Hugging the Pennsylvania Turnpike between exits 266 and 286, a picturesque hillside dotted with Christmas trees can momentarily break the monotony of the highway. The vision in green is Elizabeth Farms — a family-run operation, established as an ironworks before the Revolutionary War. Today, it sells 5,000 fir trees each December to bundled-up families who come for horse-drawn wagon rides and cheer.
But Christmas crowds only come once a year. That’s why the Lititz-based farm recently upped its cuteness factor with something unexpected: a collection of rare woolly pigs — known around the world for their luscious meat.
About two years ago, eighth-generation owner Bill Coleman started working with local farmer Steve Garman to diversify the farm’s offerings. “I wanted to come up with something unique,” Garman says. He researched everything from raising lobsters to breeding pigs. He landed on Mangalitsas: a Hungarian pig breed with curly hair and succulent meat — that’s often likened to Japan’s famed Kobe beef.
Mangalitsas (also spelled Mangalicas and Mangalitzas) nearly went extinct 30 years ago, but extensive breeding in Europe saved them. “You don’t have too many curly[-haired] pigs left in the world — they’re fun to look at, great foragers, and pretty mild-mannered,” says Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager for the Livestock Conservancy, which works to protect endangered livestock breeds. “When you see one, you won’t forget it.”
Garman was especially drawn to the Mangalitsa’s affinity for free-range foraging, which would give a purpose to Elizabeth Farms’ untillable wooded areas. In pitching the idea to Coleman, he suggested creating an on-site eatery to serve the prized pork.
In 2018, Elizabeth Farms bought one male and 6 female pigs from a farm in North Dakota, and then a few dozen more last fall. Garman began breeding them and now the farm has 160 pigs roaming the property with more on the way. “There were 95 babies born in the past two months,” Garman says.
With their thick coats, Mangalitsas live outdoors all year and wander through Elizabeth Farms’ pastures, often cozying up in mud pits. “They have acres and acres to roam, sometimes I can’t even find them,” Garman jokes. The pigs fatten up by foraging acorns and drinking milk from a local dairy.
That diet and a slow growth rate give their bodies time to absorb plenty of vitamins and minerals, which “equates to flavor” and darker meat, Beranger says. Their fat also adds flavor, tenderizes the meat, and can be healthful in moderation “if the animals are raised on pasture, outside in natural conditions.”
Elizabeth Farms raises its pigs for about 18 months — that’s more than double the life span of commercial pigs, according to the livestock expert. When the time comes, the farm sends the pigs to Belmont Meats, a nearby processor. “They treat our animals well and deal with them in a respectful manner,” says Coleman’s son-in-law, J.B. Bernstein.
To sell the pork, Bernstein is Elizabeth Farms’ secret weapon. As beverage manager at Center City’s celebrated Vernick Food & Drink, he’s connected to some of Philadelphia’s top culinary talent. Bernstein has helped get Elizabeth Mangalitsas onto menus throughout the city.
When Cadence’s chef-owner Jon Nodler heard that Bernstein was involved, he began ordering half a pig at a time. “The flavor is king, it’s just so delicious,” he says. He tries to make use of every piece through cooking, curing, and even turning extra fat into hand soap. “Given the amount of fat, you have to get really creative,” he says.
With many restaurants shut down due to the pandemic, he encourages home cooks to try cooking it at home — something that Elizabeth Farms made possible when it began selling directly to customers in April.
A couple times a week, Bernstein takes the 80-minute drive from the farm to Philadelphia to deliver cuts of pork, sausages, and charcuterie to area homes. Chops and bacon — with its silky, melt-in-your-mouth fat — move quickly. The farm also sells its pork at an on-site store and just started shipping it.
Coleman plans to open The Barns at Elizabeth Farms, a 200-seat farm-to-table food venue in an 18th-century barn with a full bar and Pennsylvania-made products, on Labor Day weekend. He doesn’t let anything go to waste: “All of the tables, chairs, and the bar top came from wood harvested from the farm,” he says.
The Barns has put social distancing protocols in place that include requiring masks for staff and visitors, and installing hand-washing and sanitizing stations throughout the property. Coleman says they also have added 75 picnic tables so that guests can spread out.
The Barns will be a place to try Mangalitsa pork in a casual setting where visitors order and sit wherever they like. Visitors to the farm will be able to tour the pens where the piglets live.