A Southwest Michigan cider maker will use pigs to help combat pests in its orchard. Virtue Cider in Fennville bought 18 Glouchestershire Old Spot pigs - also called “orchard pigs.” They’re known for eating bug-ridden apples that fall on the ground.
The practice of using pigs to control pests goes back to early farming techniques in the 1900s - but some question if it’s effective or safe.
Glouchestershire Old Spots are large pigs. They're white with black spots and their ears droop over their eyes.
“So the folklore is that the spots came from apples falling on them and causing bruises,” says Missy Corey, Virtue’s Culinary and Hospitality Director.
Beck says this was a popular pig for farmers in the early 1900s. It was cold-hardy, produced a lean meat, and - of course - ate fallen apples. But by the 1990s, the breed was near extinction.
“The advent of industrial agriculture in general did not bode well. They didn’t like being in confinement. They’re a really bright, intelligent breed and suffered from depression and died off in captivity - more so than other pig breeds,” says Beck.
Though Beck says the breed has made a comeback in recent years, there’s still only about 500 Glouchestershire Old Spot pigs in the United States.
Beck says right now Virtue Cider relies on apples from other local orchards to make their cider. The trees on the farm’s own small orchard are little bigger than saplings. It can take anywhere from two to six years for an apple tree to start producing fruit.
Beck says once the trees are ready, they’ll run the pigs through the orchard after every harvest.
“The idea with eating the windfall and the drops from the orchard is to really break the cycle of various pests, especially in their larval states,” he says.
Beck says buying these pigs is kind of a risk. Just because this method worked in the 1900s doesn’t mean it’ll work now.
“It’s placing a certain amount of faith in kind of the traditional fashion of farming,” he says.
For about six years, Michigan State University studied this kind of pest management. Matt Grieshop was one of those researchers. He says when MSU ran hogs through the orchard after a harvest, they noticed there were fewer adult bugs the next year.
MSU didn’t finish its research, however. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration came out with new Good Agricultural Practices.
“One of the baselines in these Good Agricultural Practices or GAP standards is that domesticated animals are not to be in the presence of plant agriculture. So essentially we were…this research was regulated out of existence,” says Grieshop.
Grieshop says there’s a fear that farms with integrated systems - where animals are close to crops - can cause food poisoning. But he says there’s not a lot of science to back that up:
“We do know that manures - and whether they’re produced directly on a farm by an integrated system or applied as manure - can carry E.coli, salmonella and a variety of other dangerous microbes. But what we don’t know is how attributable downstream food poisonings - for lack of a better term - are attributable to those practices and no one has spent time to work that out.”
Basically it’s hard to say if crops pick up bacteria from manure or from the numerous people that handle it as it travels from farm to store.
Grieshop says right now GAP standards just apply to large market farms - the ones that sell at major grocery stores. Virtue Farm is too small to be one of them.
“There’s been a push - by I think primarily the FDA but also the USDA to some extent - to have these standards extended to all farmers regardless of their market. And this has been something that’s been very contentious,” says Grieshop.
Missy Corey says this experiment isn’t really about the pigs. The farm uses other organic methods to control pests. Ryan Beck says it’s about rediscovering what it means to do these traditional styles of farming.
“If anything it’s an emotional realization about how we arrive to our food and awakens the senses to actually see it firsthand," says Beck.