Earth's Bounty: Rare Breeds on Farms

Most farm animals are destined for the slaughterhouse and are, in that sense, "endangered.î But in the past 15 years, 1700 livestock breeds in the world have gone extinct or are at risk of extinction worldwide. And that puts the food supply at risk. The Allegheny Frontís Jennifer Szweda Jordan visited one family near State College trying to counter this trend. Itís part of our Earthís Bounty series on food and the environment.<br>

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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: Maggieís 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 Tamworthís low numbers, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy puts the breed in the class of a threatened animal.

SMITH: Ö We have friends in Indiana, and we went to pick her up. I donít think thereís anybody else in Pennsylvania who raises these. Thereís a woman in Delhi, New Yorkí There are folks like us around, you have to look hard to find us.

JORDAN: Traveling long distances to either buy animals or breed them is typical for people like the Smiths trying to raise rare farm animals. Theyíre one of an estimated 67-hundred breeders in the country. The hobby varies in expense. The cost of a female Gulf Coast sheep is considered affordable at 150 dollars. Dexter cattle, in recovering status, are at the high end with costs up to 25-hundred dollars.

Some breeds became scarce because agricultural practices have increasingly favored certain animals. These trends have reduced the population of all kinds of farm animals, including goats, horses and rabbits.

SCHRIDER (PHONE): In the 1950s, industrial scale models were starting to be applied to agriculture. Cattle once were maintained both for meat and for milk. They found very clearly that breeds that were bred specifically for milk production could yield higher amounts of milk.

JORDAN: Don Schrider is spokesman for the American Breeds Livestock Conservancy ñ or ALBC. Schrider says certain animals have fallen out of favor even if they have positive traits like withstanding pests in hot climates. Thatís because the industrial holding pens for animals can control climates. Thereís one main attribute an animal must have in the modern system.

SCHRIDER: Speed is the major component when youíre talking about growing a product like meat, Speed is what the industry is looking for.

JORDAN: Many say the problem with breeding this way is that a disease could strike the most common breeds, eliminating animals used for meat and milk. Experts agree that in the future, they might discover necessary genetic traits that exist in animals that arenít popular now. The United States Department of Agriculture is storing semen and other reproductive materials to protect the more than 100 (B) billion dollar livestock industry. The Smiths are approaching the problem on a much smaller scale. David is trained in zoology and his wife Joanna is an ecologist. Their farm menagerie now includes 95 animals, counting Milking Devon cows, horses, and geese ñ Many are rare breeds.

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 ëem here walking around. So it sort of kills two birds with one stone. Weíre able to fill our freezers andÖ
JOANNA: feel like weíre doing our part to keep them going.

JORDAN: Yet it wasnít homegrown meats or frustration with farming trends that got the Smiths into their hobby. It was Joannaís love for knitting.

NAT. SOUND: Combing sound like dog brush
JORDAN: This morning, Joanna combs out a small cloud of wool from one of the Shetland sheep she earlier sheared.

JOANNA SMITH: Right now Iím opening up the tips with a flicker brush.
Later, sheíll turn the wool into yarn for weaving or knitting.

The Smiths got one sheep for wool in the early 90s. And they now have 40 sheep, a number of which are registered Shetlands. Joannaís able to easily handle and shear the sheep, since theyíre about the size of a large dog. A renewed interest in fiber crafts has meant the Shetland breed is now recovering in numbers.

Creating demand for animal products like wool or meat is whatís necessary to maintain the breeds. Thatís 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.

JORDAN: The ALBC hosts taste competitions to introduce chefs to rare breeds. Schrider says their efforts are working. Since the ALBC started keeping a census 15 years ago, no farm animal in the U.S. has gone extinct. One future chef who will keep up this trend is the Smithís 17-year-old daughter Molly. She wants to own a restaurant set on a farm and serve foods like Shetland lamb chops, Milking Devon steaks, and African goose egg omelets. Joanna hopes her familyís efforts will ensure the animals are still around when Mollyís restaurant materializes, and long into the future.

JOANNA: Maybe keeping these reservoirs of genetic variability will help especially in periods of rapid change as we seem to be entering into -- global warming, all of that.

JORDAN: For The Allegheny Front, this is Jennifer Szweda Jordan.

OUTRO: The United Nations says developing countries are at particular risk of losing indigenous animal breeds as industrial agriculture becomes more prevalent. The UNís calling on countries to fund in vitro conservation to protect farm animal diversity. An international conference on Animal Genetic Resources will be held in Switzerland this September.