Trapping, processing, marketing at Three Suns Ranch
A trailer stirs a cloud of dust as a trapper hauls a dozen wild pigs across the largest bison ranch in the Southeast. Sliced in half by a slough running north to south, the 16,000-acre operation stretches 5 miles deep across flat ground. Three Suns Ranch in Punta Gorda, Fla., is taking advantage of agriculture’s wild pig scourge and feeding a hungry market.
Producer Keith Mann is slaughtering, processing and selling wild pig meat on his south Florida operation, all signed and sealed by USDA. The supply stream is often unsteady, but Mann will never run out of stock: Florida has at least 500,000 wild pigs inflicting millions of dollars in damages to agriculture each year. He is taking a major ranching and farming problem and turning wild pigs into profit.
Originally from Rhode Island, Mann, 37, a former Green Beret with three Afghanistan tours notched in his belt, is a ranching maverick. In 2012, he initially bought 5,729 acres outside of Punta Gorda with the intention to produce locally raised, grass-fed cattle. In 2013, USDA made a clarification on wild pigs, moving them from a non-amenable species to the domestic hog category, opening a door for Mann to process and bring wild pigs to market. His target customers are northern transplants on the west Florida coast who have never seen a wild pig, but they’ll reach into deep pockets for the rich flavor of wild pork.
First glance opposition came from the seemingly unlikely source of local trappers who doubted the market possibility. When Mann started putting cash on the barrelhead, the pushback died as trappers began hauling in loads of wild pigs, and the incoming porcine traffic hasn’t stopped.
Florida law prohibits wild pig transport unless the carrier is traveling to a certified holding site or a certified slaughter facility. Once trappers arrive on Three Suns’ property, even while on a trailer, wild pigs fall under USDA humane handling guidelines. The trailers are backed to a holding pen and unloaded before Mann’s crew counts and visually estimates weight (typically 80 lb. to 100 lb.). Mann has a license to receive and hold wild pigs, and he pays cash on the spot. There is an element of risk in the all-or-none purchase: By Florida law, if Mann buys a single wild pig from a load, he is required to buy the entire bunch.
“Once the animals are in our care, the clock starts ticking,” he says. “They immediately begin to drop weight and we’ve got to get them processed within a couple of days.” Three Suns has an
USDA-inspected slaughter facility in which Mann processes beef, bison and wild pigs. Florida doesn’t have a wild pig state inspection program; domestic pigs and wild pigs are processed and labeled according to the same rules. However, Mann marks his labels to distinguish the meat as wild pork.
When Mann began processing wild pigs, he was already selling bison meat and had a unique sales approach in place. He hit the coastal road, and introduced restaurant customers to a product they’d never tasted. “We thought the market was ready and knew a lot of chefs would be interested. People instantly recognize the meat is packed with awesome flavor,” he says.
Butts and backstraps are easy sells, but Mann needs to move the entire animal to be profitable. He’s on a constant vigil for new customers and outlets. “As a producer, I can never, never afford to sit back,” he says. “I don’t stop looking for opportunity, but it’s just the same way I treat my beef and bison products.”
Mann is also challenged by stuttering supply, according to season and wild pig movement. His wild pig intake can drop to a trickle in the dead of summer and quickly change to a fall torrent of more than 100 pigs a week. In tandem with purchases, Mann traps at Three Suns when sounders of wild pigs migrate in and root up pasture land. “We trap every pig we can off our own land,” he explains. “It keeps the pigs from tearing up our ground and we get to process them for free.”
Peter Madsen manages a 1,200-acre cattle ranch close to Three Suns in Charlotte County, and in a single night, a small sounder can easily root 1' deep across 20 square yards of pasture on his operation. Once the grass is turned, weeds take over the section and degrade forage, forcing Madsen to till and reseed grass. But despite Madsen’s patchwork efforts, he’s lost pasture areas to dogfennel—directly due to wild pig damage.
Madsen uses a permanent pen to trap wild pigs closest to his farm buildings and lots. Shooting wild pigs draws coyotes to the carcasses, so he loads captured pigs on a trailer for a trip to Three Suns. “We’re taking something destructive and make something useful,” Madsen says. “Anyone likes getting paid, but it’s so much more than money. I love the concept of having an option, and I’d rather the pigs be used for something purposeful.”
Mann could sell every wild pig processed if he had market access. Even foreign markets in Europe and Asia would be an option, provided Mann could control volume. Jack Mayer, manager of the Environmental Sciences and Biotechnology Group at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., is presently compiling wild pig numbers for USDA. He estimates the total U.S. wild pig population at 6.3 million, with a possible range of 4 million to 11 million.
Yet, a booming wild pig population doesn’t equate with an efficient system of trapping and delivery. The farther away the animals travel for delivery, the more expensive the chain becomes for all involved. “Frankly, I don’t see a demand ceiling if we could maintain a supply chain of wild pigs,” Mann says.
Mann also points to the lack of young trappers as a future problem. Capturing live wild pigs in quantity involves far more than a decent trap: capital investment, vehicles, multiple trapping systems, bait, time, fuel and more. “Most wild pig trappers are older in age,” Mann says. “I don’t see many young people, but someone has to take up the mantle.”
With more than 100 wild pig meat-buying stations, Texas is far ahead of Florida in taking advantage of a unique market. Texas also has plenty of supply with the biggest wild pig population in the U.S.—2.6 million. Rusty Spannagel is plant manager for Southern Wild Game, a processing company located near San Antonio that buys wild pigs from farmers, ranchers and trappers across the state. “We process over 40,000 wild pigs each year,” he says. “We’re taking advantage of a major farm problem and helping agriculture at the same time.”
“Farmers love us for sure,” Mann echoes. “Wild pigs cause millions in damage every year and even a small dent in population is appreciated.”
A Rhode Island-raised bison rancher living in south Florida is unusual, but add in wild pig meat production and Mann is singularly unique. “All I had was an idea, but I surrounded myself with smart folks: cowboys, butchers and sharp sales people,” he says. “I’m truly grateful for every step of the journey.”