It's estimated that as many as 3,000 wild pigs are on the loose in Michigan. Nationwide, they cause more than $1.8 billion in damage to farms each year. So recently, the state's Department of Natural Resources put Russian boar on the state's invasive species list.
Mark Baker left the military eight years ago to start Baker's Green Acres, a small farm in Marion, Mich., with his wife and kids. Since then, he's put a whole lot of love, money and time into developing tasty charcuterie: salted and cured pork, derived from his hybrids of Russian boar and the heritage breed Mangalitsa.
"My chefs love it," Baker says. "They like the dark red meat, the woody flavor and the glistening fat."
At the moment, Baker is the only farmer raising the swine for human consumption who freely admits he has them.
But with Michigan's new order, Baker's herd was suddenly classified as an illegal invasive species — putting him at risk of up to two years in jail and $20,000 in fines. If Baker complies, he will receive no compensation for the loss of his investment.
That, he says, would finish his business. "It's over at that point," he says. "I'd be done."
Ed Golder, public information officer for Michigan's DNR, says "these invasive swine are nothing more than Asian carp with legs. They will come in and devastate a natural ecosystem, and they will pose a serious threat to farms of all sorts."
Wild pig experts say Michigan officials have the right idea — trying to cut the Russian boar population before it can spiral out of control. And the agency didn't mean for the order to reach into agriculture; in fact, it specifically states it isn't intended to harm the domestic pork industry in the state.
According to the agency, there are two species of pigs: Sus scrofa, or Russian boar, which are the subject of the order; and Sus domestica — domestic pigs, the source of most bacon and ham.
In a ruling, the agency listed eight visual characteristics they argue are common to Russian boar and their hybrids. The wording indicates that a pig with just one of the listed characteristics could potentially be identified as a Russian boar or Russian boar hybrid.
But critics, including Michigan state Sen. Joe Hune, say those guidelines are overly vague. If "the tail is either curly or straight, you can be a felon for owning that hog," Hune says.
Wildlife biologist Shannon Hanna, who is overseeing the agency's order, concedes that "some of the characteristics in the ruling are similar to a domestic hog breed," like light-colored underfur and striped piglets. But, she says, "it is highly unlikely that we would just pull one characteristic out of there."
The agency's use of the word "feral" in the order has also further stoked the debate.
"How can the DNR say that the pigs that are under my control, livin' in my barns — how can they say that they are feral?" asks farmer Mark Baker.
So Baker filed suit against the agency, and gathered his kids and some squirming Russian piglets to make his case in a YouTube video. Before it knew it, the DNR found itself in a massive food fight.
But the DNR says it can't comment on Baker's charges because of his lawsuit, so Baker has the stage all to himself — and now has about 100,000 hits on his video. Mike Adams, an Arizona-based conservative commentator, produced a podcast charging that "the state of Michigan is now just days away from kicking in the doors of all these farmers, shooting the pigs, and then arresting all of these farmers as felons."
"I wish there was a way to have folks feel more comfortable with this," says Hanna, "and know that we really are just looking at this Russian boar variety of swine, and not looking at the domestic breeds of swine that other folks have been worried about."
Misinformation certainly hasn't helped. Dave Tuxbury, a rancher who raised Russian boar primarily for hunting facilities, had his boar — and their piglets — killed to comply with the state's order. But a misleading version of his story, reporting that Tuxbury was forced to kill his herd in an armed raid, was spread by both social and traditional media.
DNR never conducted raids forcing farmers to kill their pigs on the spot, and has created a Web page to help combat misinformation. But, as the DNR's Shannon Hanna explains, those who raise the swine "need to, by law, abate a public nuisance. These folks can shoot their own swine, they can harvest it, use it as they want, eat it," she says.
Mark Baker contends he's fond of his swine, just as he's fond of his dogs. "They can't force me to shoot an animal. I won't do it. I refuse to do it," he says.
Baker also says he never expected people to get so riled up over the issue. But, as Michigan state Sen. Darwin Booher says, "if you threaten my livelihood, you threaten feeding my family tonight — eventually something is going to happen."
The ultimate resolution to the debate may lie in court. Baker's lawsuit against the Michigan DNR has been joined with four other cases. The combined suit is just getting under way.
Ultimately, if a judge rules in Baker's favor, the Invasive Species Order could be thrown out. As many states in the South have learned the hard way, the results could be devastating. But in a food fight where a state agency is pitted against slow-cooked specialty pork shoulder, you can guess who the fan favorite is.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In this part of the program, we've got the story of a heated debate in Michigan. At the center is the Russian boar. It's estimated the state has as many as 3,000 wild pigs on the loose, most of them thought to be escapees from commercial hunting facilities. The worry is they could cause serious harm to crops and the environment. Experts say they also carry diseases that could infect commercial herds and threaten pork producers. So, Michigan's Department of Natural Resources put Russian boar on the state's invasive species list. The agency predicted blowback from hunting facilities. What it did not predict is a serious fight with farmers. Dan Collison tells the story.
