The Allegheny Front Rewind: To Breed, or Not to Breed Heritage Livestock

One in five livestock species is in danger of extinction worldwide. A few years ago, The Allegheny Front visited one family farming unusual breeds of animals. Kara Holsopple checks back in with the farmers to find out how their struggle against the livestock trend is faring. This is part of our 20th anniversary series, The Allegheny Front Rewind.

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OPEN: One in five livestock species is in danger of extinction worldwide. A few years ago, The Allegheny Front visited one family farming unusual breeds of animals. Kara Holsopple checks back in with the farmers to find out how their struggle against the livestock trend is faring. This is part of our 20th anniversary series, The Allegheny Front Rewind.

HOLSOPPLE: In 2007, a family in a rural town an hour from State College were in the middle of an experiment--a farming experiment. Their subjects? Heritage breeds of cows, pigs and sheep. Jennnifer Szweda Jordan visited their farm laboratory.

NAT. SOUND: Hitting lock and sliding open barn door

JORDAN: David Smith slides open a barn door to check on a red-brown pig -- a Tamworth swine.

SMITH: Maggie, you up for company?

JORDAN: Maggie's believed to be one of fewer than five-thousand Tamworths in the world.

(Nat. Sound: Pig snorting)

Compare that to popular Yorkshires, which experts say number more than A MILLION in the U-S alone. Because of the Tamworth's low numbers, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy puts the breed in the class of a threatened animal.

JOANNA AND DAVID SMITH: It seems important to us to preserve a wider variety of genotypes. There are tremendous efforts -- sperm banks, seed plasms, and we have 'em here walking around. So it sort of kills two birds with one stone. We're able to fill our freezers and

JOANNA: feel like we're doing our part to keep them going.

JORDAN: Creating demand for animal products like wool or meat is what's necessary to maintain the breeds. That's what Don Schrider says the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is doing to keep the breeds going.

SCHRIDER: The reason all these breeds are rare is because theyíve lost their jobs. So what ALBC tries to do in our researching of the breed, we look to try and find niches where the breed might be able to try and succeed. Weíre working with chefs.

HOLSOPPLE: Jump to 2011, and the Smiths are just getting OUT of the heritage breed venture--at least for meat and profit. I reached Dave Smith by phone between the classes he teaches at a small college, and he explained:

SMITH: We spent a lot of time very carefully establishing these breed stocks. We got to the point where we were going to raise these things for market, and we found no market in our area --we just couldn't sell these animals either as breeders or as market animals. Feed prices got to the point where we just- we couldnít swing it anymore.

HOLSOPPLE: While higher feed prices driven by today's economy played a role, Smith says,

SMITH: It was very difficult to get people to pay more than 99 cents a pound, which is what they could pay at the grocery for pork chops. I guess they just didnít see the value added of what we were producing. If we had been willing to go down to State College or go to Harrisburg, or go to Altoona, maybe we would have been better off.

HOLSOPPLE: The couple still has their original Shetland sheep herd for fleece, which is what got them into heritage breeding in the first place. And they have some of those animals butchered for themselves and friends. While their story went the way of many startup farms, they've kept a sense of humor, and lots of good memories about the experience.

SMITH: It was fun, it really was. We all learned a lot. Joanna and I look back, and there's a line from Napoleon Dynamite, Napoleon comments that he has skills. [laughter] We have a lot of skills now. And we really enjoy it when folks call up and ask questions and we can pass on a little bit of what we learned.

HOLSOPPLE: Smith says they miss having their other animals, but feel relieved to move on with their lives. And he says maybe now they'll actually get to take a family vacation.

For The Allegheny Front Rewind, I'm Kara Holsopple.