CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Woo-oop!"
Chuck Talbott's voice reverberates through the woods above his farm as he rides an ATV along a rough path up into the hills. The thunder of three dozen 300- to 350-pound pigs lumbering down a ravine answers his call.
Raised and grazed on pastureland and field crops at Black Oak Holler Farm in Mason County, these specially bred heirloom pigs are released into the woods in autumn, where they gorge on acorns, hickory nuts and wild greens for the last few months of their lives.
Their active life and natural diet produce hams that rival high-end European hams and charcuterie when dry-cured for two years. The acorn and nuts they eat give the meat and fat a nutty flavor.
Talbott and his partner, Nadine Perry, teamed up with ham aficionado and Washington, D.C., investor Nic Heckett to produce Appalachian dry-cured hams under the label Woodlands Pork LLC. Their Mountain Ham won the prestigious American Treasures Award for 2011.
Big-city restaurant chefs, whose diners recognize the difference between a generous platter of country cured ham and a taste of fine ham, will pay the $25 price per pound for Woodlands Pork hams.
"This is not something you dine on, it's something you taste. It's the most flavor you can put in your mouth with the smallest amount of food. It's a very special taste," said Heckett, who places Woodlands Pork in ham tastings, events similar to wine, chocolate and cheese tastings. Some people can guess a ham's origins from its terroir, a term used more often in the wine world in reference to the specific tastes produced by the vineyard's soil and growing conditions.
"The hams have an Appalachian terroir," said Talbott, based on the native soil in which they rut, and water, plants, grains and mast they eat.
Talbott, who is the West Virginia University extension agent for Putnam County, considers the promotion of small-scale
farms and local consumption his ultimate goal. The farm serves as a development and teaching facility for agriculture students. Talbott plans to teach his system to future pig farmers throughout the state, who could fill a unique market niche.
"I was looking for a way small farmers could compete with the big boys," he said. "We can't. We have to do something different."
Restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Cincinnati purchase Woodlands Pork hams. Heckett lists Rouge Tomate, Marlow & Daughters in New York, Bourbon Steak in San Francisco and Local 127 in Cincinnati as customers. The New York restaurants sell the ham for $75 to $80 a pound.
"The difference is that our ham has better taste and color, and is well-marbled. Its fat profile is different. It's deeper tasting because of their diet and the exercise they get," Talbott said. "In Europe, they say American pork is bland."
Heckett agrees with the Europeans. His preference for Italian meats solidified when he visited Tuscany and tasted locally produced hams.
"I went far and wide. In Tuscany, I was exposed to a whole other side of pork," Heckett said. "This was forest-fed pork."
Heckett considered an import business in Italian meats, but expensive USDA requirements for on-site inspectors made the plan impractical.
"When I was back in the United States, I wondered why we couldn't do that here," he said. As he researched the concept of forest-fed pork, he realized the method was nothing new. American pioneers raised pigs in penned pasture, and then released them into the woods to feed on the mast. The practice had continued through the 1940s, when industrial pork production took over.
Talbott's background in swine and cattle farming made him an ideal agricultural partner. Earlier in his career at North Carolina A&T University, Talbott worked with a nomadic tribe's dairy cattle in Africa. They grazed cattle on riverbanks during the dry season and used the manure-enriched soil in the pens for next year's garden.
"Pigs are even better suited for this. They're always turning the soil," he said. "My background is in dairy, but I'll never go back. Pigs are fascinating."
The Black Oak Holler pigs' maternal stock is heirloom pig. The male line comes from Ossabaw boars, wild hogs introduced to America by Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto in 1539. The pigs have a larger layer of fat, which allows a long curing process, and a more complex, intensely flavored ham.
Talbott's concept for raising pigs in a farm's natural environment creates an efficient organic system. The pigs start in a pen and graze on the grasses. They rut in the ground, turning the earth and mixing in their waste.
They move to the pasture, and the first pen lies fallow for a season while he works old straw and hay into the soil.
Later, Talbott plants a field crop for the pigs to eat and that thrives in the newly enriched dirt. To prove the success of the method, Talbott turned the soil, and revealed rich, black earth that was previously clay soil.
Several times a day, Perry and Talbott check on the pigs, which are separated by age groups in their pastures and pens.
The black sows amble over to them for a back scratch or a refreshing spray from the water hose. They're muddy because they mire in the mud to stay cool. Otherwise, they're clean animals, Perry explained.
"I have a special interest in socializing animals. I make an attempt to develop a relationship with them," she said. "I spend time with them. Cheerios and granola also help."
The bond she establishes with them has a practical purpose.
"We need them to come when we call them. They're smart," Talbott said. "We round them up every day to check on and count them. We're the benevolent caregivers."
Twelve sows, two boars named Bert and Ernie and about 150 pigs currently live at Black Oak Holler Farm and will be released into the farm's surrounding woods. "Eighty percent of the state is woodlands. All we do now is harvest and re-grow it," he said. "Why not use it as a food source?"
Before they are moved to the harvester, Nelson's Meat Processing in Milton, they are happy pigs. They have a good life. That's important to Talbott and Perry.
When they described their unique pig-raising approach to Carlo Petrini, founder of the slow food movement, he said, "When I die and come back, I want to come back as a pig on your farm."
It's always hard to see the pigs leave the farm.
Nelson's, an official animal-welfare approved harvester in Milton, processes the pigs in the least stressful environment possible. Stress in animals prompts rush of adrenaline that ruins the taste and texture of the meat.
"We have one shot at harvest," Talbott said. "All our work can be undone."
Domestic pork, inaccurately marketed as "the other white meat," comes from pigs raised in concentrated confinement, on small concrete pads and fed with corn and lot of antibiotics. Talbott and Perry supplement Black Oak Holler's pigs' foraged diet with locally grown barley.
Black Oak Holler pigs average 350 pounds. Pigs raised by confinement-feed operators weigh in at about 250 on market day.
Between 80 to 100 Black Oak Holler pigs are harvested for Woodlands Pork each year. The hams and bacon are dry cured for two years by Broadbent's B&B, a meat curing facility in Kuttawah, Ky. Jay Denham oversees the painstaking process.
"The two-year cure is not for the faint of heart. It ties up lots of money," Talbott said. In comparison, Virginia country hams are cured for three to four months.
Mountain Ham is not identical to the Tuscany hams that inspired him, which investor Heckett considers to be a good thing.
"They're different, but I'd put my ham on a plate with any other in the world," he said. "At tastings, I've had people say they like mine better."
For more information on Black Oak Holler Farm and on small-farm sustainability, contact Chuck Talbott at 304-937-3243 or email Chuck.Talbott@mail.wvu.edu.
Reach Julie Robinson at email@example.com or 304-348-1230.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?Talbott and Perry started the West Virginia Food Charter, in which a group of small producers pools their resources and expertise. Other resources include:
West Virginia Food Charter at www.wvhub.org/wvffc/west-virginia-food-charter.
West Virginia University Extension Service at ext.wvu.edu.
West Virginia University Extension Small Farms Center at smallfarmcenter.ext.wvu.edu.
UK Sustainable Farming Program at ukagriculture.com/farming