UNITY — A breed of rare pig recently thought to be extinct is becoming a lot less rare in central Maine with the recent birth of nine piglets at Unity College.

Just about 10 days old, but already weighing more than five pounds, the tiny black American guinea hog piglets snuggled up to their mother, Luna, in a pen at the college barn on a recent afternoon.

They’re the newest addition to Unity’s sustainable livestock program, which also includes two San Clemente Island goats born earlier this spring, and several rabbits and sheep — all heritage breeds that serve the dual purpose of stabilizing endangered populations and stocking the college cafeteria.

The pigs’ mother, Luna, who came to the barn in late April, is so big her belly drags on the ground while Lurch, the father, basked in the sun outside the barn. The piglets wandered around the pen and lay together in a big pile.

“We’re really hoping that some of these guys become breeders,” said Megan Anderson, farm manager at Unity College. “As people hear about the quality of the meat, hopefully more people will be intrigued, including restaurateurs and local farmers.”

The American guinea hog is a heritage breed — in other words a traditional American breed in danger of becoming extint. The population of the breed was as low as 1,267 at the end of 2013. They are valued for the marble quality and high fat content of their meat, which makes it good for some cured pork dishes and can lend more flavor.

But the meat isn’t the only value of the breed — four of the piglets are destined for Blackbird Rise farm in Palermo, where they will be used as foragers to reclaim an acre of abandoned raspberry field.

One is being adopted by an employee at the college and a sixth will be adopted by a woman in Burnham. The remaining three piglets are still for sale — the price per piglet is $150 — and if they aren’t sold they will be raised for meat at the Unity College cafeteria, said Anderson.

Meanwhile, the college is working on getting another adult sow to introduce genetic diversity in the farm, a hands-on learning project that started in the fall of 2013.

American guinea hogs can breed up to twice a year, and a typical litter has between six and 10 piglets, according to Jeanette Beranger, research and technology program manager for The Livestock Conservancy, a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve heritage breeds like the American guinea hog.

Heritage breeds are traditional breeds that have fallen out of favor — in the case of the guinea hog, the decline of the population is attributed to the tendency of early American homesteaders to cross-breed swine and a modern trend toward eating leaner meat.

In order for swine to be considered heritage, they must be purebred, currently or at one point endangered and have an established breeding history in the United States dating back to at least 1925.

In 2004, American guinea hogs were believed to be extinct, until conservationists found a single farm in Georgia where there were fewer than 50 of the rare pigs. As of 2006, there were only 75 in the world, but a concentrated effort by livestock management groups and the growth in popularity of guinea hog meat have contributed to its resurgence.

Because of the rapid growth, there is some concern about inbreeding and the potential for genetic mutation, and so experts recommend breeding only about 20 percent of the pigs from a litter, said Beranger.

As with other pigs, the best traits in a guinea hog include straight legs, broad shoulders and a good, strong back.

Personality also plays a role.

“They’re typically supposed to be really laid-back nice pigs and they’re supposed to be able to get along with each other,” said Beranger. “They’re a delightful breed. I kept them for many years and they were always the easiest breed to care for.”

Guinea hogs are prone to obesity, which means they need to be monitored on the amount of feed they’re getting. That can be a good thing, though, said farmer Daniel MacPhee, owner of Blackbird Rise farm in Palermo, who recently purchased four of the Unity College piglets and plans to save money on hog feed.

MacPhee plans to use the guinea hogs, who are known as very aggressive foragers, to turn over an abandoned raspberry patch that has become overgrown with brush on his farm. The focus of the farm is actually on organic seed crops and grafted fruit trees, and MacPhee and his family are almost completely vegetarian, but he said they chose to buy the pigs rather than invest in new farm equipment.

“We really were looking for something to help reclaim a section of our farm,” said MacPhee, 35. “We figured we could buy pigs or we could go buy another piece of equipment and it seemed like the pigs will do a better job and be cheaper in the long run.”

The pigs won’t get to the farm until at least late July, when they’ll be old enough to leave their mother. The three piglets that don’t have homes yet will stay at the college and will be raised for meat if they don’t sell, said Anderson. For now, she said they are enjoying life on the farm.

“They’re healthy little guys and they’re growing really quickly,” she said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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