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This week's Book of the Week feature is Saving the Guinea Hogs: The Recovery of the American Homestead Breed, by Cathy R. Payne.
From Chapter 1: Meet the Guinea Hog
I like to refer to the Guinea Hog breed as “hogs with heart.” It is easy to bond with these gentle animals: so full of personality and intelligence. Hogs are, at their core, social creatures. Historically, this hog has meant a lot to Southerners. The hogs provided meat, lard, and sometimes income for the family. Hogs in general are called “mortgage lifters.” The resources of the hog helped cash-strapped farm families find a way to make their mortgage payments. In addition, the old breeders hold fond memories and emotional connections to the hogs. Those who raised a variety of hog breeds made a point of telling me that they strongly favored the Guinea Hog breed.
In the early spring of 2017, I was raising Guinea Hogs in Northeast Georgia. I had spent a couple years seeking out older Guinea Hog breeders so I could pick their brains about the history of the hogs. It was getting increasingly difficult to find first person documentation.
One morning in March, I was a little late getting out to tend the livestock. I was surprised when the house phone rang, as it was only eight o’clock.
“Good morning, this is Cathy,” I answered.
The raspy voice of an older southern gentleman replied, “My phone told me to call you.” I didn’t recall leaving any messages, but I bit my tongue and listened.
“My name is Cohen Archer. Do you have any Guinea Hogs?”
“Yes, I do,” I said.
“Do you have the big-boned or the little-boned?” he inquired.
“Well, I have a nice mix of both, but I think mostly big-boned,” I replied.
As we made arrangements for a visit, Mr. Archer told me that he was seventy-five years old and from Washington County, Georgia. He said he had not seen a Guinea Hog in a long time. He started telling me about the hogs his daddy kept. “They gained weight easily,” he told me. “My family ran them in the woods. They had their babies in pine sapling pasture.”
I told Mr. Archer that I was saving stories like his and would be honored to have him visit the hogs as soon as possible. I requested and received permission to tape record his stories to share with others. Before we hung up, I asked Cohen how he had found me.
“I told my phone to find Guinea Hogs in Georgia or South Carolina,” he answered, “and your name and phone number showed up on my phone.” Siri to the rescue!
On the appointed day, Cohen and I walked the pastures so I could show him my beloved breeding sows and boars. I turned on the recorder as I took him to see a brand-new litter of piglets that my sow, Yokeley’s Summer Thyme, had delivered.
“That is about what we used to have when we used to grow them, when I was a boy,” Mr. Archer reminisced. “That is a typical Guinea Hog, as I remember. They were very gentle. I used to take care of the pigs. If you have them out in the open, [the sows will] make their own bed. It will be a huge pile of straw, and different things like sticks that they pick up. [The sows] put the pigs up under the straw and all. And you won’t even see them until [the sow] calls them out. These were the best hogs I’ve ever seen. We just had them running in the woods, and we would fence off the woods. We grew crops in the upper part of the land, and we would fence them in when we started planting crops. And every day we would call them up and give them a little feed to keep them coming. Just really nice, gentle hogs. We named some of the sows.
“We had more breeds than just the Guinea Hogs, but we liked the Guineas better. They would just make it on their own. Some of the hogs would lay on the pigs, but with the Guineas, we didn’t have that problem.”
“Did you know anyone else who had Guinea Hogs?” I inquired.
“I didn’t. Didn’t really know how important it was to keep in touch with them. But now that I am getting old, I see. They say your hindsight is better than your foresight.”
I took him over to see a young boar that had flopped over to be rubbed on his belly. Cohen bent over and started rubbing the soft, warm hog. It began to grunt appreciatively. Another boar came over and offered himself for a rubdown too. Cohen had one hand on each hog.
“Isn’t that a nice hog?” he exclaimed. “That is just nice, I’ll tell you!” Cohen seemed suddenly transformed in time from an elderly gentleman to a young boy again. His voice was excited and awestruck. “I remember those curly tails. As a child, I loved the Guinea piglets when they were young. They were so pretty and plump. I always re- member that. And I remember when they were expecting; they would be huge! I wish I could remember all about them. I’ve been thinking about my daddy’s hogs for a long time. Just last week I said, ‘Well, I’ll just see if I can find some. And that is what I done.’”
I did a little math in my head. The Archer family had raised hogs for nine years, from 1946 to 1954. Cohen was now seventy-five years old. His father had died when he was about twelve years old. “So, it has been sixty-two years since you have seen or touched a Guinea Hog!” I exclaimed. “You called me out of the blue because you wanted to see one again. And you didn’t even know I was here until you asked your phone to find me.”
“Right.” I think at that point we were both choked up. We each wiped back tears.
“How do you feel, reliving that childhood memory?” I asked quietly. My throat felt thick.
