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Feral Hogs by Allison Salerno

Feral Hogs

By Allison Salerno, Photography by André Gallant

A barbed wire fence forms the border between Donnie Wakefield’s farm and one of the planet’s most contaminated pieces of land. Here at the  South Carolina-Georgia border, the United States’ 310-square mile nuclear reservation, the Savannah River Site, was built at the behest of President Truman in the 1950s to produce radioactive tritium and plutonium-239 for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal during the Cold War. 

Wakefield’s battle is quite hot: he’s out to rid his farm of feral hogs. 

Wild swine root through rows crops in at least 45 states, according to a University of Georgia study, munching up plants and profits as they go. But in southern river valleys like the one Wakefield sows in, feral hogs are especially destructive. 

 “My whole life, they’ve always been around,”  says Wakefield, 52. “But we seem to be getting a lot more of these pigs than we have in the past.”  Wakefield is six feet tall and wears cargo pants and an untucked plaid short-sleeved shirt. His hair is gray beneath his wide-brimmed hat; his blue eyes shine through fashionable silver wire-rimmed glasses. One-handing the wheel of his  white Ford F-150, he spits into a bottle of Mountain Dew.

Accompanied by Lily, his “very well-spoiled” six-year-old yellow lab, Wakefield takes his visitors along the puddled dirt roads of his farm to the first field out of the swamp — what he calls a “bait field.” Here’s where he plants rows of corn, hoping to lure the hogs to this field and spare the others.

The land, which he co-owns with gunsmith Jay Jarrett, is squishy underfoot, and the air is thick with gnats. It’s only 9 a.m. and the temperatures have risen into the 80s. Cirrus clouds feather the sky. The corn is high and has already tasseled, ready for Wakefield to collect from the air-conditioned cab of his Casc International Harvester combine. But not all of it. Some is damaged beyond rescue.

He drives along a swath of corn and finds a large flattened patch. The black soil is upturned, the cobs gnawed and discarded in the dirt. Feral hogs recently felled this section of Wakefield’s farm. He’s frustrated by the loss, but almost more so by the marauders’ inefficiency.

 “It would be better if they ate the whole cob,” said Wakefield, whose word choice is frugal and precise. The hogs enjoy nestling into cotton in search of respite from the humid summer air. But they really love to chew on corn. “They take a bite or two and move on to something else.” 

It might be due to boredom: wild hogs have nosed through the South for centuries, long before farmers like Wakefield showed up. When Hernando De Soto arrived near present day Tampa in 1539, he brought with him 620 people, 220 horses, and a big herd of black Iberian hogs. Their feral progeny now number in the millions, spreading disease and parasites and causing damage to land throughout the South, from crops to golf courses. These tusked omnivores (the tusks are actually teeth) cause such ecological and economical damage that their eradication is now the focus of a gathering each year in Oklahoma City: the International Wild Pig Conference. 

One early evening, Wakefield and his business partner, Jay Jarrett, 41, spied a sounder, the wild animal’s sow-led social unit, wallowing in a mud puddle near one of their corn fields. “Jay come across the railroad track,” he says and points. “Right there where that mud puddle is, right there, there was eight or nine of them drinking out of that mud puddle right there.

 “ And he jumped out of the truck and killed one, and the rest of them run back into the corn. As usual, I’m fumbling, trying to get a shotgun out, and they were gone before it was over with.”

Wakefield

Wakefield’s been farming—and dealing with the hog menace—his whole life.  He went to the public schools in Aiken, South Carolina, and grew up working on a 1,000-acre farm owned by his grandfather and uncle, closer to town. He and Jarrett, 41, became business partners about 15 years ago. Wakefield and Jarrett are among the biggest property owners in Aiken County.  Cowden Plantation, as the entire 10,000-acre plot is called, also hosts a hunting and game preserve amid the cypress trees in the swampier land along the river that forms a natural boundary between Georgia and South Carolina. 

Most days Wakefield drives onto the farm early in the morning and works until sundown. He and Jay, along with Larry Rowe, 54, work at the farm full-time, hiring some local folks at harvest. Finding part-time help is tough, Wakefield says, because people have had more lucrative options at the Savannah River Site. The U.S. Department of Energy facility employs thousands of local residents. Wakefield says even custodial jobs go for $50,000 a year, plus benefits.

“We have a help situation,” Wakefield says. “A lack of workers and this is a lot of hard work.”
That effort includes battling with the ferals sounders, who eat up 10 to 15 percent of Wakefield’s time. The season determines the strategy. In winter, with no corn available for the hogs to forage, he lures them with five-gallon buckets of corn in two remote-control traps. The state-of-the-art equipment, which cost $5,000,  comes with wireless digital cameras that texts him images via an app in real time each time hogs go for the corn. Wakefield then decides whether to click a button and close the traps.  

