Rare livestock breeds, derived from farmers of generations past, are seeing a resurgence in popularity in Maine and across the nation, according to livestock specialists. Sometimes called “heritage” breeds, these are domesticated animals from a pre-industrial era of farming.

Lexi Rutherford, who manages Unity College’s Heritage Livestock Barn, where they have three San Clemente Island goats, three American Guinea hogs and five Katahdin sheep, said these breeds are “living history.”

“These are animals that someone’s great-great-great-grandfather would have had on their farm,” said Rutherford, the college’s living specimens coordinator.

Peter Cook, a farmer in Berwick who works with rare breeds, said these breeds are worth saving because of their unique genetic qualities. For example, he said, some breeds are better at resisting heat, some are better against parasites, and some are good at foraging.

“If you have a sheep that can live off of weeds, in other words, inferior vegetation, doesn’t need a rich pasture,” said Cook of Tare Shirt Farm. “Then you start to think of underdeveloped countries around the world. They would love to have that breed because they can survive there and then provide a food source.”

Shelby Guptill feeds grain to San Clemente Island goats at Hackmatack Farm in Berwick. The farm has four of the goats, and there are only about 1,400 registered worldwide. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Hackmatack Farm, a family-run farm in Berwick, recently received four San Clemente Island goats, of which there are only around 1,400 registered worldwide, according to the International Dairy Goat Registry for San Clemente Island Goats. The farm, also home to bison and a breed of rare wooly pigs, sold 55 of their Mangalitsa piglets this year – mostly to new homesteaders – with barely any advertising, said Conor Guptill, who runs the farm.


“We have customers who had never tried bison, they try for the first time and then they never eat beef again, because it’s just such a better taste and flavor,” Guptill said. “The meat on the Mangalitsa pigs … is exquisite. They call it the Kobe beef of pork. It’s night and day from conventional industrial pork.”

Guptill said it’s a different approach to farming, one that focuses on better flavors and more sustainable agriculture practices, known as “regenerative” agriculture. It’s harder to make money on heritage breeds, as opposed to raising breeds that grow the fastest and produce the highest yield, Guptill said, but it’s his “passion project.” They’ve had the bison for around 10 years, he said, and the pigs for three years.

“You can really take your time and cultivate these breeds that may not be up to industrial standards, but from a holistic perspective, they’re just so much more well-rounded,” Guptill said.

Hackmatack Farm in Berwick has raised Bison for about 10 years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Guptill said he’s noticed more people looking to start homesteading, but that there’s a gap in professional care, like large-animal veterinarians and slaughterhouses who will serve small to medium-sized farms. Most of the people he sold his piglets to were first-timers, he said, young couples either new to Maine or who had recently moved back to the state.

Some have concerns about first-time homesteaders. Melissa Andrews of Peace Ridge Sanctuary, a farm animal sanctuary in Brooks, said nearly all animals they take in are coming from state cruelty seizures from small farms and many times, are heritage breeds. She said the sanctuary has also seen an uptick in calls from people who realized they don’t have the resources to take care of the animals they’ve committed to.

“There’s a romanticized idea of what farming is,” said Andrews, director of development, humane education and outreach. “I think a lot of people in Maine jump on the bandwagon for raising animals without necessarily understanding what it entails.”


Peggy Boone, who runs the International Dairy Goat Registry for San Clemente Island goats, said some homesteaders “last for a year or two and they’re done,” which makes maintaining an accurate registry challenging.

A Mangalitsa piglet runs under fencing at Hackmatack Farm in Berwick. The Mangalitsa is the only remaining breed of wooly pig left in the world. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Charlene Couch, senior program manager at the Livestock Conservancy, said folks who are just starting out should get mentors and start small, with breeds that are less critically endangered. The North Carolina-based nonprofit, which promotes heritage breeds, publishes an annual Conservation Priority List, which Couch said is similar to how endangered wildlife species are tracked.

“You see the photos online of a happy person with this happy chicken and everything looks wonderful and it looks easy … it’s not always easy,” Couch said. “I think that before folks go out and buy animals, they need to really educate themselves about what the animals need.”

Guptill said there is a wealth of resources online for new homesteaders. Like anything new, he said, you “learn as you go.”

Robert Grillo, a vegan activist based in Chicago, said the use of the word “conservation” to advertise animal agricultural products is a misleading marketing narrative. He said protecting domestic heritage breeds, which were developed by farmers, is not equivalent to protecting endangered wild species and their ancestors.

“Conservation is about serving ecosystems that have evolved for millions of years,” said Grillo, president of nonprofit Free from Harm. “Farming animals, where we do now on the scale that we do now, hasn’t existed for that long.”


Conor Guptill feeds grain to San Clemente Island goats at Hackmatack Farm in Berwick. He said “heritage” breeds offer an approach to farming that is more focused on flavor and sustainability. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Cook, the Berwick farmer, who curates a heritage-breeds exhibit at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said restaurants can benefit from specialty products. To save the heritage breeds, he said, a market to sell their meat, dairy or wool products is needed.

“We have to have people who want to eat them in order to save them,” Cook said. “You’re not going to find people who would just raise them and not use them.”

Grillo said rare livestock breeds could be preserved in sanctuaries, where they wouldn’t be exploited.

“If it was really about conservation, then we would at least want animals to live out their natural lifespan,” Grillo said. “Conservation would be respecting the breed, respecting the animal and saying, ‘Allow them to live their life. They have value beyond just being a product.'”

Hackmatack Farm in Berwick has raised Bison for about 10 years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Couch said conservation is different from preservation, and is more about keeping a resource around for the future. In the U.S., she said, animal agriculture relies on a few very cost-effective breeds, but the lack of genetic variation leaves the industry and its consumers vulnerable to disease outbreaks.

“You don’t know what we’re going to need in the future,” Couch said. “It’s better to keep it around in case you need it, than to lose it entirely and not be able to go back and have that resource available.”

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