Rare breeds of cattle, derived from past farmers, are seeing a resurgence in popularity in Maine and across the country, according to livestock specialists. Sometimes called “heritage” breeds, these are domesticated animals from a pre-industrial farming period.
Lexi Rutherford, who runs Unity College’s Heritage Livestock Barn, where they have three San Clemente Island goats, three American Guinea pigs and five Katahdin sheep, said these breeds are “living history.”
“These are animals that someone’s great-great-grandfather would have had on their farm,” said Rutherford, the university’s live specimens coordinator.
Peter Cook, a farmer in Berwick who works with rare breeds, said these breeds are worth saving for their unique genetics. For example, he said some breeds are more resistant to heat, some better against parasites, and some are good at foraging.
“If you have a sheep that can live on weeds, in other words, inferior vegetation, it doesn’t need rich pasture,” says Cook of Tare Shirt Farm. “Then you start thinking about underdeveloped countries around the world. They would really like to have that breed because they can survive there and then provide a food source.”
Hackmatack Farm, a family-owned company in Berwick, recently received four San Clemente Island goats, of which only about 1,400 are registered worldwide, according to the International Dairy Goat Registry for San Clemente Island Goats. The farm, which is also home to bison and a breed of rare woolly pigs, sold 55 of their Mangalitsa piglets this year — mostly to new farmers — without any advertising, said Conor Guptill, who runs the farm.
“We have customers who have never tried bison, they try it for the first time and then they never eat beef again because it has such a better taste and flavor,” Guptill said. “The meat of the Mangalitsa pigs…is exquisite. They call it the Kobe pork. It is day and night of conventional industrial pork.”
Guptill said it’s a different approach to farming, one that focuses on better flavors and more sustainable farming practices, known as “regenerative” farming. It’s harder to monetize heritage breeds, as opposed to breeding varieties that grow the fastest and yield the highest yields, Guptill said, but it’s his “passion project.” They’ve had the bison for about 10 years, he said, and the pigs for three years.
“You can really take your time and cultivate these varieties that may not meet industry standards, but from a holistic perspective, they’re just so much more complete,” Guptill said.
Guptill said he has noticed that more people are looking for homesteading, but there is a gap in professional care, such as large animal vets and slaughterhouses that are starting to serve small to medium-sized farms. Most of the people he sold his piglets to were first-time, he said, young couples who were new to Maine or who had recently returned to the state.
Some are concerned about the novice homesteaders. Melissa Andrews of Peace Ridge Sanctuary, a farm animal shelter in Brooks, said nearly all of the animals they take in come from state repossessions of small farms and are often heritage breeds. She said the shelter has also seen an increase in calls from people realizing they don’t have the resources to care for the animals they’ve committed to.
“There’s a romanticized idea of what agriculture is,” said Andrews, director of development, humane education and outreach. “I think a lot of people in Maine are jumping on the bandwagon for animal breeding without necessarily understanding what it means.”
Peggy Boone, who manages the International Dairy Goat Registry for San Clemente Island goats, said some homesteaders “last a year or two and they’re done,” which makes keeping an accurate registry a challenge.
Charlene Couch, senior program manager at the Livestock Conservancy, said people just starting out should be mentored and start small, with breeds that are less threatened. The North Carolina-based nonprofit, which promotes heritage breeds, publishes an annual Conservation Priority List, which Couch says is similar to how endangered species are tracked.
“You see the pictures online of a happy person with this happy chicken and everything looks beautiful and it looks easy…it’s not always easy,” Couch said. “I think before people start buying animals, they really need to educate themselves about what the animals need.”
Guptill said there are a wealth of resources online for new homesteaders. Like anything new, he said, “you learn as you go”.
Robert Grillo, a vegan activist based in Chicago, said using the word “preservation” to advertise farm animal products is a misleading marketing ploy. He said protecting domestic heritage breeds developed by farmers is not the same as protecting endangered wild species and their ancestors.
“Conservation is about serving ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years,” said Grillo, president of the nonprofit organization Free from Harm. “Farm animals, where we do that now on the scale that we do now, hasn’t been around that long.”
Cook, the Berwick farmer, who runs a heritage breed exhibit at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said restaurants can take advantage of specialty products. To save the heritage breeds, he said, a market is needed to sell their meat, dairy or wool products.
“We need to have people willing to eat them to save them,” Cook said. “You won’t find people who would just raise them and not use them.”
Grillo said rare breeds of cattle can be kept in sanctuaries, where they are not exploited.
“If it were really about conservation, we would at least want animals to have their natural lifespan,” Grillo said. “Conservation would be respecting the breed, respecting the animal and saying, ‘Let them live their lives. They have more value than just being a product.’”
Couch said conservation is different from conservation, and is more about preserving a resource for the future. In the US, she said, animal husbandry relies on a few very cost-effective breeds, but the lack of genetic variation makes the industry and its consumers vulnerable to disease outbreaks.
“You don’t know what we’ll need in the future,” Couch said. “It’s better to keep it around in case you need it than to lose it altogether and not be able to go back and have that resource available.”
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