Written by Kate Morrison
Nestled in the hills of Pennsylvania is a small farm owned and operated solely by a landscaping, fiddle-playing pig farmer. Dylan Whitehill, like me, is managing his farm by himself. He was drawn to farming at a young age and spent summers at his aunt’s house neighboring his grandfather’s dairy farm. During his time there he rode horses, baled hay, pulled weeds and raised chickens. They even had a petting zoo for some time as well as a nativity scene. Sadly, Dylan lost his aunt to cancer and the farm became overgrown with weeds. Years went by and Dylan never lost the desire to farm. He became involved with 4H and FFA, leasing and showing cattle and horses. After high school he thought he wanted to go to college to study music. But he realized it wasn’t for him so he moved back home from Tennessee. Dylan began his journey in raising pigs about 3 years ago. After a trial run raising goats in his first year, he decided goats weren’t for him. He now breeds Kunekunes and has two boars and six sows. The Kunekune breed has a very interesting story. According to the New Zealand Kunekune Association; “The general consensus is that the Kunekune were probably brought to New Zealand in the 1800’s by whalers operating in New Zealand waters, and were traded with the Maoris. In the late 1970’s the breed was ‘rediscovered’ and at that time it was estimated that there were only about 50 purebred Kunekunes left in New Zealand. From purebred base stock of only 6 sows and 3 boars in 1978, the Kunekune now numbers in the thousands. It is due to the enthusiasm and dedication of people like Michael Willis and John Simister that the breed was saved from extinction.” The Association also describes the breed and how it got its’ name; “The name Kunekune means ‘fat and round’ in Maori, a rather apt description for this unusual looking pig. The Kunekune is smaller than other breeds of pigs in New Zealand, although a very overweight Kunekune can still be a somewhat large pig. The characteristic Kunekune shape is a short-legged, short-snouted pig with a high fat depth giving very rounded body contours. The tassels, or pire pire, are about 4cm long and hang from the lower jaw. Not all Kunekunes have tassels, as although it is a dominant gene the population contains a proportion of pigs without tassels.”
Dylan and I connected through our mutual affection for this breed. My two pigs were littermates but I wanted to breed my gilt, and Dylan was looking for a boar from a smaller line. Hearing someone like Dylan speak so fondly of his animals and what he’s doing to preserve the breed is a wonderful thing. It’s not every day that you get to see firsthand someone who has found their true calling. So when Dylan offered to trade boars I knew that my boar would be in good hands, and that I’d also be receiving an exceptional pig in return. A few weeks later I found myself on the road with my friend Abby and a pig in the back of my car. After a three hour drive, we arrived at Dylan’s farm. Since he was in the process of moving his farm to another location just down the road, not all of his pigs were there. But I got to meet a few. I was in hog heaven, literally. It was very obvious that Dylan loves these pigs, and that they have a great life.
Dylan likes that these pigs are absolutely enjoyable to work with. They are incredibly docile and friendly, and their size (200 -300 pounds) is manageable as well. He says their best and most unique feature is their snout. “They are brachycephalic, which means that they have a very short, upturned snout.” Dylan says “That makes putting them on pasture a breeze, they can hardly root at all.” Dylan’s plans have always been to use the heritage breed for meat and he plans to incorporate his breeders into a pork meat share, similar to a CSA, but he’s also striving to produce flashy show pigs in his two breeding groups. According to Dylan, “there is so much diversity within the breed that someone ought to preserve the best of the best. With so many imports from the UK and New Zealand I am so privileged to find the best animals possible from relatively local breeders.”
Although the breed is no longer in danger of extinction, Dylan wants to preserve the rare bloodlines which are in need of conservation. For example; the “Kereopa” bloodline, which is known to be short, squatty and whose hair is especially long and curly during the winter months. The “Tapeka” bloodline has been recently imported and is known for a white belt line around the shoulder which isn’t typical of Kunekunes, but resembles a Hampshire pig. Many Kunekune bloodlines carry a story behind their name, because they were the Maori peoples’ pigs. The pigs were passed down from one generation to the next and also traded between families. Dylan tells me that he when he’s considering additions to his farm he “looks for nice, straight legs, healthy weight, clear eyes, short snout, nice level back and short legs” in prospective pigs. He’s breeding for “milk yield, litter size, mothering ability, pasture foraging efficiency, and whether or not they fatten easily.”
When Abby and I arrived at the farm, Dylan gave us a tour and introduced me to each and every one, including the parents of my new boar, who I named Hamish. (Hamish is the Scottish Gaelic version of James). There was another resident at his farm that introduced himself to Abby and me. A long-haired, smelly, but charming and registered mini silky fainting billy goat named Cadence. Yes, there is such a thing. Dylan had sent me a few pictures of Cadence about a week before I made the trip, and wanted to know if I wanted to buy him also. In his pictures he looked like some kind of mythical forest creature. I thought-what on earth am I going to do with a billy goat? I hadn’t had a goat since I was a little girl, and I remember how great his personality was but also that he was an escape artist, even running away into town with our Doberman on ocassion. So I told Dylan that I couldn’t. Money’s tight as I’m starting up The Farmette. Not to mention a billy goat didn’t really serve a purpose for me, and my pasture wasn’t “goat proof” either. Well, let me tell you… Cadence is charming. He followed Abby and me around like a puppy, and he was sweet as pie. Then Dylan said to me “Well, I wanted to get money for him, but you can just take him.” I’m a sucker. So Dylan gave me a bunch of empty plastic feed sacks and we lined the back seat of the car, walked Cadence on a leash to the car and loaded him up. I’m so glad I decided to take him home. He’s added so much personality to the menagerie and he and Frankie bonded quickly. Cadence now calls for her if Frankie is out of sight. But the ride home from Pennsylvania showed me that Cadence provided comfort to Hamish as well during his transition to my farm. Hamish perched himself on the back seat for most of the ride home, and Cadence would check on him periodically, even nuzzling him a few times. Hamish and Gretta didn’t hit it off at first, but they are now inseparable as well. Hamish has settled in and his personality slowly became obvious- strong and serious most of the time. I call him Mr. Business. But as I was walking the gang out to the pasture the other day, Hamish decided to take a detour around the yard and take his sweet time going to the pasture. I watched with curiosity, wondering what he could possibly think was more important than the bucket of feed in my hand. Suddenly he began running and bucking and side-stepping through the snow! He wasn’t looking for trouble, or wandering off. He was just being a happy pig enjoying himself. Its moments like those, that happen every day here at The Farmette that give me so much joy and make me so absolutely grateful to have these animals in my life. Hamish and Cadence have been yet another blessing and I am grateful for having met Dylan; another young person who also shares a deep love for farming. Dylan told me he’d like to branch out with vegetable and mushroom production, orchard management, and possibly wool and milk production. But there’s only so much one person can do so Dylan is currently looking for people interested in farming. He’s moving to a 90 acre farm and he would like to find others who share his passion for farming. I can’t wait to see what Dylan explores next on his farm because I’m absolutely sure he will pour his heart and soul into like he has with his pigs. Thank you Dylan for sharing your story and I look forward to meeting again! Who knows what the next adventure will entail.