Squeals of young piglets cut through the cool morning air at Little D’s Farm in Grand Saline as owner Jessica Kirksey, 37, inserts microchips into the smallest and newest members of her furry pork clan. These kunekune piglets will become part of a growing breed that was once on the brink of extinction.

Native to the Maori people of New Zealand, it’s not by accident that kunekunes are now living in East Texas. In the 1970s, a mere 18 pigs were recorded. After years of a new breeding program, the population was brought back from near extinction and in the 1990s breeders brought kunekunes to the United States.

The American Kunekune Pig Society website states, “From purebred base stock of only 6 sows and 3 boars in 1978, the Kunekune conservation program was created by wildlife park owners Michael Willis and John Simister. These two gentlemen single handedly saved the breed from extinction.”

Kirksey has always loved animals. As a child, she spent a lot of time at her grandparents’ farm in Athens working with pigs, goats, rabbits and chickens. As an adult, she worked at a veterinary technician in Dallas for over 12 years as well as owning and operating a pet sitting service and dog walking service.

When she and her husband, Brandon, became pregnant with their first child, they chose to move to rural Grand Saline to live a slower pace of life on a large piece of land.

The Kirkseys keep two herds of kunekune pigs at their home. One for their personal pork production and one for breeding. The pigs that meet breed standards are kept for breeding and registered with American Kunekune Pig Registry. The breed is good for both life as a pet, or life as a porkchop.

As a member of AKPR, Jessica documents the births and deaths, as well as keeps track of wattled and non-wattled. A wattle is a characteristic of small fleshy tassels, also known as pire pire, that hang from under their chins. Kirksey also tracks stillbirths and does DNA testing to make sure the kunekunes are purebred and go back to those original 18 pigs.

Kirksey has worked with conventional pigs in the past with 4H and FFA. She says there’s a big difference between conventional pigs and the kunekune breed.

“Kunekunes are docile, they’re laid back, they’re very easy to manage,” she said. “They’re low maintenance, and they’re a really interesting and different type of pig.”

She says that even the castrated males (called barrows) are very friendly and are sold as pets, while pot bellies and mini pigs can be more difficult.

“The kunekunes love belly scratches, they love to follow you around, and everybody goes on walks when we walk around in the evening,” she said. “It’s weird how laid-back they are.”

Jessica hopes to have public pork production up and running in May.

Kunekunes are a lard pig, meaning that they have an extra layer of fat. The fat breaks down while cooking, and it seasons and tenderizes the pork. It sells for between $6-$12 a pound because it’s a better quality meat. Since it’s a grass-fed or forage-fed pork, you get a really dark red meat that looks more like beef than the pork you would get from the supermarket.

At Little D’s Farm, the pigs eat a natural diet of roughage on the land such as acorns, winter peas, radish, rye, rape, and walnuts.

“I can feed commercial pig feed, and the piglets do eat it to make sure they get all essential nutrients and protein they need to grow, but allowing my older pigs and grow outs to finish on acorn and walnuts, you’re getting a naturally fed pork product,” Kirksey said.

All kunekune pigs are considered to be domesticated animals.

“They’re just not your typical pig,” she said, “They’re an actual pasture pig that are used to doing things naturally, and they do a really good job at it, and they acclimate very well to their surroundings.”

With the coronavirus and fears of COVID-19 spreading in East Texas, people have been clearing out grocery stores and hoarding food at home. Kirksey wants to remind people that buying food direct from a small farm is an option.

“Right now things are crazy,” she said, “You can go to grocery stores and nothing’s on the shelves. There are small farms that can take care of you. They can provide you with meats, vegetables and milks...the vital necessities that people need from day to day, and we’ve always been here.”

She adds that people who purchase food direct from farms build a connection with the farmer and community.

“Think about how you can support a small farm or business today,” Kirksey said, “What you’re doing is allowing them to continue forward [with their business], and you’re allowing yourself to be provided with proper nutrition with foods that aren’t coming from a factory.”

For more information on Little D’s Farm visit their website at https://littledsfarm.com/.

East Texas farms and ranches that are open for direct sales to the public include:

Pryor Cattle Company- USDA federally inspected Grass-fed beef from Henderson, for delivery call 903-658-4672

Red Moon Farm, Van Organic Mixed Produce, Herbs, CSA memberships, honey, meat through the CSA 903-502-4333 jessica@redmoonfarmtx.com

Preacher’s End Farm, Jacksonville Produce, eggs, chicken, pre-made salads 903-795-3430 PreachersEnd@gmail.com

Winona Orchards peaches, blueberries 903-352-0641 Sattlerjh@aol.com

Big Tree Farmacy lettuce, asparagus, mixed spring produce (903) 8300346 lovefauxever@aol.com

Zillmer Farms Strawberries, blackberries, figs, vegetables, jams 903-520-8749 vzillmer@yahoo.com

Lonesome Lady Ranch, Tyler, Grass fed beef, pasture raised pork and chicken, grass fed lamb 832-262-0745 lonesomeladyranch@gmail.com

Three Roots Boutique, Gladewater, Herbal body care products 406-360-0606 threerootscoaching@yahoo.com

Shady Grove Ranch, Jefferson, grass-fed beef and pasture-raised soy-free chicken, pork, eggs, and turkey. Handmade soaps, cottage foods, and a variety of supplements

We offer scheduled regional pickups in East Texas: Tyler, Longview, Marshall, and by appointment at the farm in Jefferson. We travel to Tyler once a month with preorders to meet our customers with their orders. That occurs the first Thursday of the month at 11:30am. Our website has all our delivery schedules and pickup location details. http://shadygroveranch.net/

Windy Oaks, Grassfed Beef, 230 Van Zandt County Road 2711, Mabank, 75147. Beef is sold on-farm, or, for a fee, delivered to customers. Visitors are welcome to come & see & share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

512 468-0221

Hood Family Farms Pasture Raised Eggs, Jams, Specialty Breads Pickup at front gate is available by appointment between 9am and 7pm, 3950 County Road 3802 Bullard, TX 75757 all orders are placed online in advance online at www.hoodfamilyfarms.com/shopping Delivery is also available for free within a 30 mile radius of Bullard. We will call to set up a time for delivery. Any questions about ordering or delivery can be directed to 832-350-6721.

Tyler-area Farmer’s Markets:

Rose City Farmers Market: While the situation with COVID-19 is constantly evolving, at this current time WE ARE PLANNING ON OPENING in April with the date still TBD. We’re working with local officials to treat our farmers market like an open-air grocery store, and drafting plans to ensure our famers can get their products to you in a way that keeps you, them, and our community safe and limits the possible spread of COVID-19 in our community. Stay tuned!

Tyler Farmer’s Market 2700 WSW Loop 323 on the corner of 155 and Loop 323 in Tyler, opening date TBD.

East Texas State Fair Farmers Market opens Saturday May 2. Contact (903) 597-2501 for more information.

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I've worked as a photojournalist at the Tyler Morning Telegraph since 2011. I'm a graduate of Central Michigan University.