The technology is tricky to work effectively, says Shari Rodriguez, an assistant professor of Human Dimensions of Wildlife at Clemson University. That’s because wild hogs are super smart. 

Say a farmer gets an alert on his phone in the middle of the night. A text message with photos shows several hogs have made their way into the trap. The farmer clicks the button, the door closes, but two hogs in the sounder are still free. “If you shut that door, you’ve just educated the two outside the trap to never go into a trap,”  Rodriguez says. 

During farm season, Wakefield’s feral hog catching strategy is simple: Before dawn, “get out of bed, grab your .22 rifle and shoot ‘em,” Wakefield says. On a good night, he kills 35 to 40. The battle is time-consuming. “Sometimes you get lucky and you aren’t there 30 minutes. Sometimes, it takes hours.” 

Farmers across South Carolina are engaged in similar pursuit. A 2016 report by Rodriguez estimates $44 million in damage to crops, livestock and timber across the state. She surveyed 2,500 farmers and rural members of the S.C. Farm Bureau to better understand their perceptions of wild hogs and the cost of damage. 

“Feral hogs represent a really significant threat to native wildlife,” Rodriguez says, “because essentially the full grown boar or sow has no natural predator.” Mountain lions could be their predators, but they’re  extinct east of the Mississippi, she said. 

Rodriguez

Other factors feeding into the continued population increase, Rodriguez says, are the hogs’ low mortality and high birth rates.  Charles Ruth, who works for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, says that in the wild, females have litters about twice a year, bearing 5 or 6 shoats at a time. “They clearly have extraordinary reproductive potential,” he says.

Still, humans are mostly responsible for their rising population over the past two decades. Rodriguez says people have been trapping and transporting hogs outside their preferred freshwater habitats to other locations in order to hunt them. This practice prompted phone calls to Clemson wildlife researchers from rental van company employees, asking for help identifying the wiry animal hair left behind in their vans. 

South Carolina law prohibits the release of hogs in the wild as well as the removal of live hogs from forests without a permit, Ruth said, but hunters have easily evaded law enforcement by hiding them in windowless vans. 

The appeal of this particular catch-and-release practice is that while hunters have limited, state-proscribed seasons to hunt turkey, bears and deer, South Carolina permits feral hog hunting year round on private land. 

“It sounds like a good idea to have something to do,” Ruth says, but not when it introduces hogs to your property. 

Feral hogs were controllable when their geographic range was limited to riparian habitats. Now, 150,000 wild hogs are estimated to wander across every county in the state.

Rodriguez says even she has killed feral hogs “opportunistically” while deer hunting. But other hunters who set out to kill feral hogs for sport generally just pose for a photo with the carcasses and often don’t bother to bury them, leaving them to decompose or be consumed by scavengers. 

Feral hogs don’t usually make it to dinner tables. “They carry a plethora of diseases. The disease list goes on and on and some can be caught by humans” if the meat is not cooked thoroughly, she says.

The proximity of Cowden Plantation to the Savannah River explains why Wakefield struggles so with feral hogs, which start tearing up soil as soon as seeds are in the ground.

“A lot of times, you can smell them before you see them,” says Chris Boyce,  a 32-year-old graduate student at the University of Georgia. “When the wind shifts, it’s like the smell of a wet dog mixed with a barn-y manure smell. They are prodigious poopers.” 

Boyce walked Wakefield’s corn and peanut fields for hours this summer and last as part of a graduate project with the  Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, a research unit of the University of Georgia based at the nuclear site. 

“Once in a while, I’ll be working along the edge of a field and I will hear something rustle,” Boyce says. “Three or four pigs come bounding out and into the woods. They don’t look like farm pigs. They’re covered in fur from head to toe and it’s very thick wiry fur. And they have tusks.”

The project is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture to examine the economic impact of feral hogs. Boyce explains that not many researchers have seen this impact with their own eyes. This “ground truthing” work confirms academic damage estimates. 

The research goal is to figure out just when in the growing season the hogs do the most damage, so that federal and state agencies can target their eradication resources. 

“If you ask the farmers, the damage comes right after planting and then when the crops are maturing,” Boyce said. He walked the Cowden fields at planting time and one month later, physically tallying crop damage. His work was enhanced by a drone that surveyed Wakefield’s property and took aerial shots of the damage. 

