For the first couple of weeks, the mothers nurse only their own wee ones. After that — who knows, maybe everyone starts smelling alike, maybe it just gets harder to keep track of who is who — the breeding sows "foster" the neighbors' kids. Through the dappled sunlight that sifts by acres of live oaks, you'll see piglets toddling around in twos and threes looking for lunch, the mama pigs amenable until enough is enough. Without crushing anybody, the sows flop belly-down on the cool dirt, closing the cafeteria for the time being.
Jim Wood started Palmetto Creek Farms in 2001. Pigs were old hat to him, having spent years raising show pigs with his kids for the Highlands County Fair. But there's a world of difference between show pigs and meat-quality hogs, and Wood's education on them was fast and furious. Early on, he experimented with 10 different pure breeds and several crossbreeds. Their names alone are exotic and evocative: Poland China, Spots, Tamworths, Durocs, Yorkshires, Hampshires, Landrace, Chester Whites, Berkshires and Herefords.
It was the Herefords that stuck.
"The University of Florida invited us up with other Florida and South Georgia farmers to a dinner and meeting about meat quality. I remember we tried a pork loin from Niman Ranch, University of Florida's swine unit, and another from Sam's Club. While the flavor difference wasn't huge, the difference was in juiciness and texture. UF had done experimentation with Hereford pigs."
Today Palmetto Creek has what Wood guesses is the biggest herd of Herefords in the country, maybe the world. Ask him why Herefords and he'll talk about excellent intramuscular fat, a neutral pH and meat that has a rosy red color akin to beef. But then watch Wood interacting with a sow like 3 1/2-year-old Susie and you suspect it's also a breed he particularly likes.
Susie seems to like him back, grunting in a way that Wood says denotes curiosity (he says there are between 10 and 15 pig sounds he recognizes).
In May, the Herefords were still losing their winter coats, removing the hair in apparently satisfying rubs against live oak trunks and fence posts. Wood explains that Florida is tricky for pigs: A white pig in Florida will be sunburned all the time in the summer. Black breeds absorb the heat and are going to be heat-stressed all the time. Brown is what he has been after with his nearly 450 pigs, but he has been trying to breed out an unattractive brown eye patch that one boar introduced into the herd.
That's harder than it sounds because his pigs are free-range; the sows not artificially inseminated as they are on commodity pig farms. These pasture-raised pigs pretty much do what comes naturally.
"But I don't bad-mouth commodity farming," Wood says. "You couldn't feed the world with my system."
Wood's pork is not cheap, sold almost exclusively to restaurants.
"We started off selling strictly to places in Orlando because we only had one delivery truck. . . . Now we sell to Michael's Genuine in Miami. We do 3-inch link sausages in casings for them. But (executive chef) Sean Woods of the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes is probably our No. 1 account. He will buy on average $1,000 of pork a week."
Hereford hogs, humanely raised
Inside the farm's red barn, Keith Faust, Luis Marrero and Daniel Figueroa cut meat. The bulk of the meat is sold fresh, and what they are cutting on Tuesday was slaughtered on Monday, the process overseen by USDA inspector Joe Nichols. In a clean, bright room they trim the thick, white fat from loins, bellies, Boston butts and picnics, saving the snowy fat to incorporate back into sausage, which is a growing part of the business.
From time to time chefs come to the farm for a barbecue and a round of Frisbee golf, and first- and second-graders regularly make the pilgrimage down the rutted dirt road to ooh and aah over the rambunctious piglets. The farm is routinely audited by Animal Welfare, but it takes just an hour or so spent leaning against a fence to see these pigs are treated humanely. Their tails, nails and tusks aren't snipped, and Wood won't sell a suckling pig, one that hasn't been weaned yet. He says it feels immoral. The pigs destined to be meat are usually slaughtered around 8 months.
Ethics plays a role in how Wood sells his pork, too. In this era of farm-to-table enthusiasm, with menus regularly spelling out the provenance of produce and meats, Wood is vigilant about misrepresentations about his product.
"It's gotten rampant out there. There are some unscrupulous restaurateurs who will buy your product once and then keep your farm name on their menu," Wood explains. "We've added a clause to our invoices, giving customers two weeks from sale to use the name on their menu. When our name is on the menu, it needs to be our pork. If a customer does this repeatedly, we won't sell to them."
Wood, handsome and lean with a movie cowboy's weathered face, comes from a long line of hard workers. His dad milked cows for nearby Dressel's Dairy and later bought a gas station in Avon Park. His mom worked at the local grocery store. His own kids are both graduates of University of Central Florida and employed by NASA. Their 4-H days long behind them, they aren't planning futures in the pig business. And for the past two years, drought in the Midwest and Texas has meant feed prices have climbed so high that the business has not been profitable.
Nonetheless, Wood is optimistic about the future of Palmetto Creek Farms. He wants more land for more pigs because with 50 to 70 regular accounts, demand is growing. Last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed Wood as one of 156 pork producers to the 2013 National Pork Producers Delegate Body. Despite a tough couple of years, Palmetto Creek naturally raised pork is clearly on the map.
"A lot of farms pay lip service to how animals are raised. We do what we say we are going to do. My mission is to enjoy life and enjoy how I make a living."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @LReiley on Twitter.