DAN COLLISON, BYLINE: The playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once said I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty. And besides, the pig likes it. Michigan's Department of Natural Resources had no intention of getting into a hog wrestling match when it banned Russian boar from the state. Then again, it hadn't anticipated a challenge from an articulate Air Force veteran turned hog farmer with a penchant for the very swine in their crosshairs.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAR SQUEALING)
MARK BAKER: My name is Mark Baker. I own Baker's Green Acres Farm here in Marion, Michigan, USA.
COLLISON: Mark Baker left the military eight years ago to start a small farm in rural Michigan with his wife and now six kids. And since then, he's put a whole lot of love, money and time into developing the tastiest charcuterie, salted and cured pork.
BAKER: You see about 50 pigs in front of you. You can see the Russians. They're the darker ones with the longer hair. They're hybrid Mangalitsa boar and then Russian sows.
COLLISON: There's currently no reliable way to tell how many Russian boar may be on Michigan's farms. And at the moment, Mark Baker is the only one raising swine for human consumption who freely admits he has them.
BAKER: My chefs love it. They like the dark red meat and the woody flavor and the glistening fat.
COLLISON: But with the stroke of a pen, Mark's herd suddenly became illegal, an invasive species, and holding onto them could have serious consequences, with penalties of up to two years in jail and $20,000 in fines. If he complies, he will receive no compensation for the loss of his investment.
BAKER: It's over at that point. I'd be done.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAR SQUEALING)
COLLISON: Back in February, about two months before the DNR began enforcement, the agency held what it called an open house to address the invasive species order.
BAKER: And so I decided that I should go to that and find out what the true story is on this.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The purpose of this meeting today is to help determine if the pigs you have are subject to the invasive species order.
ED GOLDER: I'm Ed Golder. I'm the public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. These invasive swine are nothing more than Asian carp with legs. They will come in and devastate a natural ecosystem, and they will pose a serious threat to farms of all sorts.
COLLISON: Wild pig experts say Michigan's DNR had the right idea, trying to shut off the spigot of Russian boar before populations spiraled out of control. And the agency didn't mean for the order to reach into agriculture. In fact, it specifically states it isn't intended to harm the domestic pork industry in the state.
SHANNON HANNA: My name is Shannon Hanna with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
COLLISON: Shannon Hanna is based in Lansing, the state capital. She's a wildlife biologist who says she'd much rather be out in the woods than having to deal with swine. But as the staff person overseeing the order, Shannon was dispatched to rural Grayling, assigned to deliver a Russian pig primmer to a roomful of farmers and ranchers.
HANNA: We have a poster that's kind of like a take-home, has a picture on the front.
COLLISON: According to the agency, there are two species of pigs: sus scrofa lineus, aka Russian boar, are the bad guys, and sus domestica, domestic pigs, are the good guys - the source of most bacon and ham. To help people figure out the difference, the agency listed eight visual characteristics it argues are common to Russian boar and their hybrids. These include things like...
HANNA: Light-colored under-fur, striped piglets.
COLLISON: The way the order is worded, a pig needs to show only one of the characteristics to potentially be identified as a Russian boar or Russian boar hybrid. And Shannon Hanna concedes...
HANNA: Some of the characteristics in the ruling are similar to domestic hog breed.
COLLISON: State Senator Joe Hune argues that the characteristics are much too vague.
STATE SENATOR JOE HUNE: If the tail is either curly or straight, you can be a felon for owning that hog.
HANNA: That is highly unlikely that we would just pull one characteristic out of there.
HUNE: If the ear structure that the animal exhibits are either erect or folded...
HANNA: It doesn't mean that that pig over there is a Russian boar.
BAKER: What about a curly tailed and an erect ear? Would it be illegal for that?
COLLISON: Mark Baker.
BAKER: If it's just about Russians, then why doesn't the ruling say no Russian pigs?
COLLISON: And then there's the agency's use of the world feral.
HANNA: Feral pig, feral hog...
COLLISON: Which Webster's defined as not domesticated...
HANNA: ...feral swine...
COLLISON: ...to describe invasive swine.
BAKER: How can the DNR say that the pigs that are under my control, living in my barns, how can they say that they are feral? What's the answer to that, Shannon? And it got a little heated in the room.
HANNA: We will talk to you one-on-one about this.
BAKER: Well, we need to be clear on what's happening here. How can you make me a felon if you won't answer my questions?
HANNA: We are not going to get confrontational. We are here to help you.
BAKER: They have given themselves the authority to deem any pig illegal. Now, they're saying they're not going to but there's a bit of a trust issue with these guys. So, I don't believe them.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A farmer of Misocky County is suing the DNR...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pig farmer Mark Baker says new regulations from the DNR could make owning his pigs illegal.
CHOIR: (Singing) Oh beautiful, for spacious skies...
COLLISON: Baker gathered his kids and some squirming Russian piglets and made his case in this YouTube video.