South Carolina does not have a dedicated hog person in its Department of Natural Resources. Because the animals are physically so large, the point person is Ruth, who coordinates the Big Game program. Adult females can grow to 200 pounds and males to 225 pounds. Boyce said he’s seen a male hog that was 400 pounds. “They’re kind of like big game” Ruth acknowledges.

While Wakefield and his crew spend their days planting and harvesting, Ruth says a typical day for a feral hog includes “hiding, feeding  … and making baby pigs.” Feral hogs are what’s known as “opportunistic omnivores. They will eat just about anything they can get their mouths on, if it’s got calories in it,” he said. Their preferred diet is acorns and persimmons and berries, but row crops are too tempting when they’re available, and it’s the rooting behavior that destroys them. 

Rodriguez calls the animals “ecological zombies,” because “zombies will eat anything. And hogs will eat anything…They will make a living doing anything.”

Wakefield appreciates all these efforts to document and contain the hog population, but he knows there’s only so much the researchers can do to contain the beasts. 

“They are a nuisance and that’s being kind,” he says. “They’ve been here since I’ve been here and they’ll be here when I leave.”

(From Crop Stories No.6)

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Pozole Rojo de Puerco by Maricela Vega

Recipe: Pozole Rojo de Puerco

Maricela Vega / Chicomecóatl / Atlanta, Georgia

Pozole is slow food. It’s a leading up to process that is suited perfectly for the kitchen fiend just like my grandmother was and I am. Ma Diega was always awake by 4 a.m. to cook. While she waited for one ingredient, she would hop to another part of the dish. By 6 p.m., the entire patió would fill a smokey, savory smell. Most times no announcement was made when food was ready because, all twenty members of the family would come walking up to the kitchen from the smells.

She prepared pozole for me the minute she knew I would be coming to the village, as its my favorite dish of all time. The ingredients were also always available: we always had maize and chile peppers on hand from our harvest; my aunt Angelina raised livestock so she would select the pork the morning of the big feast. A pig would be sacrificed to welcome us back home since in those days sacrificing an animal was done only for special occasions.

Most summers aunts, uncles, cousins and all tried to meet at my grandmother’s house in Guanajuato for two weeks. Those who returned had left to help build a better life for themselves and family; some were lucky to have left at the time visas and citizenships were being granted without too much hassle in the late 80s and 90s. There were others who couldn’t make it, and would hear about our stories upon our return. We purposely drove so we could bring back a carload of goods for undocumented family members and for nostalgic meals.

“Pozole para la nina,” she would say.

8 dried guajillo peppers, stemmed and seeded

2 teaspoons whole allspice berries 

5 whole cloves

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon mixed peppercorns

2 teaspoons annatto seed 

10 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons lard

2 pounds pork shoulder

8 cups prepared hominy, either canned or fresh*

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 300°F.

Heat chiles in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and cook, turning once, until toasted, about 5 minutes; transfer to a blender, cover with 8 cups boiling water, and let sit for 20 minutes. 

While the chiles are soaking, add the spices to the Dutch oven and toast until fragrant. Add the spices to the blender along with the garlic, blend until smooth and set sauce aside.

Heat the lard in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. While the pot is heating, season the pork generously with salt. Sear the pork on all sides until deeply browned, 3-5 minutes per side. Add the sauce to the pot, cover, and braise in the oven until tender, 3-4 hours.

Stir in the hominy and vinegar, salt to taste, and let sit for 30 minutes before serving. 

Serve with cilantro, oregano, lime, onions, tortilla, and cabbage if desired.

You can find canned hominy in almost every grocery store, but if you can find a source for whole, dried hominy corn, it’s worth the effort to nixtamalize your own.

(From Crop Stories No.6)

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Country Ham and Watermelon Salad by Mike Moore

Recipe: Ham and Watermelon Salad

By: Mike Moore / Blind Pig Supper Club + Aux Bar / Asheville, North Carolina

Nothing beats a great salad, especially when temps are high, and it’s just too hot to cook. One of my favorite kitchen activities is to clean out the fridge, tossing whatever ingredients we can dig out into a satisfying salad for dinner. Fortunately, we always have cheese, pickles and an assortment of cured porky meats in our fridge, all of which come in handy for this tasty summer treat. 

For the dressing:

¼ cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon brown mustard

1 tablespoon honey

½ cup olive oil 

For the salad:

6 ounces country ham, diced

5 cups mixed greens, arugula, or kale 

2 cups fresh herbs (mixture of cilantro, basil, parsley)

2 sweet potatoes, diced and roasted 

1 ½ cups diced fresh watermelon

½ cup diced watermelon pickles

¼ medium red onion, thinly sliced

4 ounces chèvre, crumbled

kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

For the dressing, whisk together the vinegar, mustard and honey, then slowly whisk in the oil. 

