PENDER, Neb. -- Leon and Tami Svoboda beam while talking about the unique, hairy pigs they raise at their farm near Pender.
Leon Svoboda, a third-generation farmer with decades of experience in hog husbandry, began raising the rare "Mangalitsa" breed in 2014. The family's farm, ELTEE Mangalitsa's LLC (ELTEE is a riff on LT, the first initials of Leon and Tami's names), began with a boar and four sows.
Today they have roughly 100 head.
Svoboda's fascination with Mangalitsas began about seven years ago, when he read about the breed in a magazine. Around that time, he had decided he "wanted to make some changes to our operation."
"I kept going back to this article about the pigs," Svoboda said. The couple acquired their first pigs from an acquaintance.
"We wanted to maintain our independence, and smaller producers are kind of going away, unless you want to feed for a bigger producer, and we wanted to maintain our independence and be more sustainable," he said. He calls the Mangalitsa a "niche market," though he concedes "there's not an established market in the United States for Mangalitsa."
Mangalitsas are believed to date back to 19th century Austria-Hungary, according to Mangalitza International, an association of Mangalitsa growers (Mangalitza is an alternate spelling). The fatty, wooly pigs enjoyed their peak of popularity during the late 19th and early 20th century, but their population dwindled after World War II.
"They were derived from wild boar populations," Leon Svoboda said. With their dark hairy appearance, the ELTEE pigs do bear a resemblance to wild boars, though with a friendlier temperament -- Tami went so far as to call them "lovable."
"We really like this breed the best out of all of them," she said.
Both Svobodas emphasize the purity of the line -- it appears their Mangalitsas are as close to pedigreed as any hog can be.
"Our pigs are 100 percent, pure-bred Mangalitsa," Tami Svoboda said.
Without an easy route to market, the Svobodas take their pigs to be processed at the Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. in Hermann, Missouri, and sell their meats at the Aksarben Village Farmers Market in Omaha on Sundays.
The ELTEE product line includes Mangalitsa bacon, various types of brats, franks, breakfast sausages, lard, ribs, pork chops, loins and ground pork. Tami Svoboda even makes a "body balm" from the lard -- she perfected the recipe in their kitchen.
"They have way more fat, so their meat is darker like beef; it's not pink or light-colored like commercial pork, and there's way more marbling because they have more fat," Leon Svoboda said. "And so, there's more flavor."
Tami Svoboda said the Mangalitsas' plentiful fat is a "monounsaturated fat," which she said is healthier to consume.
Compared to more conventional breeds, it takes far longer to grow Mangalitsas (they feed them for 18 months to two years before going to market), and their fertility rate is lower. On the plus side, market-ready Mangalitsas weigh in at a hefty 350 to 375 pounds, considerably heavier than most breeds raised commercially.
As independent producers of an unusual type of pig, the Svobodas are on their own in the matter of marketing their product. But there have been some bright spots -- a culinary school in Omaha has taken a shine to ELTEE's products, and the Nebraska Wienery has been selling their sausages during the College World Series in Omaha.
And a Peruvian visitor, Rolando Luna, looked around the farm Thursday to see if there was a way to market the pigs in Peru.
"The hardest part for us has been marketing," Leon Svoboda said.