The pigs are shy. Or “standoffish,” as farmer Clay Trainum says. Maybe even downright rude. Trainum climbs down from his five-ton military surplus truck and edges toward a small group of bristly black-and-white pigs with long, curved snouts. They warily climb out of their dusty beds on the roadside and amble away, maintaining a safe gap between themselves and the visitors. Unlike friendly farm pigs, Ossabaws aren’t interested in a treat, a back scratch or posing for the camera.
“They keep their distance. They give you the dirty stare,” says Julian Eckhardt, sous-chef at the Inn at Little Washington, whose kitchen staff has visited the farm twice. “Pork is now like tomatoes. Everyone wants heirloom varieties, and the funkier it looks, the better.”
This wild-looking breed’s independence makes it ideal for the 90 acres of overrun wooded land about 130 miles southwest of downtown Washington that is Autumn Olive Farms. Just outside Waynesboro, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, Clay and Linda Trainum have created a shady, acorn-filled pig paradise. Their mission is to bring back pork’s flavor, color, fat and traditional free-range lifestyle.
Their farm’s hogs are coveted by the region’s top chefs, who prize the soft white fat, ideal for charcuterie and rendering into lard. “The meat is redder and richer,” Eckhardt says. “I get a sense of what the animals are eating in their natural diet.”
Heritage breeds are “less improved,” according to animal scientists. “‘Improved’ means we are constantly selecting for certain traits to improve over time, like reproductive performance, growth rate and leanness,” explains Peter Lammers, assistant professor of animal science at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “The breed of the pig has an influence on flavor, but much more important is what we are feeding the pigs and the way they are managed.”
The Ossabaw Island pig is a heritage breed that nobody improved, or managed, for about 500 years, as feral Ibérico hogs from Spanish shipwrecks roamed 26,000-acre Ossabaw Island, Ga. Today, Slow Food USA, an organization that identifies heritage and heirloom foods, considers the Ossabaw an endangered species. They key to repopulation, ironically, is to eat it.
The Ossabaw at Autumn Olive Farms slink through the woods, root up the ground, eat walnuts and shrubs, build nests with tree branches and leaves, and raise their litters pretty much the way they have for centuries. That makes them one of the tastiest pigs on the planet, according to the book “Pig Perfect,” in which author Peter Kaminsky set out to find the best bite of pork possible.
“Pigs are omnivores, and the more options you give them to eat, the better the product is,” says Clay Trainum, who supplements the pigs’ diet with a specially blended natural feed. “It’s all about terroir, and we have fantastic terroir here. We have this whole farm overrun with invasive plants, autumn olive being one of the big ones.”
Autumn olive is a tall, attractive shrub with creamy flowers and small, sour red berries that goats and pigs love. The plant grows well in poor soil and shades out other plants, which means it spreads quickly when left to its own devices.
The Trainum land is part of the original 250-acre cattle farm where Clay grew up. At age 22 he married Linda, and they moved to Greensboro, N.C., to start a construction company. “I was 19,” Linda says. “That seems so young, but I was someone who always knew what I wanted.”
The two ran the construction business for 18 years, raising three boys, and then started a nonprofit to develop sustainable clean water and food sources in Indonesia. While Clay was away, his mother (his parents having divorced) planted timber on their land and let the autumn olive reclaim the pasture.
Clay, now 54, and Linda, 51, returned to the home farm in 2008 after discovering a virulent mold in their North Carolina house. Years of breathing the spores had wreaked havoc on their health, leaving left their immune systems heavily damaged. A doctor suggested that they focus on healthful eating and spending time outdoors to rebuild their immunity. “We couldn’t afford organic food,” Clay says. “We had to grow it.”
Once on the farm, Clay and Linda — she is a veterinary technician — adopted some Boer goats, really as pets. In summer, rather than buy hay to feed them, they would take the goats on a “walkabout” through the property.
“You hear that goats will eat anything. Totally false,” Clay says. “They are very specific in what they eat. They intuitively choose things at their peak nutrition level.”
Realizing that the goats were singling out invasive species, like kudzu, the Trainums started renting them out to clear land. Clay or Linda would drive the goats to a property, such as the Airlie Center in Warrenton, and stay there for a few weeks while the goats leveled the unwanted shrubbery. The herd grew, Clay found a nearby processor, and they started selling goat meat to restaurants.
Goat meat was a bit of a hard sell, but once Clay developed some regular customers, he saw a market for healthful pork as well. He decided to replicate his foraging goat model with the foraging Ossabaw, turning the terroir of his overrun farm into an asset.
Clay and Linda raise 250 to 500 pigs on their property, depending on the season. They also sell Berkshires from the 600 or so pigs the Patterson family raises next door at Patterson’s Registered Berkshires. After a disastrous spring this year, in which both farms lost litters to floods and predators, Autumn Olive Farms added a cheaper line of “Farmer’s Cross” heritage breeds: pigs born on nearby farms, purchased and raised by the Trainums.
Berkshires are a large, friendly breed with a short face and snout. They are happy on pastured land like the dairy fields that have been in Bill Patterson’s family since 1740.
Patterson had known Clay Trainum from childhood, when Clay would raise the Pattersons’ orphan pigs. The Trainums’ success encouraged Patterson to expand his Berkshire operation and let Trainum do the selling. “It’s just been a good complementary situation,” Patterson says.
Trainum and Patterson have experimented with crossing their two breeds, creating a “Berkabaw” that’s half and half, or sometimes 25 percent Ossabaw and 75 percent Berkshire or vice versa. The crosses have the high meat yield of the Berkshire but retain the coveted Ossabaw fat along with the breed’s independence and strong parenting instincts.
Today, the Trainums’ farm delivers 10 to 20 hogs weekly to restaurants in the District, Southern Maryland, Virginia Beach, Charlottesville, Richmond and more. Sons Tyler and Logan work on the farm. (Youngest son Luke is an assistant winemaker at Keswick Vineyards near Charlottesville.)
Its customers are chefs who appreciate quality. “I’ve broken down a lot of whole pigs,” says Jeremiah Langhorne, chef/owner at the Dabney in the District’s Shaw neighborhood. “You can tell pigs raised this way, the richness and color within the pork. That stupid old ad campaign, ‘the other white meat’ — no pig that’s ever come through my kitchen has been white. These are deep pink or red. And the marbling is amazing.”
Clay says requests for products are coming from New York and other distant points as word spreads among the country’s top chefs, but he wants to expand carefully. A short partnership with national food distributor Sysco ended last year; Sysco representatives and Trainum will say only that it wasn’t the right fit.
Back at the farm, Clay and Linda ride their four-wheeler out to check on the standoffish pigs, searching for them in the woods. They cut autumn olive branches full of sour berries and leave the tempting piggy snack on the fence line.
“We see ourselves as part of this triangle that’s going to change the way our country eats,” Clay says. “That’s the producer, the chef and the consumer. That’s our vehicle to change the nation, because if we aren’t healthy, we can never be great.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the size of Ossabaw Island, Ga. It is 26,000 acres, not 25.
Hise is the food editor for Virginia Living and writes frequently about the intersection of food and business.