Living high with the hogs: Mountain hog farm revives historic breed
Morning cool still hangs over the grassy fields at Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm as Catherine Topel approaches a pair of 350-pound sows with a bucketful of breakfast.
“I always say a bucket is your best friend, because they do bite,” she says as the pigs knock their long, tube-like snouts against the pail. “So you never know. It’s nice to have something between you and their mouth.”
The pigs are shedding, the last patches of wiry, golden-brown curls peeling off their backs in large clumps. It’s unusual for pigs to be that hairy, but these are unusual pigs. Mangalitsa pigs, informally called Austrian wooly pigs, were bred for Austro-Hungarian royalty in the 1800s. They fell out of favor over the course of the 20th century, at that time considered to be “an old, inefficient breed, with too much fat, small litters and slow growth compared to the modern breeds,” according to a history page on the Mangalitsa Breed Organization and Registry website.
By 1997, the breed was nearly extinct with an estimated 200 animals worldwide, said Topel. Now, there are 50,000. The farm Catherine owns with her husband Rick contains 50 of them.
From port to pork
Formerly based in Florida, the Topels are new to farming but not new to risk, adventure or massive life changes.
Before they purchased the 95-acre dairy farm in Haywood County’s Iron Duff community that now contains their Mangalitsa pigs, the Topels were yacht captains who traveled all over the world operating luxury boats for the very wealthy.
“There are a lot of yachts that just sit at the dock all year round, and the owner just has a cocktail party,” said Catherine. “To me, that was boring.”
Instead, they took jobs that had them sailing along the coast of New England, docking in Charleston, cruising the Mediterranean.
Former yacht captains Rick and Catherine Topel bought the 95-acre property that houses their pigs in late 2017. Donated photo
“The crew actually is living in these places without having to pay a dime to be there,” she said. “So you’ve got a floating apartment, and you’re being fed the best dinners — private chefs and things like that. So there’s a lot of upsides to yachting.”
But after more than a decade in the business, the Topels, now ages 52 and 55, found themselves noticing the downsides more. When you’re gone all the time, you miss things — weddings, funerals, graduations. And when you’re an employee of a millionaire yacht owner, you’re subject to the tides of their whims and desires. Those whims can result in anything from staying up until 2 a.m. to manage whatever’s happening on the yacht that evening to being asked to bring the boat to an unsafe region of the world.
“We had one boss say, ‘Oh, we want to take the boat down to Venezuela ,’ and I’m like, ‘You know their economy is crashing, and you want me to go sit down in a $20 million boat offshore?’” Catherine said when recalling an incident that took place around 2014.
They did not end up going to Venezuela, but over time the Topels began to look for an exit from the yachting life. They wanted to be their own boss, and they wanted to continue living life outdoors. Rick grew up on a farm in Washington State, and before taking up yachting Catherine was an equestrian and then a professional golfer. Sunshine was important to them.
“Always, I’ve wanted to be my own boss,” said Catherine. “That’s why I was a captain, not a chef on the boat. I wanted to be in charge as much as I could without owning the boat. When you start thinking about the farm, we call all the shots.”
When the Topels first toured the property that is now their home, it was out of politeness to their Realtor more than pronounced interest in the listing. But when they arrived, they fell in love.
“We could see beyond the overgrowth and the junk that was in the creeks,” she said. “It’s like looking at a house with really bad wallpaper and carpet.”
They could see the possibilities. By the end of 2017, they’d purchased the farm, and by May 2018 they had their first pigs.
Lard and red meat
The Mangalitsa is notable for more than its unusually wooly body.
Outwardly, the pig is known for having a straight back, a long and curly tail with a black tassel on the end, and forward-slanted ears designed to protect it from the sun and snow of the Hungarian mountains it was bred for. Inwardly, it’s known for producing flavorful red meat with prominent marbling and lard containing bio-available A, C, D, and K vitamins — 60% of the carcass weight is fat.
