Breeding Kunekune pigs fits like a glove for Hand
WASHINGTON — For most of the last two decades, Amanda Hand has been a typical military spouse, moving her family every two years or so when her husband, Jason, was relocated.
But after 21 years of service with the U.S. Navy, Jason retired, transitioning to a new career as a contractor at the Navy Yard in Washington.
The job brought the couple to Maryland and gave Amanda a chance to put down roots for her family and start the farm she’d always talked about.
“I loved every place we lived. But I said wherever we end up, I wanted land,” Amanda said.
The Hands settled in Calvert County, Md., and Amanda started Mkono Farm, an 8-acre operation that’s just a stone’s throw away from the Patuxent River.
The farm name holds special meaning. Mkono is Swahili for hand — the couple’s last name.
It’s taken from the phrase “Mkono wa Bwana” which means “Hand of God,” a greeting that Jason frequently heard when he was stationed in Kenya.
Jason and Amanda have five children, three of whom are adopted from Uganda.
“It’s sort of a play on words,” Amanda said. “The (farm’s) name had to mean something.”
As intentional as Amanda was in naming the farm, she was also very careful about what type of business she started.
Amanda grew up on farms and ranches in Idaho and Texas. Her father raised cattle and quarter horses.
She liked the idea of working with livestock and considered a variety of options before ultimately settling on a breed of pigs from New Zealand called Kunekune.
Pronounced “cooney cooney,” the heritage breed pigs are relatively small in size and characteristically docile in nature.
“We bought our first four pigs from a farm in Virginia and within days I was in love and soon after we were buying more,” Amanda said.
She said Kunekune pigs grow much more slowly than their commercial counterparts.
According to the American Kunekune Pig Society, females average 100 to 175 pounds, while males can reach 250 pounds or more.
Amanda said it takes about 14 months to raise one of her pigs to market size.
But she added that the feed conversion ratio is much better in Kunekunes than commercial breeds.
“They’re good to the land,” Hand said. “Even in high traffic areas, we see that the pasture bounces back quickly after they’re moved.”
Amanda Hand raises her pigs on pasture in a rotational grazing system.
They also get a custom feed mix that she helped develop with a Mennonite farmer in Anne Arundel County.
She’s involved with the American Kunekune Pig Society and American Kunekune Breeders Association to contribute information about her pigs to improve bloodlines and production traits, such as feed conversion.
Amanda said it’s the nature of the pigs that got her hooked.
“They have amazing personalities and they’re good on the land,” she said. “They’re a lot like dogs, just gentle and loving. They’re very easy to get along with.”
Amanda said her favorite thing to do is sit with the pigs in the field. They love to be scratched and petted and interact with people.
She has about 60 pigs on the farm, including nine breeding sows and three boars.
The pigs are primarily raised for meat. Amanda sells Kunekune pork at farmers’ markets or at the farm.
She said the meat has been incredibly popular and she gets compliments on the flavor.
“We can’t keep it in stock,” she said. “We’re basically harvesting on demand. The meat doesn’t sit in the freezer for long. I can literally tell people that this bacon was living in the field a couple weeks ago.”
Bacon and pork chops are the most popular cuts, Amanda said. The chorizo sausage also sells well and she’s had success introducing people to pork jowls.
“It’s a lot of education and sometimes we give special cuts away just to get people to try them,” she said.
Amanda said even though demand for the meat is high, she’s not looking to make any major expansion.
“We’re at a comfortable size right now,” she said.
Amanda homeschools her youngest four children who range in age from 10 to 14.
Her oldest son, 17, is a freshman at Liberty University.
Butchering the pigs is the hardest part of the business, Amanda said.
“I call it harvesting,” she said. “We really are harvesting all of the hard work, energy and love we put into these animals.”
Amanda said it also has been difficult to integrate with the farming community in Maryland.
“It’s a challenge being the new person. Everyone has been here and knows one another. It hasn’t been as easy as I hoped,” she said.
But Amanda said she’s gotten used to being the new person.
“Being a military wife taught me how to be resilient. I’ve learned how to deal with people and had to push past being uncomfortable,” she said.
The resiliency has helped her on the farm and it’s a trait she’s seen reflected back to her by her mentors in agriculture.
“You have to be strong to be a person in agriculture. All of my mentors are women. There is a strong female influence in the Kunekune world,” she said.
Amanda also sells her pigs as breeding stock but she’s careful about selling pigs as pets.
“We’ve sold a few as pets, but we’re really selective. It has to be the right situation. They are livestock and we don’t want them to go to places where people realize they can’t take care of them,” Amanda said.
Because of their docile nature, a couple pigs also have been sold as therapy animals.
She said the work she does is difficult at times, but ultimately rewarding.
“I bring a lot of compassion to this business. I care deeply about the animals. I know every single one of their names,” Amanda said.
“I can look someone in the eye and say I loved this animal before it went on the truck to be harvested. And there are people who really appreciate that,” she said.