“It feels really good,” he said with a sigh.
Cohen Archer could never forget the Guinea Hogs, but his children and grandchildren never got to meet one. He hoped to get his son over to visit, and a nephew, but it never happened. By preserving the memories of the elders I’ve spoken with, I hope to help readers who have never met the hogs to understand their role in American history. For those readers who do breed the hogs, I want you to know and understand the significance of their history and the important role these hogs hold as genetic resources. It is my hope that your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have at least the opportunity to meet a Guinea Hog one day.
Guinea Hogs are an even-tempered homestead hog, suited for small landholders. According to oral records, they were once common in the Southeast. Guinea Hogs are a small, dark-skinned local hog. They have erect ears and a single curl in their tail. Their bristles are typically black and can be long or short, thin or thick, and either straight, wavy, or curly. Hogs with the heaviest dense coats, especially curly types, may shed heavily during the summer. Noses vary from short to medium or long. Eyes usually face forward and have an alert, intelligent expression. The eye color might be dark brown, bright brown, or gray (blue). Their darkly pigmented skin and coat protect them from sunburn during the intense sun of hot southern summers.
Although the outward phenotype can vary widely, the breed overall is friendly, gentle, and easy to manage. Sows often allow trusted caretakers to handle piglets without objection. Homesteaders with children, farmers new to swine, and middle-aged farmers especially appreciate this calm temperament.
Like other swine, Guinea Hogs can be trained to respect electric fences, follow routines, come when called by name, sit on command, and more. They will use their shovel-like noses to dig up pastures, especially after a rainfall, but do far less damage than larger breeds.
Guinea Hogs sleep less and forage more than many other hog breeds. They spend their time gathering pasture grasses, roots, and acorns. Like all swine, they are omnivores. They may hunt for grubs, field mice, or snakes. They thrive on a quarter of the commercial feed required by modern “improved” breeds. Some bloodlines are a bit larger and grow quicker, while others are smaller and slower to finish. The slow growth, strong muscles, and varied diet all serve to enhance the flavor of the Guinea Hog’s meat. They all taste delicious.
The Guinea Hog breed is unique to the continental United States as a local breed. There have been and still may be breeders in Alaska. Guinea Hogs are about half the size of typical hogs and grow more slowly than the commercial type. The Guinea Hog typically reaches 125 to 250 pounds on the hoof in twelve months and will yield 71 to 144 pounds of hanging weight meat. In contrast, other heritage breeds and commercial breeds can weigh 250 pounds on the hoof in half that time and yield 144 pounds of hanging weight meat.
It takes at least twice as long to grow the same amount of meat from a Guinea Hog. For this reason, meat growers cannot earn as much money selling pork from Guinea Hogs if they market and price it similarly to the larger hogs. However, there is a niche market at farm-to-table restaurants for their delicious slow-growing meat. On a small scale, Guinea Hog pork can command a premium price, and chefs appreciate being able to keep a whole hog in their coolers and cure the hams in just six months. Larger hams take up to a year or longer to cure. Freezer space is at a premium for many customers and homesteaders and some would rather not have so much meat to store.
Watching a herd of Guinea Hogs grazing on lush grass pasture is fascinating and hypnotic. They will snatch up grass as enthusiastically as a cow or sheep and actively engage in the collection of their own food. They will stay active most of the time when weather is cool.
In the heat of the summer, they will spend much of their time resting in the shade or soaking in mud wallows. In autumn, as grasses become dormant, the hogs are more than happy to munch on acorns, glean corncobs, or pick up windfall fruit in the orchard. Guinea Hogs are excellent foragers and leave nothing to waste. Breeders in northern states and the Midwest report that Guinea Hogs are quite hardy in winter climates. In every climate, they still require shelter at all times to protect them from wind, rain, snow, and sun. The hogs may choose to stay outside of the shelter, but the option for protection must be provided.
About the Author:
Cathy R. Payne is a researcher, former farmer and breeder, historian, and author of Saving the Guinea Hogs: The Recovery of an American Homestead Breed, published in 2019.
Cathy has been a member of The Livestock Conservancy since 2010. Cathy has also been a member of the American Guinea Hog Association (AGHA) since 2014, and when her research brought her in contact with rare genetic bloodlines not preserved during the formation of the American Guinea Hog Association (AGHA) in 2006, she worked with a network of women to obtain these genetics and work with the registry to add valuable genetic diversity to the national herd. Currently, she is a “Friends of the AGHA” member, one who does not breed hogs or have voting privileges. She strongly promotes the maintenance of an active breed association and an accurate herd book. She also believes in careful selection and registration of sound representatives of the breed, using a historical perspective to preserve characteristics that have had centuries in the making.
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