a commitment.”

After a years-long commitment to raising Red Wattle hogs, Larry recounted some of the costs of raising pastured pigs, such as the labor-intensive husbandry and the impacts of higher corn prices. But he said the hogs are happier — and so is the soil. In a recent conversation with one of the Amish producers, Larry said his friend gestured to a field where he’d spread the manure, and a field where he hadn’t, and noted how much healthier the manure-infused field was. “He said, ‘It’s just like pure gold.’ Which it is!” Larry said. “They were losing money feeding these hogs, but if you figured in the fertilizer they got from them, it was saving them money, and overset the loss.”

Hard Work and Community

Don’t let the name of my grandparents’ farm fool you. Nearly in unison, they said hard work and determination have been key to their success. “If that’s going to be your livelihood, then you’ve got to dedicate yourself to it and take care of it to have that income,” Madonna said. “And don’t jump into everything … centralize on maybe one product, and do a good job of it, and you can always add products if you want.”

I’m vegetarian, so I haven’t tasted the Red Wattle hog’s famously marbled meat, and if I ever raise a pig, it’ll likely be a pet. But despite that divergence, through visiting my grandparents and listening to their stories, I was able to recognize the places where our values intersected: on the importance of small farmers and regional eating; on self-reliance buttressed by close community ties and care for one another; and on connecting with animals, plants, and land in an intentional way.

And as I learned about the history of these pigs, I cherished hearing my family’s histories too, directly from the people who have stewarded those histories and who are still here to share them, and who introduced me to farm life in my formative years. “I just think it’s the good life,” Madonna said. As we sat on the porch together, the moon rising in the sky above us, looking out over the lush garden, listening to the birds, and waving to the horse-drawn carriages slowly rolling by on the highway, I had to agree.

Amanda Sorell is a writer and editor for Mother Earth News. You can read more of her writing at eClips.

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