BAKER: During the revolution in this country, there were only 20 percent of the colonists that did anything. And of that 20 percent, very few actually picked up arms. If you're part of that 20 percent, that'll actually do something, and I would suggest that you do...
COLLISON: Because the DNR says it can't comment on Baker's charges due to his lawsuit, Mark Baker has the stage all to himself. And his video's gone viral.
BAKER: The hits on that thing are 100,000 today.
COLLISON: And before it knew it, the Michigan state agency charged with maintaining natural resources found itself in a massive food fight, all with a karaoke-backed soundtrack.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COLLISON: Rumors that any pig with floppy ears and a curly tail might be implicated spread quickly. Mike Adams is a conservative commentator who sends out a podcast from Arizona.
MIKE ADAMS: The state of Michigan is now just days away from kicking in the doors of all these farmers, shooting the pigs and then arresting all of these farmers as felons.
COLLISON: The DNR's Shannon Hanna.
HANNA: I wish there was a way to have folks feel more comfortable with this and know that we really are just looking at this Russian boar variety of swine and not looking at the domestic breeds of swine that other folks have been worried about.
COLLISON: Then DNR director Rodney Stokes had a chance to calm the hog-steria when he spoke with Detroit radio host Frank Beckman.
FRANK BECKMAN: Can you make an assurance to those who are raising these for food purposes that the DNR will not be paying them a visit?
RODNEY STOKES: Well, I want to be careful (unintelligible) if some of those individuals feel that they may have these prohibitive species, we will be glad to talk to them, do an inspection, or even they can submit photographs of their swine to us. If you have some, we would give them time to get rid of those, you know, like a week or so to get rid of those animals.
COLLISON: Scott Everett is with the Michigan Animal Farmers Association, which opposes the order.
SCOTT EVERETT: The DNR says we'll be really cooperative. Just give us a call and we'll come out and we'll take a look at your swine and we'll be real nice about it. But if they meet the criteria, you're going to get rid of them. The DNR's not going to get very many phone calls like that.
COLLISON: Especially when people are afraid outing themselves may lead to another so-called Tuxberry massacre. Dave Tuxberry is a rancher who raised Russian boar primarily for hunting facilities. He had his boar and their piglets killed to comply with the state's order. But a misleading version of his story, complete with photos of bloody piglets, were spread by both social and traditional media. Again, Detroit radio host Frank Beckman.
BECKMAN: Over the weekend, we're getting reports - it was even picked up by the Drudge Report - that armed DNR agents were going to farms and carrying out raids, forcing farmers to execute their own pigs, even little baby piglets.
COLLISON: The DNR never conducted raids forcing farmers to kill their pigs on the spot. But they do maintain that anyone with Russian boar must, quote, "dispossess them."
HANNA: They need to, by law, obey the public nuisance.
COLLISON: The DNR's Shannon Hanna.
HANNA: These folks can shoot their own swine, they can harvest it, use it as they want, eat it.
BAKER: I have a sow here that's been with me for five years. I'm fond of her.
COLLISON: Mark Baker.
BAKER: Just like my dogs I'm fond of. They can't force me to shoot an animal. I won't do it. I refuse to do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS SQUEALING)
COLLISON: At some point, people started to worry that guns might be used on more than just pigs. One DNR employee told us that she was afraid for her physical safety after Mike Adams's blog compared the DNR to horse thieves, which, according to Adams, can be legally shot in Texas.
BAKER: Well, I didn't expect people to get this riled up.
COLLISON: Mark Baker.
BAKER: But they have the right to get riled up.
STATE SENATOR DARWIN BOOHER: If you threaten my livelihood, you threaten feeding my family tonight, eventually something is going to happen.
COLLISON: Darwin Booher is Mark Baker's state senator and is fighting the order.
BOOHER: My father would have never stood for it. He would have backed them out of there. And I know there will be somebody like him - sooner than later most likely. And that's scary because I don't want that to happen.
COLLISON: The only way all this may be resolved is in court. Mark Baker's lawsuit against the Michigan DNR has been joined with four other cases. The combined suit is just now getting underway. Ultimately, if a judge rules in Baker's favor, the invasive species order could be thrown out. As many states in the South have learned the hard way, the results could be devastating.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: A little quarter-sized piece of meat is the cured tenderloin.
COLLISON: But in a food fight, where a state agency is pitted against slow-cooked specialty pork shoulder, you can guess who the fan favorite is. And the moral of this story may very well be that it's better to eat a pig than to wrestle one. Mark Baker.
BAKER: This is what I do for a living. It took me many years of my life to get to the point where I know how to do what I'm doing and I'm able to do it well. And now they're saying you got to get rid of them, like it's a good thing. It's not a good thing. So, if you're asking me is this is a hill to die on, darn right. You're darn right.
COLLISON: For NPR News, I'm Dan Collison.
BLOCK: That story was produced with Elizabeth Meister. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.