In a large skillet over low heat, cook the ham until brown and crispy. Add a little water to the pan while cooking to pull some of the salt out.

Combine the greens, herbs, sweet potatoes, watermelon, watermelon pickles and onions in a large bowl, season with salt and pepper, and then toss with the vinaigrette. Garnish with the chèvre and the ham. 

(From Crop Stories No.6)

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Roasted Pork Loin: by Michael and Shyretha Sheats

Roasted Pork Loin

Michael and Shyretha Sheats /  The Plate Sale /  Athens, Georgia

The significance of pork in my ancestral history and the influence of it in black cooking is why you see pork featured on many of my menus. My favorite way to prepare pork right now Is by roasting it. It’s my perspective on a technique that I learned along the way while cooking in Atlanta. The texture of the pork is consistently tender and I enjoy the slow method of cooking it. Sort of reminds me of cooking barbecue. What sets it off, is aging of the pork. That just takes it there. This recipe considers a loin that has not been aged. If you want to enhance the flavor of the pork and are knowledgeable in doing so, then go for it. 

For the Pork Lion:

Start with a whole bone in pork loin, around twenty pounds. A local farm or butchery can provide you with one. I have them remove the H-bone.

Turn your oven on to 350 degrees. Now you want to score and season your loin. Gather a large vessel, cast iron preferably, to render the fat from the skin. Render until browned, about 20 minutes on low heat. Now remove from pan, and place on a tray with a resting rack. Put into oven for 10 minutes. Once your ten minutes has expired, remove from the oven and let rest for ten minutes. Continue this pattern until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Once it reaches the temp, pull from oven and let rest before slicing. You can

finish the pork on a grill if you want some smoke on it. This will serve a party. I mean seriously.

(From Crop Stories No.6)

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Recipe: Liver and Grits By Howard Conyers

Liver and Grits

Howard Conyers / Pitmaster + Scientist / New Orleans, Louisiana

For the liver:

3 tablespoons lard or bacon grease, divided

1 sweet onion, thinly sliced

1 pound hog liver

kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

For the grits:

2 cups stone-ground grits

4 cups water

4 cups whole milk

2 tablespoons butter

Melt lard in a large skillet over medium heat; add the onions to the skillet, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat with the fat. Stir frequently until deeply caramelized, about 45 minutes, and then remove to a paper towel to drain.

If the liver is fresh from a hog slaughtering, cut in ¼” to ½” slices, otherwise it is already sliced. Season the liver on both sides with salt and pepper and dust generously with the first quarter cup flour.

Add the rest of the lard to the skillet and let it get back hot. Then lay the liver in the grease and allow to cook for about 1 minute on each side. Fry the liver in batches so it doesn’t crowd the pan. Set the liver to the side and make the gravy.

Return the onions to the skillet and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons flour; cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the flour starts to smell toasted and brown. Add water to the pan, ½ cup or more, depending on how thick you like your gravy, and stir well, scraping the bottom of the skillet. Simmer for a few minutes and if need be, add more water to the gravy to get the consistency you desire.

Make your grits with half water, half milk, and some butter and salt stirred in at the end. Serve the liver and onions over the grits with lots of gravy. 

(from Crop Stories no.6)

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Pork in Salsa Verde by Hector Gonzalez

Recipe: Pork in salsa Verde

Hector Gonzalez / Project 658 / Charlotte, North Carolina

For this recipe I like to use a piece of pork that is rich and meaty. Try using a good piece of belly or even shoulder. This is a very traditional recipe that can be made to serve over rice and beans, or with a salad, and makes a good stuffing for a burrito.

For the salsa verde:

3 pounds tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed well 

2 white onions, peeled and cut into wedges

1 bunch cilantro, leaves and stems 

4 medium serrano chiles or to taste

5 cloves garlic, peeled

3 pounds pork belly, cut into 2-inch chunks 

2 quarts chicken stock

kosher salt 

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook tomatillos and 1 of the onions until soft, about 15 minutes.

Drain and transfer to a blender along with the garlic and cilantro and 1 tablespoon of salt; blend until smooth and set aside.

In a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, sear the pork in batches until brown, about 5 minutes per batch. Season each batch of pork with salt while browning. After all the pork has been browned, pour off the majority of the rendered fat and save it for another use. 

Add the second onion to the pot and fry it up in the fat that remains.

Add the salsa verde and and 2 quarts of chicken stock to the pot and let cook slowly, covered, until the meat is tender, about 2 hours.

(From Crop Stories No.6)