Okinawa’s traditional pork breed, Agu, gets its ghostly nickname from the fact it’s so rare, and facing a real possibility of extinction. Casey Hawkins visits a private farm in Ginoza to learn more about efforts to regenerate the precious breed.
By Casey Hawkins
The pig commonly known as Agu has had a rough trot of late. Things first began to go wrong after World War II, when food shortages led to the importation of live stock from surrounding countries. In order to feed the impoverished, most of the native pigs were cross-bred with exotic species. In the end, all bar an estimated 30 Agu were wiped from Okinawa’s sub-tropical landscape.
At present, it’s difficult to determine how much of the native pig’s genealogy remains, and details regarding distribution of the surviving pigs remain hazy. As a result, the breed has struggled to thrive more so than other Okinawan culinary specialties. Nevertheless, the Agu brand is gaining popularity, and breeders are having to come up with ways to meet an increasing demand from mainland Japan. Commercial farms contracted under the trademarked name Agu have had to modify traditional rearing practices, but this ends up diluting both the animal’s traits and welfare.
Weekender was invited to a private farm in Ginoza, Okinawa, to learn about a small yet highly ambitious collective of farm folk aiming to regenerate the affordable purity and population of the original Okinawan heritage breed.
A Pig’s Paradise
Kaori and Mark Carr’s small organic farm is situated on the island’s east coast, away from the hordes of beachgoers. During our brief tour around what was once a cattle station, we attracted the intimate company of goats, chickens, a horse and a scourge of mosquitos. Leading us finally to the entrance of an elongated pig run, the Carrs continued to work enthusiastically while eagerly answering our questions. Their energy is impressive, but even more so after learning they sleep in a prefabricated shipping container along with an ever-growing pack of furry and feathered companions. How they manage to stay so bright-eyed is anyone’s guess.
Prior to adopting five piglets of her own, Kaori worked at Okinawa’s Livestock Research Center, as well as for a commercial pork producer. Even with such extensive experience, she has spent the past four years trialing new ways to provide her pigs with the best living conditions possible. The Carrs claim that unlike pigs cramped in stalls with docked tails and teeth, theirs only endure one stressful day – that day being their last. Kaori cooks a combination of oats, barley, rice and vegetables on her stovetop each day to feed the pigs morning and night. The pigs also regularly snack on almonds and hazelnuts to increase flavor and sweetness.
The production of organic feed and medicine is time-consuming, not to mention costly, and the Carrs recognize that most farmers lack the time and motivation required to nurture pigs to this degree without turning a profit. Chalking up the last four years as vital research, they intend to carry on monitoring their pigs’ life cycle to develop practical information for other breeders.
Bringing Home the Bacon
The largest commercial farm in Okinawa slaughters up to 1,600 pigs at a time. By altering the pigs’ diet and limiting movement, the regulatory slaughter weight (90 to 120 kg) can be achieved in nine months. In stark contrast, the organically reared heritage breed takes roughly double that.
Among the handful of known heritage breeders in Okinawa, most own fewer than five pigs. Usually, heritage breed farmers have a personal interest in the breed, and it’s likely they already have a profitable agricultural operation up and running. So far, the job has typically attracted farmers within roughly 10 years of retirement age.
Mark points out that this is problematic because a lack of involvement among young people could lead to future decline in the heritage breed’s already suffering population. As the current farmers become less able-bodied, they’re more likely to discontinue hobby farming than maintaining profitable stock. The Carrs fear that while the heritage pig continues to incur costs, other breeds consistently bringing home the bacon will only further increase the plight of the phantom pig.
The Way Forward
The Carrs are hoping to one day develop a sizeable register of ethical farmers who can work together to repopulate the heritage breed while retaining its most desirable characteristics. They wish to educate locals as well as visitors about the significance and rarity of the breed by inviting them to witness what they do and how they do it.
So passionate is the couple about organic farming that they’re willing to share everything they’ve learnt, from using medicinal herbs to DIY enclosures. The pair want little more than to inspire new and experienced farmers to breed happy, healthy pigs.
All You Need to Know About Agu
Its average litter is between five and seven pigs. Commonly, half of a free-range litter will reach slaughter. On the other hand, premature death is more prevalent for those in close confinement and proximity to other animals.
Similarly to Wagyu beef, Agu pork’s fat has a lower melting temperature, which causes it to literally melt in your mouth. Even with its higher fat percentage and sweetened flavor, the meat’s cholesterol level is more than halved while having a high amount of amino acids, collagen and vitamin D.
Collectively, the heritage breeders take less than half-a-dozen pigs to slaughter each year. It’s no wonder they’ve earned the name phantom pig – the largest farm in Nakijin cares for no more than 40 pigs at one time. The largest commercial supplier and exclusive owner of the Agu brand contracts many small Okinawan farms to help fulfill national supply and demand. Farmers agree to produce under specific conditions in exchange for financial stability and guidance, similar to how franchises operate.
These Tokyo-based restaurants claim to incorporate Agu pork into their dishes. However, due to the irregular supply, consider yourself lucky if the real deal makes an appearance on the menu. Those looking to try the heritage breed best start befriending Okinawan farmers, for it’s likely that the prime cuts will stay close to home.
This Michelin-starred tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant sources pork from free-range, low-stress farms, mainly in Kyushu.
4F Kojun Bldg, 6-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Known for serving the traditional Okinawan dish called rafute – boneless pork belly stewed in soy sauce, brown sugar, and awamori (rice wine).
B1F Daito Bldg, 6-12-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku
An exclusive dining experience focusing on Italian cuisine made with ingredients from around Japan. They only cater for three parties per evening, so bookings are essential.
4F Hasebeya Bldg, 1-7-7 Azabujuban, Minato-ku