Big Red slumbers in a nest of wood chips, leaves, and straw. If he weren’t pushing 550 pounds, he’d look like a fuzzy dirigible moored to the floor of his pen. Across the barn are the three Blonde sows that over the last four years helped him produce more than 60 pure-blooded Mangalitsa pigs, a friendly, wooly-haired, slow-growing Austro-Hungarian breed that had almost gone extinct in the early 90s.
If you step over the boards into the pen that houses the sows Fluffy, Big Sister, and Little Bossy, they’ll lurch to their trotters and come at you, softly squealing, nuzzling your jeans and boots, and submitting to ear scratches and pets. Meanwhile, their stablemates, five rust-colored sows of the Red Wattle breed, are barely distracted, committed to their long afternoon nap.
“The Mangalitsas are like Labradors, like very friendly dogs,” says Russell Lee, who is back in Big Red’s pen, where he’s coaxed the Swallow Belly Mangalitsa boar to an upright position so he can scratch his back. “The Red Wattle is a more docile pig, easygoing, laid back. It’s not attention-seeking, though it does like to get pets or belly rubs. The Mangalitsa is kind of a needier pig.”
Lee is a 35-year-old mechanical engineer and farmer who owns Russell Road Farm in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, just south of Kenosha. For the past five years he’s been slowly growing a herd of heritage breed swine on about 60 acres of open pasture, where they forage on native plants, roots, and the occasional burrowing critter—and supplemented by a good amount of oats and barley. “That goes to the fat quality,” says Lee. “It makes for a really white, buttery fat.” And that’s precisely the quality the Mangalitsa was historically raised for.
Earlier this month, Lee walked me out on one of his pastures where his third-generation Mangalitsa and Red Wattles roamed, digging deep holes in the earth and scratching their itchy flanks on tree trunks. When they saw us coming, they trotted over in a slow wave, the Mangalitsas snouting around our pant legs and the Wattles tugging at our bootlaces.
I wrote about Mangalitsas back in 2009, when they were making a comeback among chefs and Slow Food partisans. A Washington state financial analyst had imported a herd of 25 from Austria at tremendous expense and was slowly propagating feeder pigs, while the food press salivated over their deep red pork, densely marbled with creamy fat. But since he controlled all the breeding stock, their genetic diversity in the United States was limited.
Since then, there have been four more imports of Blonde, Red, and Swallow Belly Mangalitsas from Europe, to Alabama, California, and Georgia—but mostly to a couple of breeders in Michigan, one of whom sold Lee his first three sows in 2016. There’s now an official U.S. Mangalitsa breeder’s organization that’s beginning to document lineages as the breed slowly disperses around the country.
Lee grew up raising horses on his family’s farm in Morton Grove, the Freedom Woods equestrian stable. While attending the Milwaukee School of Engineering, he started building Russell Road Farm on the Pleasant Prairie property that his family purchased a few years before. He didn’t expect to become a serious heritage hog farmer—he operates a soil and sustainable material recycling company—but he thought he could breed and raise a few high-value animals and sell their meat as a way to pay the bills on the farm. He raises lambs, goats, and chickens too—all of which help keep the pastures in good health. He initially considered himself a hobby farmer, but now that he’s putting in 60 to 80 hours a week—not so much anymore.
A friend had her own Mangalitsa boar—that’s Big Red—and together with the sows, they produced about a dozen piglets.
“They take a really long time to raise,” about 18 months to two years, Lee says, but they’re given indoor-outdoor access 24 hours a day. Lee harvested his first Mangalitsas after 20 months, stored their meat in a chest freezer, and gradually started selling to neighbors, friends, and friends of friends. “Quite a few Latinx, Asian—mostly Filipino—and European customers come by the farm for meat,” he says. “Popular items are pork skins for chicharrones, shoulder for carnitas, belly, and heads. Europeans typically come for the Mangalitsa fats, hocks, soup bones, organs.”
About six months after he started with the Mangalitsas, he got into Red Wattles, named for the fatty appendages that dangle from their jowls, a more muscular breed that produces dark, beefy, but tender pork. He raised 50 pigs total in 2020, and as word got around, “I was selling to some different little groups of foodie type people from Chicago and Madison,” he says. “People will travel for that stuff.”
Looking ahead to this year he decided to go bigger, planning on 100-120 pigs, and introducing some more conventional Berkshire-Duroc crosses for customers leery of the higher fat heritage breeds. He was hoping to build a wholesale business selling pork to restaurants when the pandemic hit. That’s when he connected with Matt Wechsler, who opened Evanston’s Village Farmstand last fall to help small farmers operating with sustainable regenerative practices get their produce to a retail market. Sustainable practices include, among other things: no pesticides, no GMOs, and the use of methods that can reverse climate change by improving the soil. “I just noticed how incredibly difficult it is to get started as a small farm, and make ends meet, and create a business out of it in a world of agricultural consolidation,” says Wechsler, a filmmaker who’s made two documentaries on sustainable agriculture. Last August he teamed up with Marty Travis of downstate’s Spence Farm and head of a network of small farmers looking for new markets after the pandemic shut down the restaurant industry. Between Village Farmstand’s retail operation and CSA programs managed by organizations like Urban Canopy and Star Farm, Travis’s network saw a 39 percent increase in sales in 2020 over the previous year.
Meanwhile, Lee built a 150-square-foot walk-in freezer on the farm to handle meat he’d hoped chefs would take off his hands when it was fresh from slaughter. He continued to sell directly to customers on the farm, and in mid-November, Village Farmstand became the first retail outlet in the midwest to sell Mangalitsa and Red Wattle pork. Currently that’s ground pork, chops, steaks, and roasts, sold separately or in $85 pork bundles. But Lee and Wechsler are developing a line of sausage and naturally cured hams and bacon that they hope will be ready for purchase starting in February.
Even at retail, Mangalitsa and Red Wattle pork sells at a premium (at Village Farmstand, two Red Wattle chops go for $16.50, four Mangalitsa chops, $18.50). The animals grow slow and are expensive to raise, but the pork has come a long way from its fetishized luxury status.
And this year, with the help of one of the Blonde sows and Thor, the gargantuan Red Wattle boar that resides a few pens away from Big Red, “we’ll have our first Red Wattle-Mangalitsa hybrids,” Lee says.“The meat is supposed to be really red, a little meatier, but still maintaining the quality of fat of the Mangalitsa. We will have some of that come March, so we shall see.” v