by Laura Rodley
Cosimo Ferrante heralded in 2018 by monitoring five new piglets born on Dec. 30. Two sows had already given birth in late December and he has 10 more ready to give birth. In all he has 300 pigs: heritage breeds Mangalitsas and Berkshires, a crossbreed of the two, plus a few Russian pigs on land he leases for his Goshen, MA farm, HillTown Grazers.
Mangalitsas have the advantage in the cold by being a heavy pig, with a large belly and very woolly coat. Ferrante said, “I’ve heard that there’s 50,000 Mangalitsas worldwide — 40,000 in Hungary,” their country of origin.
This last litter and sow are sheltered in a fiberglass hut. “I don’t do much intervention in terms of heat lamps. A lot of times I have good luck. The main thing is to keep them warm and dry, and out of the direct elements,” he said. Other sows are kept in calf hutches and a variety of enclosures. The breed is known as a hardy forager that digs for grubs and roots. They also have minds of their own. A sow that gave birth just before Christmas had escaped from two enclosures and a fence to bear her litter off by herself.
“I’m working hard to grow quality pigs high in Omega 3 fats. I am getting by, but I hope to sell more in 2018 as I try to unlock the secret of how to market a big fat pig in a skinny pig world,” he said.
Ferrante started raising pigs in 2012. Prior to that he had been raising Herefords and some Angus, mainly polled cattle. “Carrying the cattle year round and trying to have a breeding herd didn’t make sense for us. Raising grass fed beef and having a grass finished operation wasn’t economically viable.” As he didn’t have a hay field, buying hay to feed the cattle over winter to sell as a premium grass fed beef cut into his profits. He still raises a few cattle as a stock operation by finishing a few a year. He starts looking for them in March.
The pigs have lots of trees to stand under with various shelters and they easily fit into the pastured landscape of the 150 acres that he leases from Barrus farm. The land is rich in minerals due to the farm sitting on a Berkshire pegmatite field.
He feeds his pigs a diet of local vegetable by-products of beets, zucchini, butternut squash peelings and seeds from local farmers. He also feeds them local cereal by-products high in fruits, nuts and flax seed that he purchases from New England Natural Bakers (NENB), a supplier of cereals. What he buys is end-run and nonconforming products, sometimes in packages or in 25 to 50 pound bags. This works out well as MassDEP implemented a commercial organic and food waste ban in Oct. 1, 2014 for Massachusetts businesses that dispose of a ton of these materials per week. While these businesses waste may not reach that poundage, their waste issues are solved by being shuttled into a salvageable product as pig food. “When I was having problems feeding cows, I could get products that were good for pigs, but not for cows.” Segueing into the pig market seemed the best fit.
His challenge for 2018 is how to market a fatter pig than people are used to that offers a different fat profile, higher in Omega 3s and fewer Omega 6s. One argument is that the now traditional leaner cuts of pork have less taste due to having less fat. The higher fat in the marbled Mangalista meat makes it more flavorful and “is giving you something more like olive oil, a much healthier food, eaten in moderation.”
As it’s overwhelming to do both farming and retailing, he has teamed up with Vincent Corsello of Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton, MA to present the hidden value of Mangalista meat in a fashion appealing to retail clients and chefs. Corsello trims the carcasses into manageable cuts for local butchers.
Corsello is presenting the meat as a charcuterie’s choice to make into prosciutto, capacollo, and salame “to get my pigs into the hands of people who want to do that.” Corsello also markets Ferrante’s leaner Berkshires as “they are more akin to a commercial market. People like a larger loin eye on their pork chop and more conventional fat ratio,” said Ferrante. When Ferrante fills orders for Sutter Meats in Northampton, and for M.F. Dulock in Somerville, they want his Berkshires, so he raises more of them. Ferrante also fills orders for people who buy half a pig or a whole pig.
Four or five years ago, he bought large fiberglass fish tanks from a defunct aquaculture business in Amherst. He cut into their sides for doors to use as sow shelters, such as the one sheltering his latest sow’s litter. He has thick plastic totes with foldable sides to place around a sow with a new litter. “I can give her a bale of hay for bedding and she’s good to go.”
He’s always learning. He didn’t grow up with an agricultural background. When he wanted to start farming in 2007, he started with calves, as he didn’t know how to handle big cows. He asked local dairy farmers to give him a call when a bull calf was born, one that would be headed to the veal market. After the calf had a day’s worth of colostrum, he’d take it at and bottle feed it. In this way, “I’d grow into them, and they’d grow into me.” And it worked. He learned the trend of the meat market, and is now ahead of the curve, offering Mangalistas, which foodies and connoisseurs are already seeking.