COLUMBUS JUNCTION, Iowa (AP) — At a homestead farm tucked off a gravel road in Louisa County, curly-haired descendants of Hungarian royalty root through soil and wallow in mud.
Acorn Bluff Farms, owned and operated by brothers Kenan and Seth Todd, has been home to the Mangalitsa pigs since 2016. The pigs are descended from Hungarian Mangalita, which were the preferred pig of the royal Habsburg family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a constitutional monarchy and great power in Central Europe between 1867 and 1918.
The deeply flavored meat and high fat content produced from the pigs is unmatched, known as the Kobe beef of pork.
“You can’t fully understand it until you taste it,” said Kenan Todd as a pair of thick-cut Mangalitsa pork chops seasoned with just a dash of cracked pepper and pink Himalayan salt cooked on a grill nearby.
The tender meat is rich in flavor with hints of acorn and marbled with fat that melts away on the tongue.
Kenan Todd offered a word of caution to those who try Mangalitsa pork, be it bacon, pork chops or other cuts: “Once you try it, it’s hard to go back to regular pork.”
Many of the 300 to 400 customers Acorn Bluff Farms has accrued over the years will attest to that.
“That may have been the best pork chop I’ve ever had. I don’t know how (you) get it so tender, but it’s amazing,” one customer from Indianapolis wrote.
The Burlington Hawk Eye reports that Acorn Bluff Farms started with a text message from Seth Todd, an agronomist, while Kenan Todd, who now is a physical therapist in Columbus Junction, was studying athletic training at Iowa State University.
“My older brother texted me one day and was like, ‘Do you want to get pigs?’ I said, ‘Sure, let’s get pigs,’” Kenan Todd said.
And so Seth Todd bought a portion of organic farmland that had been owned by the Masonholder family since the 1830s. Their father, Michael Todd, a veterinarian, already had been renting some of that land for cattle, and the ample oak trees growing there would produce plenty of acorns to feed the pigs.
“The acorns are wonderful pig feed and give the meat a wonderful flavor,” Kenan Todd said. “And we’re on the bluffs, so we just sat there spitballing names for a couple hours and that is what we came up with.”
Seth Todd set about researching breeds of pigs that would produce high-quality meat. They considered Mulefoots and American Guinea hogs, but none compared to Mangalitsas.
Finding Mangalitsas, however, was not easy.
Though long available in European countries, it wasn’t until 2007 that the first Mangalitsas were imported to the United States. There have been only three imports since, in 2010, 2014 and 2016.
The Todds located a woman who owned some in the Netherlands and was involved in the 2016 import to America.
“We actually had to find her on Facebook and call her and have her connect us with people who had ones directly related to the imports to make sure we had pure breeding stock,” Kenan Todd said.
They began in earnest with three sows and one boar named Ford. Seven additional sows have followed.
“He is massive and he likes back scratches,” Kenan Todd said of Ford. “He gives a little butt shake when you get him in the right spot.”
Kenan Todd greets Ford with a gentle fist bump to the nose.
“It lets him know not to mess with me,” he said as he patted Ford’s back, explaining the nose is the most sensitive part of a pig’s body.
Absent from the snouts of Ford and the sows are rings meant to discourage rooting.
“It’s very essential that the pigs are on the dirt, because they get a lot of nutrient content from the dirt, and also a lot of nutrients just from being out in the sun,” Kenan Todd said.
The farm they purchased was already equipped with a hog house, but the Todds wanted their hogs to spend their days outside on the soil in fresh air and sunlight.
“None of our pigs have ever been indoors besides the little huts that they have out there or the trees,” Kenan Todd said.
Their thick, wooly fur, which often is shed in warmer months, makes the breed well-suited for Iowa winters.
The brothers cleared trees and put up fencing in preparation for the pigs. Ford and the sows now roam two acres of land with plenty of tree cover and mud.
The pigs are kept in two separate fenced-in areas covering two acres of land. Sows are rotated out of Ford’s pen as necessary, while the other sows roam a larger fenced-in enclosure with striped piglets.
Electric fencing has been integrated on Ford’s side to keep him from trying to climb over.
“The boar gets a little antsy when there’s someone on the other side of the fence he wants to see,” Kenan Todd said. “The electric fence keeps him in check.”
In addition to the grubs they root from the soil and vegetation they graze, the pigs’ diets are supplemented with acorns, especially in the fall.
The Todds also are looking into small-grain feed alternatives.
“From all the reading we’ve done, it’s given us an understanding that it will give the meat and the fat an even higher quality than what it is, so we’re not only attempting to start with genetics, but also then give them the best quality feed, and it should keep the meat and the fat just a little bit firmer,” Kenan Todd said.
The feeder pigs are raised at Acorn Bluff Farms until 13 to 18 months of age, which is when they reach the hanging weight of between 260 and 280 pounds.
Then, they are taken six at a time to Bittner’s Meat Market, a USDA-certified butcher in Eureka, Illinois.
The meat produced is shipped back to the Todds and stored in a local meat locker. The Todds, in turn, ship the meat to customers. Shipping is free for those in the 319 and 515 area codes.
It took some experimenting to figure out how to package the meat for national shipping. A brother in California was the happy recipient.
“We bought some shippers and put some dry ice and some ice packs in there and started shipping … to try and figure out how much we needed to keep it cool all the way to California and how many days we could keep it in there,” Kenan Todd said. “And he was not arguing with getting free meat shipped to him.”
Their brother shared the meat with friends, many of whom have become customers. Acorn Bluff Farms now ships coast-to-coast.
It wasn’t long before the Todds found themselves needing to expand the operation to keep up with demand. Because Mangalitsas are slow-growers, getting them on a regular slaughter schedule proved difficult. Now, however, there are enough pigs to be shipped about once a month.
“We typically sell out on our butcher dates, but our butcher dates are moving up closer and closer, and we’re getting a considerably more consistent supply, so we’re having less of that problem,” Kenan Todd said. “We’re starting to really flow from one butcher date to the next.”
Still, the Todds want to keep the operation at a manageable size.
“We enjoy raising them, and there’s kind of an optimal scale where if we scale down a little, it would be tougher for us to maintain that standard just because the boar is happier with more females and the piglets are happier with more friends,” Kenan Todd said. “We want to find our size where we can do what we do really well and get the meat to people so they enjoy it.”
In addition to word of mouth, the Todds turned their marketing efforts to social media. Kenan Todd said there have been many instances where it has been difficult to convey the taste and superiority of Mangalitsa pork.
“You just have this creaminess that you wouldn’t expect with meat,” he explained.