Far from the farm's cozy barn, four black pigs bed down on the forest floor.
In their waking hours, the hogs forage for most of their food — grass, roots, lichens and the acorns that Williams rancher Tobias Hatfield hopes will infuse their meat with unsurpassed flavor.
"We're trying to duplicate the famous Spanish, black-footed pig," Hatfield says.
So-called "black-footed" pigs yield "jamón ibérico," a dry-cured Spanish ham that is richer, more complex and slightly gamier than prosciutto or the more ordinary Spanish dry-cured ham called "jamón serrano." In Spain, the most prized black-footed pigs are allowed to roam oak forests and feed on acorns.
The hams require two to three years of curing before selling for $100 to $200 per pound. Hams were shipped to just a handful of U.S. distributors about a year ago, following a 12-year process to gain government approval to import them.
"It's some of my favorite ham in the world ... the Spanish hams in general are fantastic," says Tom Van Voorhees, cheese-shop manager at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, which carries a small selection of gourmet meats.
"It didn't matter how much it cost at the marketplace, people wanted it," Van Voorhees says.
Hatfield is anticipating customers also will want his USDA-certified organic, acorn-fed pork come market time. He's set to slaughter four "large black" pigs in February with plans to sell the whole or half hogs, in addition to individual cuts of pork when the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market opens in March.
"More than half their diet is acorns," Hatfield says. "We had a great crop of acorns this year."
Known locally for raising organic, grass-fed bison for the past eight years on his Full Circle Bison Ranch, Hatfield wanted pigs to clean up the acorns on 80 acres of oak savannah within his 120-acre property. Hatfield first tried raising Yorkshire-Hampshire crossbreeds for his own family's use but says he wasn't impressed with the meat or the animals' instincts — rather, lack of them.
"We put 'em out on pasture, and they didn't know what to do," Hatfield says.
Hatfield researched pig breeds suited to free grazing and foraging and selected Tamworth and "large black," both rare British varieties closely related to wild boars and known for their self-sufficiency.
"These are very true to their old breed," Hatfield says.
"They'll eat anything — roots," he says. "They just follow their nose."
Relying on their snouts to find food, the large black pigs sport large lop ears that flop comically over their eyes. Although the ears do impede sight, they also protect the pigs' eyes from damage while they root and forage.
"Pigs love to graze fresh, green grass," Hatfield says.
The 42-year-old rancher turned four large blacks loose in the forest when they were just 8 weeks old. Now 6 months old and still feasting on sprouted acorns supplemented with a little organic grain and alfalfa, the pigs are headed for slaughter in February. The meat has a lot of intramuscular marbling, Hatfield says, unlike the "ultra-lean" pork found in grocery stores.
"These are our prototype for this year's pig," Hatfield says.
This year's pig is a cross between the large black and the ginger-colored Tamworth. Hatfield's breeding effort produced 40 piglets, born last week, with 20 more expected next month.
Some piglets will remain on the ranch, but Hatfield is putting about a third of them up for sale once they're weaned and reach 45 pounds. The price is $250 apiece with interested buyers already getting in line, Hatfield says.
"People who buy organic meat are interested in raising pigs," he says. "Pigs are in."
Like Full Circle's bison, the certified organic, pastured pork will be available for purchase at growers markets in Medford and Ashland, at the ranch, by weekly delivery or through its Web site, www.fullcirclebisonranch.com. For more information, call 541-846-1351 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail email@example.com.