People will miss the pigs.

Every spring and fall, the new litters at the federal swine breeding research farm in Beltsville attract their own admiring carloads of viewers. "It's always been a ritual for the kids and me to drive over and see the piglets," said Jeannette Ferguson, who works for the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp.

The farm, on 75 acres of pasture and woods just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, has been a citadel of swine-breeding accomplishment for more than 50 years. There, researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have developed hogs with bigger hams. They've conducted studies on the inheritance of coat color. For eight years, they've probed the mysteries of litter size.

In a few weeks, however, Prince George's County's largest hog farm will close. Its last researcher, Dr. Benjamin Bereskin, is retiring. In the future, the study of swine genetics will take place at the Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb. There'll be no more piglets in Beltsville.

"We were always a big tourist attraction," said Dr. N.C. Steele, Bereskin's supervisor. "I guess it is the end of an era."

Ben Bereskin doesn't want to talk about himself, he wants to talk pigs. He is 65 years old and lives in Bowie. He earned a doctorate from Iowa State University. In 1985-86, he was the sole winner of the National Swine Improvement Federation's Distinguished Service Award. That information comes from his resume; Bereskin, in an interview, prefers to discuss such points as "hybrid vigor" and "the advantages of testing boars at central testing stations."

Bereskin's animals are not the plump pink pets of children's stories. He's not particularly sentimental about them and they don't have names. But both he and his predecessor, Dr. H.O. Hetzer, 83, who went to work in Beltsville in 1937, quickly clear up a few widespread misunderstandings about pigs.

First of all, forget "dirty as a pig." Pigs are comparatively clean.

"They do like to lie in the mud," Bereskin said, "but that's due to the fact that they don't have sweat glands."

"They're just as clean as any animal," Hetzer said.

"Eats like a pig" is also a fallacy, the experts agreed. "A pig eats only what he thinks he needs," Hetzer said. "Some keep on after that, but probably just as a pastime." For the record, three-fourths of a hog's diet consists of corn.

Finally, a pig is nobody's fool.

"They're pretty interesting animals. They're smart," Bereskin said.

"They know which pen you take them out of. You take them out to weigh them and they run right back to the right pen. They seem to know where they belong.

"They recognize people, too," he said. "They recognize my car when I drive up {a red Honda}. They'll stick up their heads and run right up, as if they think I'm going to feed them."

And affectionate? "If you treat them right," said Bereskin, "they'll let you scratch their ears."

In 1937, lard was it. Hogs were bred largely for their lard-producing abilities. "In those days," said Hetzer, "they were very different hogs."

When Hetzer was beginning his research, hogs lived in pastures and wallowed in mudholes. Now, they live indoors in "confinement systems."

Vegetable oils and the national interest in health and nutrition would eventually change the swine industry; in the last 15 years, the research emphasis has shifted to producing hogs with less fat.

The breakthrough in swine research probably came from the Danish, in the 1930s the world's leaders in hog breeding, Hetzer said. "We managed to import some boars and sows from them, and here in Beltsville, we crossed these Danish hogs with various American breeds," he said. "They pretty much served as our model. We wanted their fine bones, good health and vigor -- and the sturdy skeletons of the American breeds."

Over the years, the Beltsville swine research farm produced the first published estimates of the effect of genetics on the soundness of a hog's feet and legs, "a problem of major economic importance," Bereskin said. Its researchers conducted an 18-year experiment on selecting swine to decrease or increase the thickness of backfat. They conducted a seven-year experiment on the relationship between lean meat and diets containing high or low amounts of protein.

Bereskin, who retires in early January, says he will miss his work. He will miss the way the hogs ran over to the edge of the pasture at the sight of his red Honda. But characteristically, he is trying to stop his colleagues from giving him a retirement party.

"It's been a good job," he said. "You have to have a love of livestock to begin with -- and I did."