Creekside Farm in Shepherdstown has created a new heritage hog breed.
When most people think about retirement, their heads are usually filled with visions of sand and the sounds of the ocean. But not Greg Byrne of Shepherdstown. When he retired as an art restorer for the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry, he dreamed of buying a farm to breed pigs. And not just any typical pig, but heritage hogs.
“Since I was in the second grade, I’ve wanted to live on a farm,” Byrne says. He and his wife, Amy, who owns and operates a full-time fine and decorative art conservation business, bought Creekside Farm eight years ago and set about fulfilling Byrne’s lifelong goal.
Bloodlines for heritage hogs can be traced back to the time before industrial farming. These pigs were mostly free-range, sturdy animals known for flavorful meat and lard. But as farming became more industrialized, many of these breeds died off or became incredibly scarce. One such breed is the Red Wattle.
“I was really interested in Red Wattle pigs because they are extremely rare and one of the most endangered lines,” Byrne says. “They are known for their hardiness and mild temperament, and they produce flavorful and lean red pork preferred by chefs across the United States.”
But Byrne was not just content to keep the old bloodlines going. He became fascinated by the science of crossbreeding and wanted to create his own breed of heritage hogs. “I listened to chefs and not other breeders, and I decided to cross the Red Wattle with the Duroc, another old American heritage breed. The Duroc is like a tank with large floppy ears, and it is known for its distinctive flavor and tenderness. It is sometimes referred to as the Black Angus of pork.”
Byrne crossed the two breeds nine years ago, trying to get a better body structure while keeping the flavor and toning down the Duroc’s snippy attitude to get a more manageable pig. The crossbreeding resulted in a new heritage breed, which Byrne aptly named the Red Roc™.
His pigs are free to roam in their paddocks, which include mud pits for hot days and shelters for inclement weather. When new litters are born, the mother sow is kept in a birthing pen where she can care for the piglets and receive regular check-ups.
Byrne’s commitment to keeping his pigs as stress-free as possible is both humane and helpful to his finished product. “When an animal is stressed, it affects the flavor of the meat, so it is really important to us to provide a stress-free environment,” he says as he calms a screaming piglet in his arms. “When the time comes for a pig to go to market, I load it onto a truck the night before so that it can acclimate before riding twenty minutes to the USDA-certified butcher. We do this to ensure that our pigs are calm and relaxed when they arrive at the butcher, which not only eases our minds, but also preserves the flavor of the pork.”
Byrne has also put a great deal of thought in creating a sustainable and balanced diet for his pigs. Aside from eating locally produced feed made from corn and barley and grazing on indigenous plants like Jerusalem artichoke, wild mustard greens, and lamb’s quarters, Byrne’s pigs chow down on spent brewers’ grain from a local beer brewery, leftover pumpkins from area farms, and discarded fresh food from area restaurants. “I can vouch for the freshness of the food from one of our local Shepherdstown restaurants, Maria’s Taqueria. In the evenings, I would go by and get her discarded produce. And it was always fresh,” Byrne says.
“I wanted to feed hogs inexpensively, and I didn’t want to use pesticides or herbicides. Sourcing locally helps us not only to maintain the health of our animals, but reduces cost and supports our local agricultural economy.”
Creekside’s location has proven very convenient in this regard. “We are surrounded by farms, and people could not have been nicer. They’ve been so helpful, and we’ve learned a lot from our neighboring farms,” says Amy Byrne. “They supply us with grain and straw and unlimited advice.”
This Little Piggy Went to Market
Once restaurants got a taste of Red Roc pork, they clamored for it. Creekside participated and won two Cochon555 competitions—a one-of-a-kind culinary tour featuring five chefs who prepare five heritage breed pigs, paired with five wineries. It’s a friendly competition, but a fierce one, too.
Although Byrne once sold individual cuts of meat, he’s moved away from that side of the business. “It was necessary because I needed to get exposure for the meat and grow our reputation within the restaurant industry,” he says. Now, it doesn’t make as much sense. “It wasn’t the best use of what we are doing. You can’t run around and sell cuts of meat and also run a farm.”
Today, he is focused on selling his breeding stock. His Red Rocs have acquired a good reputation, and that is a great selling point for other breeders—they know the demand is there before they rear the first piglet. Byrne shares his restaurant requests and connections with others who are breeding his pigs for market. “I’m trying to sell what I’ve created so that others can sell to restaurants, because I can’t do it all,” he says. “And quite honestly, the feedback I got from people was ‘Your pork is great, but you are the worst salesman ever.’ And it is true. I’m not a salesman. I’m much more interested in breeding and expanding the line.”
For more information on the Red Roc breed, contact Greg Byrne at firstname.lastname@example.org.