Raising Miss Daisy

KuneKunes were once endangered, but now this exceptionally social breed of pig from New Zealand is thriving in Virginia. 

Red Roof KuneKunes raises 50-60 piglets per year.  

Photo by Sam Dean 

Daisy isn’t moving when I arrive at the shady six-acre farm on Trents Ferry Road in Bedford County. But I can’t blame her. When you’re 300 pounds of pig and it’s already 100 degrees at 11 a.m. on a lightning bright July day, no one should expect you to offer any great show of enthusiasm. Instead, lying on her side in a shallow mudhole, Miss Daisy snorts languidly once or twice and splashes some of the red clay water my way in reply to my greeting. 

“Helloooo Daisy,” coos Caroline Malott, proprietress of the farm, coaxing the sow to get up-—to no avail. 

As Malott sweet-talks Daisy (“Aren’t you pretty!”), a huddle of piglets hears her voice and rockets from a patch of shade toward her, wiggling and tumbling over each other in a riot of giggling squeals. Seeing Malott means it is time for lunch. And a belly scratch.

Daisy and her litter are part of Malott’s herd of KuneKunes (pronounced koon-ee koon-ees), a once nearly extinct domesticated pig from New Zealand that was kept by the Maori people starting around the 1800s. Today, Kunes are thriving in Virginia and across the country, their popularity steadily rising thanks to a small group of breeders like Malott who have sung the praises of these extremely social creatures and extolled them as perhaps the perfect porcine companion. If you haven’t heard of KuneKunes before, this is the pig to know. 

By the late 1970s, the purebred Kune population had dwindled to fewer than 50, according to a history published by the New Zealand KuneKune Association (there is no concensus regarding their origin, though they may have been introduced to New Zealand by whalers). A conservation program was begun and the breed was first exported to the U.K. in 1992, and the U.S. in 1996. Kune stock has since been imported into the U.S. just a handful of times, but their numbers are growing: In the U.S. today there are around 7,000 registered purebred Kunes, estimates Kathy Petersen, president of the American KuneKune Pig Society, based in Dinwiddie County. 

“They’re so sweet and docile, even the boars,” says the 44-year-old Malott, who grew up on a farm nearby on Coffee Road. Grazers that fatten on grass alone, their short snouts prevent them from rooting, and unlike other breeds of pigs, they are not known to test fences. These qualities, combined with a maximum size of about 300 pounds, intelligence and a fondness—nay, need—for companionship (they do not thrive alone) make them loyal pets, excellent garden tenants and a great breed for showing.  

Malott, with her husband Mike, began breeding Kunes about three years ago. They started out with a single boar and sow as well as two barrows (neutered males). Once they bred a litter, Malott says she was hooked. “It’s addictive,” laughs the mother of three, ages 24, 21 and 14. The couple’s business, Red Roof KuneKunes, named for the bright red metal roof on their c. 1798 farmhouse, now raises 50-60 piglets per year from the dozen or so purebred boars and sows on their property. The piglets fetch around $400 each for barrows, and up to $1,500 for homesteading and breeding stock (sows, boars and gilts—females that have not yet farrowed).

But for Malott, raising Kunes isn’t all business. Proceeds from the sales of her pigs usually get turned around and put back into the operation, in the form of a new fence, say, or a barn repair. “It’s not about the money. I just love it, the giving birth, raising the piglets, they just love you,” she explains. And the feeling is mutual: “I cry,” says Malott, “with every one of them, I cry when they leave.”

But, she confides, “I won’t sell them to just anybody. If I feel like someone is just going to throw them in a field, I won’t do it.” Though it was her brother who first introduced her to the breed about four years ago in an effort to lift her out of a funk after her beloved pot belly pig Petunia passed away, even he hasn’t been able to get her to let him have one. “Well, he just doesn’t have the fencing or the proper barn yet,” she laughs, “but I’m sure he’ll get one someday.” 

Malott’s customers come from all over the U.S., as far away as Oregon and California. She says they have bought her Kunes for a variety of reasons: to use as therapy animals or pets, to harvest, to breed and show, and even, once, to add to a collection at a zoo.

As part of the requirements for registering her stock with the AKKPS, Malott sends hair samples from all of her piglets to the University of California at Davis for DNA testing to verify purebred bloodlines. She micro-chips all of her pigs, and vaccinates piglets at five and seven weeks (Malott says they have to lock Mama sows out of the barn during this process because they get “so mad and their screams are ear piercing”). She vaccinates and gives deworming shots to her adult stock every six months, and insists that pigs sold as pets be spayed or neutered before they leave the farm: “If you sell an unaltered pig they could be bred, and then there will be unregistered Kunes out there. What does that do to the rest of us who do it right?” 

Malott is currently serving a two-year term on the AKKPS board of directors, as its treasurer. Founded in 2012 by Kathy Petersen, a mentor to Malott who has bred Kunes herself for about five years, the AKKPS has 281 registered member breeders in the U.S., with 13 in Virginia. (There is a second Kune registry in the U.S.—the American KuneKune Pig Registry, based in Norco, California, that was founded in 2006 and has 244 members, 12 in Virginia.)

Red Roof Kune Kune owner Caroline Malott with some of her pigs. 

Photo by Sam Dean 

Though Kunes are so social—Petersen says that she trusts even the full-grown boars to be alone with her nine-year-old granddaughter—she estimates that about 30 percent are raised in the U.S. to be harvested. (Malott doesn’t harvest her pigs.) The word KuneKune in the Maori language means “fat and round,” which, says Petersen, is what makes their meat sweet and fork tender. Though KuneKune meat is not yet sold commercially, it is sold directly from farms like Perennial Roots in Accomac on the Eastern Shore, and at farmers’ markets.

Around midday, as the sun takes up position directly overhead and all signs of movement—even from the gleeful pack of piglets—cease, Malott and I start to walk away from the field when a lone Kune spots her, and takes off at a gallop. 

“Oh, that’s just Colin,” she laughs. When the cream-colored barrow with the distinctive Kune wattle—tufts of hair attached to his chin—reaches us, he flops down on the grass with his legs splayed out and his head rolled back, waiting for Malott to scratch his belly. As she does, he smiles, exposing a couple of snaggly lower teeth. Really, who could resist?  

Malott tells me Colin’s mother laid on his nose when he was a piglet, misshaping it so that he will never meet conformation standards for showing. Plus, she whispers, turning her head away while still scratching and sending him even deeper into his moment of bliss, “He’s, you know, not quite all there.” 

But, that’s ok, she adds as the pig grins even wider. “He’ll always have a home here.” RedRoofKuneKune.com

This article originally appeared in our Oct. 2016 issue.

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