The two sows, bigger and heavier than miniature horses, were constantly moving. Big, floppy ears covered their eyes, and the pigs snorted incessantly while scratching their sides on the posts of their shelter. Suddenly, one ran towards me. She could have bowled me over, but the farmer standing beside me didn’t seem concerned. Instead, the sow—“Diego”—pressed her nose to my knees and started rubbing against me like a friendly dog.
Personability is just one of the benefits of this rare breed, called Gloucestershire Old Spots.
“The good thing about Gloucester Old Spot pigs is that they’re cold-resistant,” said the farmer. “You can keep them outside all winter. Of course, they have a shelter, and we try to keep them warm and happy.”
Anna Hatchet raises these pigs and other heritage breeds on Manda Farms in Plainfield, Massachusetts. Heritage breeds are historically and biologically significant farm animals, that have been used in the past for a variety of functions, in a variety of environments, for a variety of people. A lot of heritage breeds are also at risk of extinction. Diego, for example, is one of fewer than 1,000 Old Spot pigs registered in the United States. Heritage breeds are usually not kept at large factory farms, but family-owned, outdoor farms, like the ones you might see on your milk-carton.
But most milk (not to mention burgers and eggs) you come across comes from factory-farmed animals. 90% of dairy cattle in the United States are Holstein cattle. The entire population of Holsteins in the U.S.–all 22 million of them– have the genetic diversity of only 34 individuals. If they were to confront a disease, a parasite, weather that they couldn’t survive, or anything else that could wipe out the breed, leaving Americans wanting for dairy. That’s where heritage breed preservation would save the day. Rare livestock breeds include animals that are resistant to parasites and diseases, or are better at breeding, or are more cold or heat-tolerant. In case of calamity, then farmers could raise heritage breeds, or cross-breed them into their herds.
“We’re losing these breeds and we need to do something. Plus, you can charge quite a bit more for a heritage breed than regular breeds.” — Anna Hatchet
Heritage breeds can sell for more per animal than conventional breeds do, but like artisan bread and locally-crafted beer, they’re not always profitable. Farmers usually choose to raise more common, dominant breeds because they have a higher yield—they grow bigger, faster, or produce more milk or eggs. “A lot of people get into heritage breeds because it sounds like such a great idea,” said Sarah Bowley, program director at The Swiss Village Farm Foundation (SVF). “But when they realize that the economic return isn’t there, they can be dissuaded within two or three years.”
The Swiss Village Foundation is dedicated to preserving diverse livestock genetics, and currently is home to 27 different groups of heritage breeds. They have the Golden Guernsey goat, of whom there are only 11 purebred in the United States, and the Jacob’s sheep, some of whom sport four or more horns. At this Newport, Rhode Island facility, a cobblestone and grassy campus spanning 46 acres, goats, sheep and cattle serve not just as future sweaters and burgers, but as genetic donors. When the animals aren’t grazing and roaming, the scientists at SVF are harvesting and preserving their sperm, embryos, and blood, in case they are ever needed.
If a heritage breed goes extinct because no one is raising them, SVF ensures that they still have a chance to be revived. With preserved embryos, and similar breeds to act as surrogate mothers, SVF would be able to restore a breed within one generation.
SVF is closed to the public out of concern that people can bring in pathogens and contaminate their animals, labs, equipment and facilities. However, one June day per year, they allow people to come in and see their rare animals. Anna Hatchet of Manda Farms welcomes visitors year-round to come see her animals, feed apple peels to her guard-llamas, and pet the pigs.
“With climate change and everybody being a little more perceptive about having to shift agriculture to something that is a bit more practical in the future, things like those out-lying traits could really come into play and be very valuable,” said Bowley. “Of course if those animals go extinct, then we don’t have their genetic reserves, then there’s no way to recoup that loss.” While heritage breeds are remnants of the past, they may end up as an important part of our future. Shifts in human tastes, industry, and harsh changes in climate may mean that humans who rely on animal agriculture will need to look to heritage breeds for their unique traits.