It started as a hankering for osso buco. It ended with fresh wild boar shanks, and a lesson in the wild pig overpopulation problem that has been steadily creeping across many Southern states for the past 20 years.
I was simply trying to source veal shanks, but in my small, remote town in northern Arizona, veal isn't easy to come by. Looking for a good plan B, I reached out to a friend who had recently returned from a pig hunt in central Texas with fresh wild boar. "There's plenty more where that came from," he informed me as we loaded several meaty shanks into the trunk of my car. And thus began my whirlwind education on how these hogs —which can be particularly delicious —are running amok (particularly in Texas), and what's being done to stop them.
The overpopulation problem in the United States is actually relatively new. European Wild Boars (also referred to as Russian Boars) were first introduced in Florida and then Texas between the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. As human colonization expanded across the south, both free-ranging (wild) and domestic pig populations were regarded as a necessary source of food. They were hearty and required little care. Most wild pigs found throughout America today are directly related to a combination of Eurasian wild boars and domesticated pigs that have escaped and become feral after spending a few generations in the wild.
But there's a massive amount of wild hogs overwhelming farmlands in Texas, and we can't seem to figure out what to do with them. These wild pigs have become highly adaptable to their environments and have been doing a serious amount of damage agriculturally —with voracious appetites and destructive rooting, they affect agronomic crops as well as pasturelands, staying in an area long enough to devour its resources before moving on. A conservative estimate of the damage in Texas alone is $52 million annually with an additional $7 million needed to repair damage and control the population.
Wild pig meat is much leaner than commercially-raised pork, and far richer-tasting. It's widely accepted that pigs that are allowed to roam and forage will taste better than pigs kept in pens. A free-range animal grazing on a wide variety of forgeable food gets more muscle-enhancing movement, which generates a deeper, more flavorful meat than an animal confined and raised solely on grain; and there are no antibiotics or hormone supplements to worry about with wild animals. Taking advantage of the wild pigs as food seems like a no-brainer —so why aren't we eating more of them?
Depending on a state's regulations, restaurants are often limited to obtaining meat from sources where the meat has been slaughtered and dressed under inspection. That makes wild pigs that have been hunted a bit trickier for chefs to obtain legally.
San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino, arguably one of the most pork-centric chefs in the nation, has a passion for sustainable wild boar. He's been known to source meat from organizations like Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas and Prather Ranch Meat Company in California, as a way of helping them with their population management programs while also getting premium product in his kitchens.
But one chef alone cannot cook all of the wild boars in Texas. In 2006, Texas A&M began a two-year abatement project, offering education to farmers and ranchers about the most effective ways to remove the pigs. "Currently, total eradication is not an option in Texas given the population estimate of 2.6 million animals....but control has reduced agricultural damage by two thirds. Most landowners would agree that it's a step in the right direction," reported Dr. Billy Higgenbotham, a professor at Texas A&M. Texas is a private lands state where about 95% of the land is privately owned, so responsibility ultimately falls to the landowner for conducting pig control on their property, and there are a variety of methods available to them to keep the population down.
Current legal methods of population control consist of trapping, shooting (both aerially and terrestrially), snaring, and dogging. Several of these methods are controversial, but advocates argue that population must be controlled to keep property damage and skyrocketing agricultural costs in check. There are organizations, that provide hunting opportunities on private land, which is a convenient way for many landowners to reduce their destructive pig population.
Hogs for a Cause is an organization specifically benefitting local communities by donating thousands of pounds of wild boar. Their ground crew teams up with aerial hunting companies to pick up downed boars and take them to their processing unit, where they dress the animals and get them ready for donations to local non-profits and families who need meat. But just how safe are these pigs to eat? "They're definitely safe," Hogs for a Cause founder Dave Haehn said. "In addition to that, this is the freshest, best tasting hog you're going to find anywhere."
And while some restaurants and chefs may be unable to take advantage of the surplus due to state and health regulations, that doesn't mean you can't. Wild meat is available through vendors like Broken Arrow Ranch, Heritage Foods USA, and Prather Ranch Meat Company.
I browned my ruby-red pork shanks in a cast-iron skillet less than a week after the hog was killed. My pig was young and small, and as I rested the shanks before braising them, I wondered if the lean meat would get tender enough. An hour and a half later the house, the house smelling gloriously of roast pig, I was rewarded with tender pork shanks with a deep, delicious pork flavor.
It's a closed-loop system for sustainable meat: landowners are recovering costs by selling their trapped pigs, and consumers have the opportunity to eat some truly exceptional meat. Yes, there is a serious overpopulation problem, but more and more people are recognizing the potential to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.