SWOOPE, Va. — Hog heaven, it turns out, is a place on Earth, a sun-dappled mountainside in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where one day this fall a herd of Gloucestershire Old Spots, Hampshires, Yorkshires and Durocs contentedly gorged their way toward 300 pounds.
Some vacuumed the underbrush with their snouts, noisily ingesting grasses and herbs, acorns and persimmons, with the occasional grub and worm. Others squeezed their portly forms into communal wallows, legs splayed in cool, damp soil.
"Better pull them away," Joel Salatin warned as curious porcine lips nibbled at a visitor's sandal-clad toes. "As I tell the kindergartners who visit: ‘Keep moving, kids. They are omnivores, you know.'"
After star turns in Michael Pollan's best-selling book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and the documentary "Food, Inc." (as well as his own books and videos), Salatin has been hailed as America's proselytizer of the pasture, a busy advocate for the benefits of turning open land over to livestock so they can range freely and enrich the soil.
Among the nation's most famous farmers, he has lately turned to preaching the gospel of the forest-fed pig. At a time when 90 percent of U.S. pork is produced in huge confinement operations (the largest, Smithfield, is now owned by a Chinese corporation), Salatin, 56, is urging the return of the pig to its ancestral home. Like Virginia farmers of a century ago, when herds roamed and foraged these mountains, he has unleashed his pigs into the nooks and crannies of 450 acres of Appalachian hardwood forest on his Polyface Farm.
In "Pigs ‘n Glens," the inaugural video in his new how-to series, Polyface Primer, Salatin contends that a simple electric fence can transform marginal land into an income source and an entry point for young farmers, while challenging the conventional wisdom that meat has to be produced on an industrial scale. The result, as he sees it: healthier soil, a greater diversity of plants, and animals that are happier (and better-tasting) because they've been allowed to revel in what he calls "the pigness of the pig."
"Think of all the mesquite in Texas, the pinyon pines, the acorns in Appalachia," he said. "Every place has the possibility of mass production. It's an infrastructural system so nestled in ecology, it's a more beautiful ecology."
Twenty years ago, before becoming a celebrity, Salatin began to sculpt his woodlands into savannas evocative of the dehesas in Spain — the birthplace of jamón Ibérico de bellota, the famous cured ham — with their stately oak trees and flourishing plant life.
Rotating herds of about 50 pigs from pasture to pasture every few days, he aims for the ecological sweet spot: just long enough so that the pigs' hooves stimulate seed germination and the soil's ability to retain water, but not so long that a muddy moonscape develops, raising the risk of cholera and other diseases in the antibiotic-free animals. (He moves the herd as soon as they have consumed two tons of a local, non-genetically modified grain mixture that helps balance their diet, a common practice among farmers, who supplement with everything from cheese, yogurt and whey to pumpkins, barley and even bread.)
More recently, Salatin has moved pigs farther up the mountainside in the final four to six weeks of the fattening cycle, when their flesh takes on the flavor of acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts in the autumn, and fallen fruits in the spring.
Exercise, as the pigs roam from tree to tree and along the mountainside, is crucial to developing a larger animal with more intramuscular fat, complexity of flavor and better musculature. Acorns give the meat a rich nuttiness and more omega-3 fatty acids, while forage plants like sumac, milkweed, dewberry, wild carrot and clover (as well as small amounts of soil) create a terroir unique to the farm.
That confluence of soil, flora, climate and, increasingly, a meat's back story has ignited a global love affair with forest-fed pigs, said Joshua Applestone, a founder of Fleisher's Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Brooklyn and Kingston, N.Y.
"Stories give traceability," Applestone said. "They're something for people to hold on to, to enjoy the product more." And when the meat "hits your tongue," he added, "it combines with the saliva and — bam! — it's this explosion, like a windowpane onto full-flavored pork. That's the joke about confinement pigs: they taste like whatever sauce you cook them with."
Salatin is not without his critics. Some say he is cheating the notion of sustainability by feeding his pigs grain that he does not grow himself. Others contend that confinement operations are the only practical way to feed the world, and that pastured animals do more damage to the environment than is acknowledged in this farm-to-table era.
As in any form of pasturing, Salatin says, the secret is to balance cautious grazing with ample resting time for the land, a concern among foresters, who worry about the destructive potential of pigs allowed to run amok.
Among the possible consequences are soil erosion, the leaching of nutrients and an interruption in forest regeneration, said Zachary Wolf, who with his partner, Olivia Kirby, manages the Farm at Locusts-on-Hudson in Staatsburg, N.Y. Centered on "biological farming," which follows organic guidelines as well as the latest scientific studies, the 76-acre spread supplies pork and produce to the Standard Grill in Manhattan, which is run by the estate's owner, André Balazs, and his business partner, James Truman.
Wolf and Kirby rotate pigs in batches of 10 to 20 through 4 to 6 acres of woodlands and pastures radiating from a wood-chip-reinforced central area where the pigs shelter and eat their supplemental feed. The wood chips add carbon to the soil, while areas that the pigs have rooted are reseeded with pasture grasses, legumes and last season's extra vegetable seeds.
"Although the economics are there," Wolf said, "I would caution those looking to raise pigs in the woods to understand the ecosystem dynamics involved before jumping in."
As students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Jason Story and his wife, Carolina, heard Salatin lecture about his system and values. In 2012, they opened Three Little Pigs Charcuterie and Salumi in Washington, D.C., and now buy 2 1/2 pigs from him each week.
"The whole sustainable thing amounts to nothing if we can't make it what everyone can afford," Story said. "I respect that Joel is taking it on the chin as an ambassador to bring this to the nation, and that he embraces actively training other farmers."
Russ Kremer, who teaches classes as part of the Heritage Foods network of farmers in the Ozarks, says his students are skewing younger as excitement builds for an ethical and economic antidote to industrial confinement.
"If you take the stress and fear off of a pig and give them an environment that's more comfortable, the more reward they return to you as a producer" — like a lower mortality rate, said Kremer, who supplies La Quercia, the prosciutto maker, and D'Artagnan, the food distributor. "People that are really passionate about pigs know they have these personalities, and yes, they like being outside on a moonlit night just because they enjoy it."
Not long ago, Salatin said, a chef sat in an acorn glen at Polyface Farm and, after some quiet reflection, said: "I have never been next to a live pig. I don't know anything about pigs. But I think if I was a pig, this is the way I'd want to live."
"And that," Salatin added, "just said it all."