Once upon a time, America was a mostly agrarian nation populated by subsistence farmers. Livestock- which had Old World genetics, having been brought here by 17th and 18th century colonists- possessed attributes that made them well-suited to their respective environments. Some cattle had long, curving horns, which helped them forage in deep snow or thrash through thick brush. Certain breeds of sheep had short, stocky frames that helped them survive cold climates.
The very qualities that once made these breeds an asset became problematic we moved to an industrialized agriculture system in the mid-20th century. Aforementioned sheep also took longer to reach market weight, and cattle with long sharp horns were a hazard to ranchers and fellow bovines when loaded onto stock trucks bound for market. Heritage breeds of dairy goats or cattle may have possessed excellent mothering instincts, but if their milk yield was relatively low, they were of little use to the commodity market.
The Livestock Conservancy’s website notes, “Heritage breeds…were carefully selected and bred…they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture.” The result is a lack of genetic diversity amongst our current industrial livestock breeds (a problem in all developed countries, not just North America). If disease were to wipe out a breed or species, the results would be devastating to both the economy and our food system.
Fortunately, groups like The Livestock Conservancy exist to help save and promote heritage breeds from extinction. A growing number of universities, non-profits and family farms and ranches have breeding programs dedicated to heritage livestock breeds, which retain important traits like disease resistance, climatic tolerance, maternal instincts, and the ability to breed naturally (as opposed to artificial insemination). Of equal importance to consumers: many of these animals produce delicious meat or by-products such as eggs and milk.
Another organization devoted to the preservation of heritage breeds- in this instance, pork- is Cochon 555. Founded eight years ago by Brady Lowe as a way to educate chefs and consumers about heritage breed pigs and encourage the practice of humane livestock management and nose-to-tail cookery, Cochon 555 is a traveling road show. Every year, cities all over the U.S. (including Denver) host whole animal cookery events and competitions, in which five local chefs duke it out for the title of “Prince/Princess of Porc” based on their utilization and talent cooking with a whole hog sourced from local ranches whenever possible.
Cochon 555’s Denver Heritage BBQ will be held on March 19 (purchase tickets here) at The Curtis Hotel. The evening will include a butchery demo and raffle, national and regional breweries and distilleries, more food than you can shake a pig’s tail at, and heritage pork sourced from Rock Bottom Ranch and Mountain Primal Meat Co. (Basalt), McDonald Family Farm (Brush), Cone Ranch (Julesburg). The competing chefs include chef Hosea Rosenberg from Boulder’s Blackbelly Market, Will Nolan of the Viceroy Snowmass and Bill Miner of Il Porcellino Salumi. And what would a debaucherous food event be without cheese? Boulder’s Cured will supply artisan product from the Rocky Mountain Region and beyond. Partial proceeds from the event go toward Cochon 555’s charity, Piggy Bank.