How unfair that we compare gluttonous humans to pigs! Pigs are absolutely sensational creatures — playful, intelligent and curly-tailed. I love pigs and I love pork. So that means I was curious to see TLC Ranch, home to a hundred free-spirited, free-range pigs. TLC Ranch overlooks the pastoral paradise that lies somewhere between Aromas and Watsonville. On the generous easements of a 200 acre spread, rancher Jim Dunlop raises hundreds of chickens, lambs and pigs. Big fat gorgeous Berkshire and Blue Butt pigs. All of these animals live in ways that would make even animal liberationist Peter Singer happy. The word “free-range” doesn’t begin to describe the prime wandering, foraging, rooting and lazing around Dunlop’s animals enjoy on their idyllic acreage.
I’d been interested in the pastured products of TLC Ranch since discovering them at the farmers markets last year, so I jumped at the chance to join a dozen or so folks, plus plenty of kids, for a walking tour of the Ranch, which is tucked into acres devoted to horses, organic strawberries and raspberries. Under the oaks, nestling in the soft dark forest floor of ponderosa groves, the fabulous pigs slept, ran around and rolled in deep troughs filled with mud. Weighing in at up to 400 pounds, the animals forage their way through one section of the property, and then are moved to another where their ability to eat anything is put to good use. Dunlop describes them in colorful ranchers’ terms, as “bulldozers with manure spreaders on the back.”
While the enormous pastures where the pigs roam free are protected by electrified fencing — this is only to keep them from inhaling the beautiful rows of berries, or other cultivated crops. Flocks of very inquisitive chickens kept us, and the pigs, company throughout our visit.
The eggs will go to the Live Earth Farm CSA members, and also to feed the amazing pigs. “They get a corn and barley mix, plus eggs that are cracked,” Dunlop explains, patting a few 350-pounders wallowing in the mud. “Pigs can’t sweat, so this is how they cool off.” Happy as pigs in, well, mud.
Currently being bred with a wild boar to “improve their foraging instincts,” the pigs will grow, and grow until they reach 8-10 months old. Then it’s off to a USDA slaughterhouse in Modesto. From there, Dunlop sells most of the pork, but saves some for Justin Severino, who butchers, cures, and uses the delicately-marbled flesh to create his artisenal Italian sausages, patés and pork pies. Severino’s Community Butchers – using Dunlop’s luxurious TLC Ranch pork – can be found at farmers markets in Santa Cruz, as well as around the bay area. You can taste the central coast ranchlands in every bite.