VARNA, Ill. (AP)--Zack "Bubba" Siwinski realizes Berkshire pigs are more challenging to raise than crossbreeds.
The 15-year-old Varna resident, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound Midland High School football player who got his nickname because of the ease with which he lifts pigs onto trucks, points to the pigs' smaller litter sizes and slower growth. But that isn't all.
"Personality-wise, they're a little bit of a pain in the butt," he said. "Major stubbornness. When we got to get them out of the farrow crate, they'll go right to the corner. They're smart. They'll sit there in the corner, so now you've got to climb into the pen, push their head out of the corner and grab both sides of the pen and push them.
"They'll finally walk outside, but some of them will take off running. Then you have to chase them around. They're quick."
Despite those challenges, during about three years of raising the pigs, Bubba doesn't regret convincing his parents, Mike and Kathy, and his 14-year-old sister, Katlen, that the family should sell Berkshire pork.
"I feel it was a good decision," Bubba said. "It's better meat quality. If there's better meat quality, customers will come back for more rather than just going to the grocery store. I think people will keep coming back here."
Two years into raising the rare breed, the Siwinskis began selling "Bubba's Berk's All Natural Pork" off the family farm in Varna. The family expects to sell at least 400 Berkshires, which would total about 72,000 pounds of meat, in 2008.
Sales are mostly smaller orders of specific cuts, such as pork chops, Italian sausages and brats, by word of mouth.
The Berkshire experiment began with the family conducting hundreds of surveys outside grocery stores everywhere between Peoria and Chicago. In addition to wanting better-tasting pork, consumers showed an interest in how that pork finds its way to their table.
"One of the things that surprised us was, a lot of people are interested in the humane treatment and in not having steroids and antibiotics," Mike said. "When Bubba sat down with us, one of his big concerns was the pens they use in confinement operations."
In addition to those factors, Bubba mentioned the need to differentiate their meat from pork offered in large stores. Because the family enters pigs in shows throughout the country, Bubba knew about Berkshires.
According to legend, Oliver Cromwell's army discovered the hogs more than three centuries ago in an area of England called the Berks. Soldiers noticed the unusual quality of the pork and word spread.
Berkshires are believed to have been imported to the United States in 1823. Many of those hogs were cross-bred until 1875, when breeders and importers met in Springfield to set up a process for maintaining a pure Berkshire breed. That meeting led to the establishment of the American Berkshire Association, which now maintains documentation of bloodlines from its office in West Lafayette, Ind.
Farmers, such as the Siwinskis, submit paperwork with names of the sire and dam. The ABA's computerized database then traces the bloodlines back several generations.
According to the ABA, there were 5,600 litters recorded in the U.S. in 2007--1,000 in Illinois.
The Siwinskis expect about two litters per sow per year, sometimes with as few as three or four piglets. That litter size is much smaller than with other types of pigs.