McBAIN, Mich. – Mark Baker was accustomed to taking orders in the Air Force. Now he's defying the government, taking a stand for what he considers a fundamental right: raising exotic hogs.
Baker is among Michigan farmers and ranchers battling the state's attempt to stamp out an industry that has been capitalizing on the increasing popularity of certain fierce, sharp-tusked boars among adventure hunters and gourmands at tony restaurants. Known by various labels — feral hogs, razorbacks, Eurasian and Russian wild boar — they're believed to be escaping from hunting preserves and becoming a menace in the wild.
The conflict over the beasts has created odd alliances among foodies, environmentalists, agribusiness, hunters, and regulators in a state that normally tries to nurture businesses but in this case wants to exterminate one.
More than 5 million feral swine are prowling fields and woods in nearly every state, competing with native wildlife for food, gobbling farm crops and spreading disease, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Clever, aggressive and prolific — sows can produce two litters of up to six pigs a year — they are notorious for eating virtually anything and for damaging fields and wetlands with their rooting and wallowing.
Southern states such as Texas have all but abandoned hope of eradicating the animals. Michigan is among those farther north struggling to wipe them out while there's still time. The state Department of Natural Resources has declared exotic swine an invasive species, illegal to possess, and has already taken one breeding operation to court for violating the policy.
Michigan's feral hog population has been estimated at 1,000 to 3,000. The department has focused on the 60 game ranches where hunters pay $500 or more to stalk a wild boar — a challenging target that also bears especially tasty meat. Inspections show that most have gotten rid of the swine.
But ranchers and farmers who raise the animals have mounted a counteroffensive, with lawsuits and an online campaign depicting themselves as victims of heavy-handed government and big business.
"I've told them publicly I will disobey this order because it's illegal and unconstitutional," said Baker, 51, who began raising hogs and chickens after leaving the military in 2004. He and his wife home-school their eight children on an 80-acre farm in Missaukee County, a gently rolling landscape dotted with barns and silos.
Baker, one of four producers suing to overturn the policy, says its description of forbidden swine could apply to virtually any pig. Wild boar hybrids, it says, could have straight or curly tails and erect or floppy ears. Such vagueness will give inspectors too much power and suggests the underlying motive is to eliminate a growing competitor to mass-produced pork, he said.
"The DNR is doing the dirty work for industrial agriculture, trying to destroy family farms," Baker said, flinging chunks of bread to several dozen hogs inside a woven wire pen. They squealed and grunted like any others but looked markedly different. Among them were a purebred mangalitsa boar, a Hungarian breed with a curly, rust-colored coat resembling sheep's wool, and several black Russian females with which he mates.
Mangalitsa pork is an increasingly popular delicacy in gourmet restaurants that feature niche "heritage" meats. The hogs have darker, more flavorful meat than those raised in tight confinement, said Eric Patterson, owner of The Cooks' House restaurant in Traverse City.
"It's fantastic pork," said Patterson, who has served ham, fatback and pork belly from Baker's farm.
DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the zero-tolerance policy is designed to protect farms of all sizes from livestock diseases such as pseudorabies and brucellosis, which wild hogs are known to carry.
Wisconsin and Oregon have similar policies, and Michigan officials say they've gotten inquiries from Pennsylvania, Kansas and Tennessee.
Michigan's leading environmental and farm organizations support the crackdown.
"We do not want Russian boar in our woods," said Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.
The lure of wild hogs for sportsmen is understandable. "They're very crafty, hard to find," said Fijalkowski, who hunted them in Germany decades ago. "This is an intelligent animal with an incredible sense of smell. And of course there's an element of danger." A German hunter bled to death several years ago when a boar's tusk sliced open his femoral artery, Fijalkowski said.
A state trooper shot a feral hog that chased a young girl in southern Michigan several years ago, he said, and the animals "demolished" a wheat crop last fall in Saginaw County.
Dave Tuxbury, operator of 1,600-acre Deer Tracks Ranch in Kalkaska County, insisted no hogs have gotten past his fencing, which extends 10 feet aboveground and 2 feet below. But when the DNR began enforcing the order April 1, Tuxbury hired gunmen for a "mass slaughter" of about 80 swine, including pregnant sows and piglets.
"I absolutely couldn't do it myself. It was too heartbreaking," he said.