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Meat Industry Turns Florida's Feral Hogs Into Prime Pork


Florida has a wild pig problem. Across the state, there are at least a half a million of them. They dig up land, rummage for food, damage property. Basically, they're a nuisance. But now as Jessica Meszaros from member station WGCU reports, some Floridians are turning problem pigs into profit by marketing wild boar as prime pork.

JESSICA MESZAROS, BYLINE: In the middle of Peter Madsen's lush farm in Charlotte County is a large, metal cage. Madsen is trying to get a young wild hog out of the homemade trap and into his trailer. The pig has a thick black coat of wiry fur.

PETER MADSEN: That was it.

MESZAROS: Madsen raises cattle here on his 1,200-acre property. He's not a pig farmer, but they're everywhere on his land.

MADSEN: If you just go for right down here, the main road, I think my wife will show you what they do to the road and to the pastures.

MESZAROS: Madsen's wife, Sharon Rutzke, drives a golf cart and stops at a long patch of freshly dug up dirt - dug up by hogs. It's about 8-inches deep.

SHARON RUTZKE: It's rough on the equipment and the mowing. And worst of all, it'll come back weeds. It just costs money, and it makes it difficult.

MESZAROS: The ranchers don't want to shoot the pigs. So two years ago, they found Keith Mann, who buys feral hogs and sells the meat.

KEITH MANN: Took a while for people to believe that this was for real and that they could bring pigs here on a regular basis and collect their money and all this.

MESZAROS: On the day I visited Mann's ranch, he showed off his feral pig pen. A couple dozen hogs took off running and trampled over each other.

Mann hopes Florida will eventually mirror what's happening in Texas with its feral pig industry. Texas has about a hundred wild hog meat buying stations. In Florida, there are just two. Mann says this industry is self-sustaining because feral pigs reproduce quickly and year round.

MANN: I think we're at the beginning of a much larger enterprise. But we have a couple of hurdles to clear, but it's going to be pretty neat here over the next few years.

MESZAROS: Mann says he now slaughters up to a hundred feral pigs a week. Most of the meat is sold to high-end restaurants like this one, the Beach House on Anna Maria Island. In the restaurant's kitchen, wild hog meat sizzles in a pan. Chefs prepare it with a red wine demi-glace, sauteed kale and potato cakes. Ed Chiles owns this restaurant. Chiles grew up in Florida eating wild hog. And he says he's been wanting to work it onto his menu for a long time.

ED CHILES: So in a day where people are concerned about where their food comes from and they don't want hormones and antibiotics, wild pig is an opportunity to take something that is an invasive species and a problem, and turn it into something great.

MESZAROS: Chiles sells about 250 pounds of wild pig meat a week. Customers like Sandy Blackledge and her friends, enjoy sharing the wild boar dinner plate. Blackledge says it's unique.

SANDY BLACKLEDGE: I can't say it tastes like the pork we're used to. And we like wild game anyway, although, this does not have a wild taste at all. It's just very mild and easy to digest.

MESZAROS: Florida hog trappers, ranchers and restaurateurs want more customers like Blackledge. That's because more pigs on plates means fewer of them destroying property, while also growing a new industry. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Meszaros in Fort Myers, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.