Mangalitsa pigs have a thick, wooly winter coat and flat, forward-facing ears to protect them from snow. Donated photo
Few modern kitchens stock lard these days, with most home cooks preferring to use butter, Crisco or canola oil. But Catherine is a big believer in old-fashioned pig lard, especially when it comes from the Mangalitsa. She renders it at a low temperature to keep the porky flavor out and ends up with a mellow-tasting fat useful for anything from salad dressing to steak searing.
The Topels were first exposed to Mangalitsa meat while on the yacht. Catherine said she never used to eat pork because she found it too dry, preferring other meats instead. When she found the Mangalitsa, she was fascinated. A slow food proponent, she was even more intrigued when she learned about the lengthy timeline involved in producing Mangalitsa meat. They must be at least a year old before they’re bred, and 18 months old before slaughter. By contrast, most commercial pigs can be bred at 8 months and slaughtered at 6 months.
The Topels saw an opportunity in the Mangalitsa, a chance to produce a distinctive product unlikely to face much competition in the market.
“That’s not interesting to a lot of farmers who are trying to put kids through college and braces and automobiles and buy stuff for their kids,” said Catherine of the long production timeline. “So without children we were able to say, ‘Well, it’s one of those breeds that not everyone’s going to want to breed.’”
Pens of pigs
After feeding the sows, Catherine revs up the golf cart and takes off down the gravel road, stopping before a pen holding eight curious young pigs. At 8 months old, they each weigh about 100 pounds.
“At just seven, eight months they’re really not that large,” she said. “A regular American pig that’s raised inside — typically they’re not even raised outdoors — they would be processing them around this date.”
The youngest hogs on the farm, nine piglets born just four months prior, run squealing a greeting when the golf cart reaches a separate fence in a separate enclosure along the road.
“Hi little bears, come see mama,” says Catherine, reaching out to pet noses amid a chorus of grunting.
With just about 200 Mangalitsas left when breeding began to take off again two decades ago, preserving genetic diversity is a key consideration for breeders, and the simplest rule of thumb is to cross pigs with different colorings. These piglets are the offspring of a red boar and a blonde sow.
The tour continues, the Topels’ Anatolian shepherd Stetson loping alongside the golf cart as we pass by pig pens tucked into various corners of the farm’s rolling landscape, separated by swaths of pasture, islands of trees and the Pigeon River’s winding path. Some currently hold pigs, and others are in the process of recovering from the pigs that recently resided there. Pigs are hard on the land, said Catherine. They root deep into the ground with their strong, hard noses as they forage for food and dig out wallows. Keeping outdoor pigs means rotating pastures weekly.
Another enclosure holds four pigs that are scheduled to go to market the following week. They’ll spend that week eating from a trailer full of the steam-rolled barley or acorns that the Topels use to finish their pigs. On market day, they’ll walk right into the resupplied trailer for their customary meal. The door will close behind them, they’ll finish eating and the trailer will leave for the slaughterhouse.
Market days are always hard for Catherine, but she’s aware of the paradox in which she plays a part. If nobody ate Mangalitsa pigs, nobody would raise Mangalitsa pigs, and there would be no Mangalitsa pigs — as very nearly happened just 20 years ago.
“A breed like this thrives because there are still people who want to eat, as I say, as God intended,” she said. “This is not something that was processed and bleached. That’s where this breed is going to thrive, but if we didn’t eat it, we couldn’t save it. And I have to tell myself that every time I drive them to the processor.”
While they’re on the farm, she said, the pigs have an “extraordinary life” — breeding, wallowing in the mud, foraging and playing. Instead of spending their days in cramped indoor stalls, they live natural lives outside, benefiting from pastures seeded with plants best suited to the pigs’ nutritional and medicinal needs.
“I’m proud to do what I do,” she said.
Better than planned
When the Coronavirus Pandemic hit, the Topels has just gotten their operation into full swing after starting from scratch two years earlier. They had about 100 pigs on the property and agreements with restaurants all around the region to buy the meat. Things were looking good for the new farm.
