PUNTA GORDA — When life hands you nuisance pigs, make pork chops.
And since Florida has an estimated 1 million feral pigs — the most in the country per square mile — Charlotte County rancher Keith Mann saw an opportunity to capitalize on that idea in a novel way.
He has established a working relationship with trappers, USDA inspectors and the restaurant community to bring this new "naturally raised," "free-range," "sustainable" and "local" food source to market. Already presiding over Florida's largest bison herd at his Three Suns Ranch, Mann launched his feral pig program this spring, a win-win for homeowners, trappers and restaurant patrons alike. The only losers are the pigs.
Opportunistic omnivores, the pigs breed swiftly, squeeze out other wildlife and wreak havoc on golf courses, agricultural land and even backyard sod. Roaming in all 67 counties of the state, they have been trapped and hunted for decades. There is no season, no size or bag limits or restrictions on harvesting either gender — all this has made wild pigs the second most popular hunted wildlife in the state behind white-tailed dear.
The sticking point, though, is slaughter. For the meat to be sold, an official USDA inspector must oversee the process.
So Mann put out the call.
"There has been no effective way to control them. Counties, neighborhoods and golf courses have been shooting them and letting them lie. The solution is, bring them to me. We thought we'd dip our feet in the water, so we put out word that we were taking pigs at a price that was attractive." (He declined to reveal pricing, but says it varies by size and number of pigs.)
And the pigs started coming.
The densest populations of nuisance hogs are in rural East Hillsborough and Manatee counties and urban New Tampa, said Parrish trapper Jeff Norris, but Mann has trappers coming from Sarasota, Manatee, Lee, Charlotte and other nearby counties.
'Pork with personality'
By 10:30 a.m. on a recent Friday, 20 pigs had been delivered to Three Suns, trappers backing up their trucks to release the live cargo into a fenced holding pen. Descendants of pigs brought by Hernando de Soto in 1539, they are mostly mottled brown, mostly less than 150 pounds and mostly pretty skittish.
Dispatched with a single bullet to the head, a large pig is bled and brought into the refrigerated trailer where head butcher Joey Long skins and readies the carcass with a USDA inspector looking on.
After what Mann describes as 500 years of natural selection, this is "pork with personality." The meat is dark and lean, certainly not the bland "other white meat" of commercial, corn-raised pork. As with any novel foodstuff or exotic game, the trick has been finding a reliable market for it. And that's where Anna Maria restaurateur Ed Chiles comes in.
It's all about 'local'
Chiles leans back in his office chair, a banana-yellow paddleboard resting behind him and the famously fine-grained sand of Anna Maria glinting on the other side of the wide window. Handsome and boyishly enthusiastic, he looks a little like his father, two-time Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. And really, his enthusiasms don't run too far from those of his dad.
"My mom was a great cook, and my dad cooked a lot of game. I grew up hunting and fishing and was taught a reverence for game," he said.
Whereas his father was one of the initial investors in the Red Lobster chain, Ed got his start when he took over Anna Maria's Sandbar in 1979, which he says "was the proverbial sow's ear." He added Mar Vista on Longboat Key to his lineup in 1987 and Anna Maria's BeacHhouse in 1993. These three moderately priced indoor-outdoor restaurants showcase Florida foods, Chiles functioning as ambassador and cheerleader to what is being achieved locally.
"The most important movement in the 35 years I've been in business is 'local.' It's what's making the food scene blow up. It's about reconnecting with our food."
Chiles has worked with Mote Marine Laboratory on their sturgeon caviar program; he's a partner in the Anna Maria Fish Co., which makes bottarga (the sun-cured roe of gray striped mullet); he has partnered with bivalve expert Curt Hemmel on a new project seeding and growing Sun Ray clams; and the list goes on.
Talk with him about Florida's land animals and things get trickier.
"I love pork, but I try not to eat conventionally raised meat. Wild pork is nutty, rich and lean. … I like it better than dumbed-down pork. My redneck friends shoot 'em and leave them on the ground. It doesn't make sense."
When he heard about Mann's feral pig business, he got in touch.
"Feral pigs outcompete other native species," Chiles says. "Let's turn this serious problem into an economic development project. I call it taking lemons and making limoncello."
A knock on the door and one of Chiles' kitchen staff brings in a bowl: On the menu the dish is described as Braised Punta Gorda Wild Boar Au Jus with Beagle Bay Organic Sauerkraut, another local product (small plate $12.95, entree $22.95). The meat is savory and plush, the bed of kraut a contrast of tang and snap. You won't mistake this for commercial pork: It's darker and richer, even beefier, without being gamey. (For chefs, a firmer texture makes braising or even "sous vide" methods prudent.)
Chiles' restaurants prepare 150 pounds of Mann's wild pork each week, and other restaurants are following suit. Mann sells the pork to a distributor in Orlando and ships to several national gourmet meat purveyors. So far the meat is not available to consumers at markets.
From lionfish to nutria and bullfrogs, positioning invasive species as table-worthy is a feat of marketing. Consumers tend to be fearful of novelty, unsure of what something will taste like, how to cook it or whether it's even safe to eat. Mann, who got into the bison business as a way to get "accountable, traceable, locally raised proteins" for himself and his family, sees this wild pork as a more nutritious option.
For him, keeping careful records of these pigs' provenance, coupled with stringent USDA oversight ("they are our best friend and our worst enemy"), should assuage consumer anxiety.
But is this wild pork safe? Field dressing wild hogs puts hunters at risk of brucellosis infection, and then there are the specters of dangerous diseases such as trichinosis, pseudorabies and leptospirosis. According to D.J. Conner, who regulates animals coming in and out of the state for Florida's Department of Agriculture, if it's cooked thoroughly (the USDA says that means an internal temperature of 160), it poses no greater risk than commercial pork.
Mann, who served in the Army for nine years, became familiar with "alternative proteins" during tours in Afghanistan. His 2,500 head of bison are his primary focus, but he says he'd be happy if the feral pig business became a larger piece. The "if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em" strategy for invasives, gaining ground all over the country, is only feasible if visionaries like Mann and Chiles come together to address all the roadblocks along the supply chain.
But there's a big potential payoff, says Chiles.
"It says a lot about who we are. We're going to change the world together."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.