Craig Gerlach’s search for the perfect pig led him to the Tamworth, an old breed from England that is known for its ability to clear land.
“It’s got a lot of wild boar in in it,” Gerlach said. “People used them to clear the forests 8,000 years ago.” The animal’s long, upturned snout is what helps it clear overgrown woodland. Tamworth is a town in Staffordshire County, England.
Gerlach, who teaches sustainable agriculture and comparative farming at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is no stranger to growing his own food. Growing up on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma, he raised hogs for 4-H and FFA projects. “I grew up with agriculture and was committed to it,” he said. He took a few detours, venturing into zoology and biomedicine. “I ended up in anthropology, which is so broad I could do anything I wanted in it. Then I came back to food systems.”
It was food consumption in Alaska’s villages that intrigued Gerlach. “People were eating out of stores and there was more going on than harvesting. There is changing weather, the regulation framework, fish closures, the high price of fuel.” Researching food systems in rural Alaska brought Gerlach back to his original commitment to agriculture. “I never lost my interest in it,” he said.
While he teaches and researchs ag at work, his home life at Pocket Size Farm at 10 ½ mile Chena Hot Springs Road is heavily involved in food production too. His 8-year-old daughter, Gemma, is his helper, and he has a business partner, Tom Paragi. The two launched their Tamworth-raising endeavor last May and couldn’t be more excited about it.
Paragi said, “They are field hogs, good at clearing fields. They eat native forages and have potential for rural Alaska. They are cost effective and very personable.”
An added plus? Gerlach is expecting excellent meat quality. “This fall will be the taste test,” he said.
Gerlach echoed the efficiency aspect, stating the Tamworths were outside all winter at his farm and did just fine with only a shelter to protect them. Last summer on four acres of pasture, the hogs were enclosed in a 100 x 100-foot area (electric fence) that was moved every eight to 10 days. After the third move they went back to the original location. “Their grazing enhanced the pasture growth,” Gerlach said. “They ate willows and browse like goats. They will literally clean the undergrowth. They open up the understory so grazing animals can go in there.”
Prior to getting hogs, Gerlach raised sheep, but they needed winter shelter, making them a less useful choice. Pocket Size Farm has two horses, a pony, chickens, turkeys, ducks and a large garden and hoop house.
The Tamworths are a good addition to the mix and have posed no overwhelming challenges so far. “They are user-friendly and easy to tend to,” Gerlach said. “The biggest challenge is winter when I move them into a pen and feed them.” It costs about $11 a day to buy the feed and they drink a lot of water (20 to 30 gallons per day) which has to be hauled from the house in buckets.
Other farmers have shown interest in the hogs so perhaps Gerlach and Paragi are paving the way. “People want to start raising them,” Gerlach said. He hopes to get them into the hands of 4-H students, who would raise them to show at the Tanana Valley State Fair.
“This has excellent potential,” Gerlach said. “They are the best pig and an excellent animal for small farms in Alaska. This is as good a breed as any.
“Any time you are selecting livestock for a small farm you’ve got to have goals in mind,” he said. “This breed met every goal Tom and I set.”
Their dense, thick winter coats protected them through the cold months. “This would be an easy animal to raise in a village,” Gerlach said. “It will get to weight in a season and be in the freezer by fall.”
Gerlach plans to conduct meat science comparisons and experiment with cross-breeding. “At some point we’ll have to bring in more breeding stock,” he said. “It’s a work in progress but I see nothing but potential.
“For small farms in Alaska, livestock can be a key piece to viability. The Tamworth is an excellent choice.”
Pocket Size Farm
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.