But then, the world shut down, the buyers disappeared , and the Topels were stuck with 100 hogs that require a twice-daily feeding. They processed the animals they could and froze what they couldn’t sell immediately. Now, they’re down to about 50 animals, and though things have opened back up a good bit, they’re still feeling the financial effects. The pigs in the market pen were only about 13 months old, several months younger than the optimal market age of 18 months.
“We had to get out from under the food bill,” said Catherine.
When the pandemic challenged meat production, tourism became the farm’s unlikely savior. The property boasts 10 different campsites, all primitive, that are reservable through Hipcamp . Though some guests use the property as a home base for other adventures, most spend their time just hanging out on the farm or enjoying the river. The Topels are working on developing a couple “glamping” sites featuring canvas tents to further expand that side of the business.
Right now, said Catherine, camping accounts for about 75% of the farm’s revenue, and once the canvas tents are up that share will likely climb to 90%. Relying more on camping and less on livestock will allow them to wind down operations in the winter and take some time for themselves during those slower months.
They’re also looking for ways to do more with fewer animals, eyeing a foray into charcuterie meats like prosciutto, capocollo and other cured meats. Such value-added products are “perfect” for showing off the Mangalitsa’s superior flavor and richness, Catherine said.
It’s not the direction they’d originally envisioned when leaving the yacht — but it’s one they’re excited about.
“I almost marvel,” Catherine said. “I’m glad we didn’t plan it, because everything’s turned out better than planned.”
Tour the farms
Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa is one of 22 farms that will open its doors to the public noon to 5 p.m. Sept. 18-19 as part of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project ’s annual farm tour.
Of the 22 farms, nine — including Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa — are new to this year’s tour, which features five geographically organized clusters:
West cluster: Sustainabilities/Two Trees Farm (Canton), The Ten Acre Garden (Canton), Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa* (Ironduff), Smoking J’s Fiery Foods (Candler).
Leicester cluster: Mount Gilead Farm* (Leicester), Long Branch Environmental Education Center (Leicester), Addison Farms Vineyard (Leicester), Farm Retreat/Farmhouse Beef (Marshall), Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy Community Farm: Blazing Star Flowers and Lunar Whale Herbs* (Alexander).
Fairview/Fletcher cluster: Flying Cloud Farm (Fairview), Hickory Nut Gap Farm (Fairview), Cane Creek Valley Farm* (Fletcher), Raspberry Fields* (Fletcher).
Henderson/Transylvania cluster: North River Farms (Mills River), Holly Spring Farm (Mills River), Pope Farms/Packa’s Place* (Horse Shoe), Sideways Farm & Brewery (Etowah), Clem’s Organic Gardens* (Pisgah Forest).
Barnardsville cluster: Burley Stick Farm* (Barnardsville), Barn Blossom* (Barnardsville), Good Fibrations Angora Goats (Barnardsville).
Farms will offer guided tours, demonstrations and hands-on activities, giving the public a chance to experience first-hand how food is grown and raised in the mountains.
Passes are on sale now, with one $35 pass admitting a carload of visitors to all farms on both days. If still available at that time, passes purchased the weekend of the tour will be $45. Volunteer opportunities are also available, which come with the opportunity for a free pass.
Purchase passes at www.asapconnections.com or by calling 828.236.1282.
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What a beautiful place, Thanks for sharing..
The old saying, things happen for a reason, is sometimes hard to swallow, but in time we see that it was all ment to be. Thanks for taking the time to do the interview and big Thanks to Barbara for sharing it with the Mangalitsa followers. I found it to be a warm read, where you folks took your journey into your own hands. getting out of the profession you were in, prior to COVID was again ment to be.. (better air quiality in the Mountains) ?..
Stay safe and continue on your venture, it all will work out.. I will close with one of my favorite sayings of all times, “less is more” . ??