On this Oroville ranch, heritage hogs and Twitter go together

It’s feeding time inside a muddy pig pen as seven hungry hogs descend on cattle rancher Megan Brown.

Brown stands 5-foot-4, and it wouldn’t take much for one of the 200-pound hogs to take her down.

She calms the feeding frenzy by poking each hog’s back with a fork – an old hog-farmer trick akin to rubbing an alligator’s belly – that puts each pig in a semi- narcotic state.

The swine are relative newcomers to the 3,000-acre Brown family ranch, which sits in the shadow of Table Mountain a few miles from Oroville. Cattle ranching is the Brown family’s main business, but it has recently moved to capitalize on the newfound popularity of rare pig breeds known as heritage hogs.

Brown’s ranch specializes in raising the red wattle hog – a breed prized by chefs and gourmands for its marbled meat and intense taste.

The origins of the mild-mannered breed are obscure, according to the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit advocacy group for rare breeds. What is known for certain is that in the early 1970s, a Texas man found them in a wooded area of the eastern part of the state and bred them. The use for the pair of fleshy wattles that hang from their necks has yet to be established.

The conservancy lists the red wattle as threatened. That fact imparts a sense of mission to Brown, who feeds her red wattle hogs pumpkins and chocolate chip cookies to tweak their flavor.

“I want this species to survive,” Brown said.

For their future to be assured, more people will have to start eating them – not an easy proposition given that the meat is hard to find and expensive.

The 33-year-old Brown sees herself as an advocate for the breed. It’s one of many causes she fights for, the major one being encouraging women to go into cattle ranching.

Brown is the only child of ranchers Gary and Sharon Brown. The family farm goes back six generations – with Brown the heir apparent at the ranch. “I’m single and unmarried, and I’m doing it,” she said.

In the male-dominated world of cattle ranching, Brown is an anomaly. Her friends tend to be Chico-area musicians rather than fellow ranchers or farmers.

She boasts a robust Twitter presence (@MegRaeB) – with 4,225 followers to date. And she is not shy about using social media to front the red wattle cause.

Her foray into heritage hogs happened three years ago. She started with four red wattle hogs. She now has 17. When she buys the piglets, which cost roughly $200, she makes sure she buys from women.

She likens the appeal of heritage hogs to that of heirloom vegetables.

“There is a small niche of people that are really into cooking and like to know where their meat comes from, and they want to connect with the farmer,” she said.

Like much that has taken hold in the farm-to-fork movement, red wattle hogs are a case of what was once old being new again.

“The pork available in stores today is very lean, and white,” Brown said. “Old-style pork was not like that. It had tons of fat and was often pink.”

Chefs have taken notice of heritage breeds for decades, but the farm-to-fork movement has placed more intense interest on rare pig breeds and where they’re sourced.

“Having a pig that comes from a small, well-tended farm generally yields a better product,” said Patrick Mulvaney, chef and proprietor of Mulvaney’s B&L, the acclaimed restaurant in midtown Sacramento.

Mulvaney mostly buys the Berkshire pig breed, a rare breed similar to the red wattle pig in that it is also prized for its juiciness and tenderness. In total, he buys four heritage hogs a year and uses them as a special item on his menus. Mulvaney sometimes purchases the red wattle breed.

“The meat is really good for bacon and for curing. The quality of the fat is just tremendous” Mulvaney said.

However, such hogs will remain a niche item, he said.

“They’re more expensive, so it really becomes a challenge economically,” he said.

At Sacramento’s Taylor’s Market, one of the few retail butcher shops in the city, heritage hog sales are on the rise, said Danny Johnson, the store’s co-owner. However, it is unlikely the red wattle breed will become a butcher-case fixture.

“It’s not on the radar for us,” Johnson said.

To make a profit on the breed, the market would have to sell the meat at a premium, deeply limiting its appeal, Johnson said.

That is already an issue with the Berkshire mixed pig breeds he sells at the market. Typically, a center-cut pork chop would sell for $6.99 per pound. The heritage breed sells for $16.99 per pound.

So where does that leave Brown and her desire to sell more of her hogs and make a profit while safeguarding the breed?

She is keeping the focus very small and local. Her buyers right now are mostly her friends. In that realm, a red wattle hog is sold for roughly $900. Custom butchering adds another $300.

“Buying from me in bulk is probably the most economical way to do it,” Brown said.

Friends who buy the hogs are encouraged to visit the farm and and track the animals’ development. When time comes for slaughter, Brown gives them the option of having the hog slaughtered on the farm by a contract butcher from Chico. Brown encourages buyers to watch the process.

“I believe in transparency,” she said.

Brown said she believes slaughtering the animal where it lives is a more humane form of hog ranching. Many of the methods used on the Brown farm are those espoused by Brown’s idol, Temple Grandin, the autistic activist and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior

Lately, Brown has been making trips to trendy butcher shops like San Francisco’s Fatted Calf to track the latest developments with heritage hogs. She has yet to test whether there is any interest in her hogs at the chef level.

Once Brown begins selling to the public, she will have to conform to USDA standards for slaughter, which requires the hog to be taken to a butcher.

One of her first customers was Orland resident Stacey Mikulovsky, who bought a red wattle last spring. By the time it was slaughtered and wrapped, she had 130 pounds of heritage hog meat in her freezer.

“My husband and I don’t eat out a lot. We cook a lot at home and from scratch,” Mikulovsky said. “The idea of finding something flavorful and high quality appealed to us, so we figured we’d give it a try.”

At the time of slaughter, Mikulovsky paid $5 a pound for her hog. Altogether, with the cost of butchering, the cost was around $1,000, Mikulovsky said.

“The meat has that porky flavor, but it’s so much more concentrated and flavorful than what you get at the supermarket,” Mikulovsky said. The splurge was worth it, she added, and when the meat runs out, there is no doubt that she will purchase another red wattle hog.

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

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