Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pigs Gone Wild in Gansu

In the last couple of years Chinese companies have been flying in foreign breeding pigs to build massive breeding farms and take advantage of subsidies for "improved breeds." But at the same time, a smaller group of entrepreneurs are carving out a niche to preserve local and "wild" pork breeds in China's new factory-style pork industry.

Chinese consumers claim that pork turned out by factory-style farms lacks flavor. They yearn for the strong flavor and smell of traditional pork breeds. Everyone has their preferred local type of pork (tu zhu), such as Baoshan pigs in Sichuan and Minzhu in Heilongjiang. Companies have sprung up to process local pork and sell it to supermarkets either as fresh pork or as sausage or other processed products. Some contract with farmers to raise local breeds of pigs.

In Gansu Province, some farmers are raising "wild pigs" (ye zhu). In their natural state, wild pigs run around in the mountains rooting for food. In comparison with domesticated pigs that just eat and sleep all day, wild pigs have leaner meat that is high in protein and lineolic acid. Their meat is believed to prevent cancer and have other therapeutic effects. Some think it makes women more beautiful. The price of wild pork in Gansu is said to be 50 yuan per kg, five times the price of conventional pork.

The "wild" pigs are actually a cross between wild and domestic pigs. They have long black bristles and tusks. The cross-bred pigs are easier to handle and have faster weight gain than pure wild pigs. However, compared with domesticated pig breeds, wild pig sows have relatively small litters (usually 7-8 piglets) and they gain weight more slowly. Wild pigs get more exercise, so they use up more energy and gain weight more slowly. The meat is higher in protein and lower in fat. It's high in lineolic acid. Wild pigs eat less grain, more "green feeds," including sweet potato vines, stalks, and sprouts.

Photo from
Newspaper stories about wild pig-raising point to a strong entrepreneurial spirit in rural China. An article from Gansu describes the experience of a former migrant worker named Meng, who was intrigued by stories about big money farmers were earning in his wife's home town in Guizhou Province. A program on TV about a farmer in Jiangxi inspired him to quit his job in a bicycle factory in Shenzhen and go home to raise wild pigs. He invested 600,000 yuan in the project, using a combination of savings, loans from friends and family, and bank loans. He received a lot of "support" from the township government, which is going all-out to attract investment. He bought 2 purebred wild boars and 7 cross-bred pigs from a company for 10,000 yuan.

According to Meng, a "wild" cross-bred piglet costs 1,000 yuan, compared with 400 yuan for a domesticated breed. A sow can produce two litters per year with fewer than 10 piglets each. He figures you can make a profit of 100 yuan per piglet, for a total of up to 20,000 yuan per year. He expects to earn 50,000-60,000 yuan next year.

A similar article in the Lanzhou Evening News describes a young man named Cheng who went into wild pig-raising after selling computers for eight years. He bought 4 wild pigs from the northeast and invested 400,000 yuan to start his venture aimed at being the first to deliver wild pork to dinner tables in Baiyin City of Gansu.

It's not an easy business. Wild pigs can be hard to handle. A reporter observes that Mr. Cheng's pigs are behind a sturdy steel fence. Mr. Meng's first litter was crushed to death by the sow.

Some people complain that pork from so-called wild pigs lacks the strong taste expected by consumers. Is it really wild pork if the pigs are crossed with domesticated breeds, raised on concrete slabs, and eat the same grain-based diet as conventional pigs?

One article offers advice on improving the "wild" flavor. After weaning, pigs can be raised like domesticated pigs until they reach a weight of about 30 kg. Using mainly an energy- and protein-rich feed promotes weight gain at young age. Gradually, coarse green feeds can be introduced and their proportion increased as the pig nears slaughter weight. Over 60 kg. the diet should be 50% or more "green feed" for the final two months until they reach a slaugther weight of 80 kg. Where possible, pigs should be allowed to graze so they have access to plants and can root in the soil. The exercise firms up their muscles, making the meat more lean.

Then there is the ever-present problem of fakes. When a special product (e.g. "wild," "local," "organic," "green food") brings a high price premium, there is strong incentive to mislabel conventional products. In Xiamen, Fujian Province, it is reported that some 300 local-breed pigs are sold daily, but a reporter found that farms produce only 100 (i.e. 200 are conventional breed pigs being passed off as local breeds.) If pork from local breeds is not easily distinguishable from conventional pork, it will be harder to convince consumers to pay the premium price and the high-cost niche product will be crowded out of the market by the low-cost product.

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