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Pigs and acorns make an intriguing mix for farmer

  • Mark Carbone of Snowbrook Farm in Eaton has plenty of land for his pigs and other livestock. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mark Carbone’s pigs sift through the mud for acorns on his farm in Eaton, New Hampshire last week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of Mark Carbone’s pigs on his farm in Eaton, New Hampshire. All four of his pigs love acorns and he collects them from neighbors to feed them to his pigs. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of Mark Carbone’spigs chomps on acorns on his farm in Eaton, New Hampshire last week.

  • Mark Carbone of Snow Brook Farm in Eaton throws acorns out into the pig pen on his farm last week. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Mark Carbone’s pigs love the acorns he feeds them on his farm in Eaton, New Hamsphire. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mark Carbone pulls a tarp off his three-quarter-ton truck full of acorns he collected from neighbors in Eaton last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On Snow Brook Farm in Eaton, as on many New Hampshire farms, there’s a desire to take agriculture back to its natural roots. When it comes to feeding pigs, the farm’s owners have taken to using plants that aren’t even part of agriculture.

The four porkers owned by Mark and Kristy Carbone and their daughter Enna, 10, are feasting these days not on corn but on acorns taken straight from New Hampshire oak trees. Or, rather, from New Hampshire yards littered with the product of oak trees.

“I put an ad in the Conway Daily Sun asking for (acorns) and was sort of dubious about it. But I collected about 2,000 pounds of acorns in the last eight days,” said Mark Carbone, speaking recently from the farm located near the Maine border. “I feed them twice of day. They also get a lot of apples, that’s important for the sugar, and I feed them barley but they will not touch the grain, they are so into the acorns.”

Now it’s a question of how many acorns he can get, and how long he can store them.

“I’m transitioning now to figure out how to over-winter with them,” he said, pondering one load of acorns by the pig pen and another in his pickup.

Carbone has experience using this most basic of foods. He raised pigs for about 15 years in Massachusetts before moving to New Hampshire last winter, and for many years he owned a landscaping company that, among other things, tidied lawns in the fall.

“I’d get my employees to pick up the acorns, and I’d feed them to the pigs. That worked pretty well,” he said.

Pork with a nutty flavor

The point, he said, wasn’t to get some low-cost pig food. Carbone said acorn-fed pork tastes better, especially when fed to heritage swine breeds, which he said are better at foraging and making use of acorns.

“I have better things to do than pick up acorns if it didn’t change the flavor. It’s really, really tasty, melts in your mouth with a nutty flavor. The meat turns red, almost steak-like,” he said. “It almost liquifies the fat at room temperature – there’s a much higher percentage of non-saturated fat than conventional pork.”

Really? Yes indeed, said Daniela Dana, co-founder of the New England Acorn Cooperative in Canaan, pointing to at least one thriving farm in Connecticut that has about 100 pigs, fed solely with acorns, that is to restaurants and markets.

Dana urged people to consider acorns not just for pigs but for themselves, in the form of acorn flour.

“It’s a very hard nut. Making it into chunks for snacking doesn’t really work,” Dana said.

She grinds acorns with water, dehydrates them into a “kind of mush,” stores it in the fridge until ready, then uses a KitchenAid flour mill to create the final product. She said she doesn’t mind the effort but admits that it doesn’t always translate well.

“As soon as somebody processes it once they say, ‘It’s a lot of work – where can I buy flour?’ ” Dana said.

$25 a pound for flour

One of the few places that sell acorn flour commercially – Oaklore, based in Vermont – charges $25 a pound for an online purchase.

The reason is that it’s hard to make acorns palatable to humans. Pigs and many other animals, such as squirrels, can eat them raw, but humans can’t stomach all their tannic acid, so we have to leach them, going through the time-consuming process of soaking them in successive batches of hot or cold water.

There’s another reason acorns aren’t a big commodity: The harvest is erratic. Like many seed- and nut-producing species, oak trees have a cyclical output, producing far more acorns in some years than in others.

Biologists theorize that this practice has evolved as a way to keep down predation by animals: A species that depends on eating acorns will suffer in poor output years, and will get overwhelmed when oak trees produce huge numbers in good years, leaving behind enough acorns around to sprout.

Whatever the reason, Dana said she isn’t worried, since the point of the Acorn Cooperative isn’t to turn oak trees into a big-agricultural business but to use the gathering of acorns to build community. She pointed to a long history of gathering acorns in Greece through farmers’ cooperatives, a history that got her looking at acorns in the first place.

“It’s a communal thing. They go out and gather in parties, walk and talk and help each other carry them. That’s a big part of what we want to do, making it fun, making it educational, making it safer,” Dana said. “It’s very much like mushroom gathering – except it’s about 200 pounds heavier.”

The advantages extend well beyond the nutritional, she argued: “This ties people into using public spaces and really appreciating what we have.”

The cooperative is still getting off the ground but has hopes to expand, with acorn workshops for farmers and a proposed New England Acorn Festival at D Acres organic farm in Dorchester.

Thriving farm in Connecticut

It has some models in New England, notably Walden Hill in Connecticut, which sells what it calls “heritage pork” and related meats from pigs fed largely with acorns harvested and purchased from local forests.

Walden Hill came to acorns-as-pig-food from a whole different direction: The founder, Jennifer Milikowsky, is a forestry student who was interested in developing new sources of income for woodlot owners. Turns out, selling the oak tree nuts that litter the ground is feasible.

As reported in Northern Woodlands magazine’s autumn 2017 edition, after more than three years of experimenting with business models, the farm is feeding acorns to more than 100 pigs and selling pork to restaurants and markets in three states. Like the New Hampshire Acorn Cooperative, it’s also trying to build a community.

“We work with people who have one oak tree to those who have thousands, and families who have farmed for generations as well as those who are new to farming,” a page on its website reads, adding “We look forward to speaking with you about sustainable forest and farm management.”

Back in Eaton, the Carbones hope to expand their project, with an eye toward selling premium acorn-fed pork to restaurants or consumers. (If you want to place an order, email at fosterearthworks@earthlink.net or call 447-8988)

“We’d like to find a way somehow to get this to everyday folks, and do our part to change food quality and food taste,” he said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)