“Bioregional farming is key: The right species for the region” – A conversation w. Josiah Lockhart

Monday, 23 November, 2015 By Lee Greene
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Josiah Lockhart is a Warrior of Flavor. He is a second generation farmer who focused his family farm in Woodford, Virginia, on raising rare breeds such as the American Mulefoot hog and Silver Laced Wyandotte chicken for a regional network of chefs. His parents manage Lockhart Family Farm’s educational programs, which include summer camps for kids through high school. Josiah was a board member of Slow Food RVA, a delegate to Slow Food’s international Terra Madre food conference and is a central figure in Slow Food USA’s “Slow Meat” initiative. He recently moved back to Scotland where his wife is from and where he caught the sustainable farming bug while studying under agricultural policy pioneer Pete Richie. Here he is excited to lead the newly founded Slow Food Scotland as Development Manager. You can follow him on his personal blog Simple, Slow, Traditional and the farm on facebook.

Make sure to read our conversations with other “Warriors of Flavors” and their work with heirlooms in our previous blogposts!

LEE: The late night conversations at Terra Madre in 2014 with you and Greg Gunthorp, from Gunthorp Farms in Indiana, are some of my best memories of the conference. There I was, talking to two of the country’s leading thinkers in sustainable meat production, and yet your operations are so different from each other. It was fascinating, I learned so much. I distinctly remember your conversation about heritage breeds, specifically the Duroc hog. When I google “Duroc,” sure enough it is supposed to be a heritage breed. But you seemed to disagree. What is an heritage breed? Is there a industry definition?

JOSIAH: Heirloom, heritage, rare – each one has a slightly different meaning. Rare means it is literally rare depending on the number of registered breeding stock. It is a three tier classification which is managed by the Livestock Conversancy in the US and the Rare Breed Survival Trust in Britain.

I stopped using the term heritage breed because it is pretty meaningless. The livestock community will use heritage to describe anything that was derived from a heritage breed or a cross thereof, which essentially is every animal, because each one derives from a heritage breed at some point in history.

The main commercial hog breed in America is a cross between the Duroc, Berkshire and Yorkshire. So theoretically it is heritage, because all three of them were once on the registered lists of heritage breeds.

LEE: Yeah, as a consumer, I am not sure that I follow that logic. But the pure Berkshire is the poster child of the heritage livestock movement. I feel it is like the heirloom tomato of meat.

JOSIAH: The Berkshire pig is the second most common breed in America. You have the commercial three-cross, or if you want a little bit more marbling, then you go with Berkshire. Or you can cross a pure bred Berkshire into a three-cross, then you can call the offspring a Berkshire again. Berkshire can be super commercialized strains. That lineage has been bred to be barn-raised instead of outdoors, just like some strains of Duroc. Of course there are farmers that raise their Berkshire and Duroc outside: those are not the streamlined hyper-commercial genetics.

LEE: But some variance within a breed or a variety of produce is normal, no? I am thinking of our signature heirloom, the Beaver Dam Pepper. Someone brought it from Apatin to Wisconsin, and it adapted and changed. We do not wait for it to turn red here because the growing cycle is too short in the Midwestern climate. And when I brought the pepper to the pepper farmer from Apatin at Terra Madre, it surely did not look like anything he had seen. So clearly it has changed in the U.S. and adapted to our terroir. But still – or rather because of it – it would be considered an heirloom pepper, or would it not?

JOSIAH: Correct, you can never assume that genetics are static, which is why you get regional variances and national variances. Take the example of the Angus cow in Scotland, the U.S., in Argentina – they all derive from the Scottish Aberdeen Angus, but none of them are genetically similar to the original Aberdeen Angus. They have developed differently and farmers have been breeding into them for particular characteristics.

Historically we bred animals regionally, for specific conditions in particular areas. The American Mulefoot hog for example was developed in the 1800s specifically for damp ground. They have non-cloven hooves, so they do not get foot rot. What we have done with the commercial varieties – chicken is probably the worst and swine comes in a close second – is that they were all bred for a specific condition that was not a particular region, but a standard barn. It is a historic way of breeding. The questionable part is what they were bred for: the targeted condition was an inside, mechanized system. And that is an environment that is unsustainable.

The Cornish Cross chicken for example has less feathers so the animal does not have to waste energy on developing those. It can instead go into growth. The commercial pig is hairless, whereas my Mulefoot has three inches of hair. So commercial breeds are also much easier to process.

American Mulefoot hogs (copyright Lockhar Family Farm)
American Mulefoot hogs (copyright Lockhart Family Farm)

LEE: We do hear about chickens that cannot walk because they are grown for a larger ration of breast meat and other favorable characteristics. Is that a poultry-specific problem, or do we see that in all the commercial breeds?

JOSIAH: Different animals have different problems. After six weeks, commercial chickens will die of diseases like heart attacks. These are the same illnesses that affect obese humans. If you were to use Animal Welfare standards for chicken, the Cornish Cross would never be approved because they grow too fast and in order to slow them down you have to literally starve them. They have been bred to always be hungry.

LEE: So lets say I want to raise livestock sustainably. Sustainable would translate to a breed that can thrive in the regional environment while on pasture. Then I would check the livestock register to see who in my area has this breed and hopefully I can buy or trade some? It sounds like it would take a long time to make regional rare breeds more common.

