This week, May 17-23, is International Heritage Breeds Week, which works to raise awareness of endangered heritage farm animal breeds. In celebration of this important week, we talked to Cathy R. Payne, author of the book Saving the Guinea Hogs: The Recovery of the American Homestead Breed.
Tell us a little about International Heritage Breeds Week. Why is it important?
International Heritage Breeds Week, held the fourth full week in May each year since 2015, has an important goal: “To protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.” The events worldwide shine a light on the peril facing rare livestock 365 days a year. Worldwide, about one domesticated livestock breed is lost each month by extinction. This event was initiated by The Livestock Conservancy and then other organizations from other countries joined the cause.
How long have you been involved in International Heritage Breeds Week?
I’ve been involved each year since it started. In 2015 I spoke to the editor of The Market Bulletin who featured the topic on the front page. In other years, I held farm tours showcasing the heritage breeds I raised, spoke to an AP independent writer that wrote an article picked up by many local authors, was featured in a local paper, and last year I gave a talk at a local bookshop. This year I planned another live talk, but that has been cancelled due to sheltering in place. Thank you for this opportunity to shine a light on this important cause.
How has learning about the world of heritage breeds impacted you?
Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were originally local breeds, raised before our modern agricultural practices. They were selected to thrive in very specific conditions and to perform particular jobs. They were adapted to live on pasture or in woods and to thrive with little shelter. The traits of fertility, foraging, gentle demeanor, resistance to disease, and mothering ability are no longer present in the cookie-cutter strains used in modern factory farms. These traits could some day save agriculture if a pandemic wiped out the commercial strains.
Can you share a few fun facts about Guinea Hogs with us? What else can people learn about them in your book?
Guinea Hogs are a black variety once common in the southern United States. They may be linked to the now-extinct Essex hog. I like to call them “hogs with heart” because they are so friendly and gentle and are dedicated to their offspring. They are a landrace breed, meaning that various farmers selected for slightly different traits. There are visible differences between these traits. They were not registered before 2006, so no consistent standards were developed. I hope that these differences will be preserved. These creatures are quite smart, and I trained two of my breeding sows to sit on command when they were less than two months old.
Aside from Guinea Hogs – do you have any other favorite heritage breeds currently? Or any you’d like to learn about?
On my farm in northeast Georgia I also raised American Blue meat rabbits, Silver Fox meat rabbits, Gulf Coast Native sheep, and Khaki Campbell ducks. I am fond of all of these! I also am very partial to Pineywoods cattle and Clydesdale horses. I’m currently learning about Pitou donkeys, Tunis sheep, and Meishan pigs. I also spent a year learning about Large Black pigs.
If people want to learn more about heritage breeds – what should they do?
The Livestock Conservancy is my “go-to” resource for anything related to heritage breeds. They have newsletters, videos, conferences, books, and articles galore. You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram @TheLivestockConservancy and follow the hashtag #HeritageBreedsWeek to see activities and posts from the participating organizations and breeders.
How can people support heritage breeds like the Guinea Hog?
People who want to support heritage breeds can donate to or join The Livestock Conservancy. Knitters, weavers, and felt artists can join “Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em” and make projects from heritage wool sheep’s fleeces or yarn. You can support restaurants and farmers who serve or raise heritage breeds by eating meat, eggs, and dairy produced by heritage animals. One reason the animals face extinction is that people will not raise animals if they do not have customers to help them earn their keep. The flavors are unique and appealing. Slow Food’s Ark of Taste offers a list of rare livestock, as well. Purchasing books about heritage breeds such as Saving the Guinea Hogs is another way to offer support. At the very least, tell a friend about heritage breeds.