JOSIAH: Globally 20% of animal breeds are at risk of extinction and in the US that number is 50%. So yes, we have got quite a task ahead of us.

There were only 200 breeding stock of the Mulefoot when we got started. It is home to Appalachia, so that is a big region. There is room for quite a number of Mulefoot there. After they were classified as rare its defining characteristics were written down as a standard so now we can all breed towards that.

LEE: But how do breed back to the poster child of the historic American Mulefoot? Or do you not, because what you are looking for is a breed that is adapted to today’s world?

JOSIAH: Well, you need to consider two things. First, we do have to define and work towards the historic breeds to maintain genetic diversity. We cannot afford limited genetics in one species. Take the example of pigs: 93% of pigs are the commercial three way cross, so when we get hit by a disease, all the animals are at risk. And that is not an abstract future scenario. The industry has been battling with swine disease over the last two years, and over 30% of the swine population has already been lost to it. The genetics are too close. But rather than going for a genetic solution, we created a vaccine. Then the virus mutated and now the vaccine is already useless.

That being said, animals should be allowed to evolve from their historic characteristics to fit the needs of that bioregion. The climates change, the environments change, and needs change, too. I am a fan of bioregional farming: the right species for the region.

LEE: Would that adaption not occur naturally, if you let them be?

JOSIAH: Yes, and there are some great examples for that. When the Spanish settlers came to the South, for example, they brought swine and kept them on an island, so they would have meat to eat. In the 1970’s a feral population of these pigs was found. While they were genetically identical to the Spanish Iberico pig, they had completely changed their behavior and diet over the 300 years. They also shrunk in size. This breed is now called the Ossabaw Island hog.

Ossabaw Island hogs (copyright Lockhart Family Farms)
Ossabaw Island hogs (copyright Lockhart Family Farm)

LEE: So in a perfect world of sustainable farming you have a huge pasture, let your rare breed – but regionally adapted – animals roam wild and then just harvest what the population can spare. That sounds like something that could work for subsistence farming, but that is not sustainable in terms of financial planning for someone who needs to make a living as a farmer.

JOSIAH: Pigs and sheep had always been raised that way, until the 1960’s. You would let them run wild, then round them up, select the ones you wanted to process and let all the others go again. To make that model financially viable you need smart domesticated husbandry and smart genetics. The more and more breeds we lose, the less resilient those that are left will be.

LEE: The question becomes: How many of the breeds are really useful to keep around? There are seeds in seed banks that no one wants to grow because they do not taste as delicious as another variety. One thing is to say “Let’s raise the Cornish Cross for all the excess meat” and the other is to say “Let’s raise this bird that has no meat and is not going to feed us, but we want to keep it around for genetics.” Do we keep them in a genetics bank? In the zoo?

JOSIAH: Well, if you go primarily on flavor, most heritage breeds are slower growing and that equals more flavor. You often have more texture, as the animals are pasture raised, but almost any heritage breed will taste better than a commercial breed. They also make much better stock and bone broth, because you need slow grown, healthy bones for a great stock.

LEE: So I guess the question is, if we were to raise more heritage breeds would butchers know how to work with them? Would chefs know how to prepare them? Would consumers? Or do I have to learn how to cook meat all over again?

JOSIAH: You can cook it the same way, the difference is that modern meat needs seasoning because it lacks flavor. Techniques for cooking older breeds can be learned quickly: they cook a little bit faster, which has to do with the water content in the meat, and you often have higher fat content. What we have to learn is to rethink recipes and seasoning.

And it will take some getting used to the meat looking different. A heritage chicken weighs the same as a Cornish Cross, but their proportion of breast to leg is totally opposite. So sometimes consumers think that it is inferior. In reality it is the same quantity of meat, it is just the ratio that is different.

LEE: That sounds familiar to what heirloom vegetables experience at the farmers market. People can be intimidated by purple beans, because they are unsure if those need to be prepared differently. So what can we do to make consumers feel more comfortable with cooking heritage meats?

JOSIAH: Chefs are the early adopters and they are great to get the word out. But I believe that kids are the key. They do not yet have any preconceived notions as to how anything is supposed to look. There is an interesting project in Scotland’s schools, called the Taste Adventure. The kids feel and smell heirloom vegetables hidden in a box. You know how different an heirloom tomato feels compared to a perfect round hybrid. That’s just one way to get kids used to different varieties.

American Mulefoot hog, 4 days old (copyright Lockhart Family Farm)
American Mulefoot hog, 4 days old (copyright Lockhart Family Farm)

LEE: Sounds like you are making a case for a chicken coop in every edible schoolyard! Usually my question is “what one breed would you take to a deserted island?,” but it sounds as if you would never take just one breed.

JOSIAH: Never. But can I take some breeding stock and trade with someone on another island who has a different one?

At Scrumptious Pantry we preserve the exciting flavors of rare heirloom fruit and vegetables and precious heirloom seeds. Delicious varieties put up in gourmet condiments and artisan preserves for you to enjoy at home! Because Heirloom is much bigger than just Heirloom tomatoes.

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