These wooly lard pigs were endangered; now they’re an Asheville-area camping attraction

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

At 500 pounds, a Mangalitsa boar can put you in a tree with a toss of its head. But Catherine Topel, who runs Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm in Waynesville, North Carolina, with her husband, Rick Topel, loves the wooly creatures.

Developed for Austrian royalty and revered for their lard and marbled meat, Mangalitsas were nevertheless rumored to be nearly extinct at one point. As recently as 1997, only 200 registered Mangalitsas were known to exist. Catherine Topel thinks it's the war on fat that nearly did the pigs in. "Lard breeds fell out of favor," she said. 

The Topels welcomed their first pigs to the farm in 2018, creating a niche product for local chefs who wanted to sell oversized tomahawk chops to well-heeled diners. 

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Mangalitsas require specialized feed, and it takes years before they're ready for market. When COVID closed dining rooms in 2020, the Topels were left with more than 100 expensive, hungry pigs no one wanted. 

"COVID absolutely decimated our business," Topel said.

Hungarian wooly pigs at Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm in Waynesville, North Carolina, May 12, 2022.

On a Zoom webinar, an area farmer also struggling during the pandemic mentioned Hipcamp, a website where outdoor enthusiasts can find unique and out-of-the-way places to camp. That farmer had earned $8,000 in a year just by renting out campsites.

The Topels, who have 95 rolling acres with picturesque mountain views and a river roiling with bass, posted three campsites on Hipcamp's website. "And within five days, ping, ping, ping, people started reserving," Topel said. "I'm like, we've got to find more campsites."

Driveways wind through the Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm in Waynesville, North Carolina, May 12, 2022.

The Topels now have nine campsites and a couple of "glamping" tents equipped with soft beds, hammocks, battery-operated lanterns and gas grills. There's a knoll perfect for an RV. On a high hill with panoramic mountain views, a deluxe cabin is under construction. It's all available through Hipcamp, or soon will be.

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Topel said Hipcamp didn't exactly save her farm — she and her husband, who have worn many hats including as yacht captains, would have figured something out. But agritourism may have saved the Mangalitsas. 

Donkeys graze in a pasture at Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm in Waynesville, North Carolina May 12, 2022.

During the pandemic, bottlenecks at processing plants meant farmers couldn't get meat to market, even if they could find buyers. "But they couldn't keep feeding (their animals)," Topel said. "There was no market for them, so they had to cut their losses."

The Topels bought extra meat freezers and began searching high and low for wholesale or retail markets. 

"And when we made our first $1,000 (through Hipcamp), I said, 'Oh my god, that's a ton of feed,'" Topel said. "We just paid for a ton of feed. So what I've tried to tell every visitor is, 'You are directly supporting this farm.... It's going straight into this animal's mouth.'"

Now, the Topels have close to 30 pigs but have plans to grow the herd. A healthy sow can produce up to 10 quality piglets a year, Topel said.

Since its launch, Hipcamp has helped more than 6 million people find a campsite, opening up more than 4 million mostly agricultural acres for camping. That means more revenue for farmers enduring record-setting production costs, said Hipcamp founder Alyssa Ravasio.

A campsite along the Pigeon River at Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm in Waynesville, North Carolina May 12, 2022.

"The price of fuel, fertilizer and machinery is soaring, and we’ve literally had farmers say that Hipcamp is getting them through when their other businesses aren’t profitable," she said. 

One such farmer is Maryland native Jeremy Willet, who began using Hipcamp to welcome campers to Willet Family Farm in 2019.

According to Ravasio, he now averages $1,000-2,000 a month from camping reservations. Using the data from his farm stay bookings, Willet secured a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hire his first farm employee, Ravasio said. 

In southwest Georgia, Black farmers are also opening up their farms to agritourism with hopes of gaining revenue and, perhaps more importantly, exposure.

New Communities Inc. is a historic organization founded during the civil rights movement to support Black farmers through community land trusts. It's located on a 1,600-acre former plantation, now a working Black-owned farm and event space called Resora. It's featured as part of a new collection of experiences available on Airbnb.

David Mahlik, of Madison, Alabama, fishes in the Pigeon River near his campsite at Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm in Waynesville, North Carolina May 12, 2022.

"Here, in this area, people used to get kicked off the land owned by white farmers," said New Communities co-founder Shirley Sherrod, who has made protecting Black farmers her life's work. "So as a result of that, we decided we would try to build a community."

The number of Black-owned farms has dwindled from 15 million acres in 1810 to less than 2 million, Sherrod said, while financial support for Black farmers has also dwindled.

Agritourism is a way to bring not only much-needed revenue to Black-owned farms, but also raise awareness of the historic and present-day needs of farming communities.

"People coming in bring an economic opportunity, but they also take the word out," Sherrod said. "That, you know, there are these people down there, they're raising bees and they're making honey."

Campsites at Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa farm along the Pigeon River in Waynesville, North Carolina.

From zero to $90K

The power of word of mouth can't be underestimated. 

Topel thinks that's especially the case as outdoor exploration and even full-time nomadic living booms, a sort of genie the pandemic released from the bottle. There's no putting it back, she said. 

As recently as 1997, there were only 200 registered Mangalitsa pigs in the United States. Developed for Austrian royalty and revered for their lard and marbled meat, they were nevertheless rumored to be nearly extinct.

At least 20% of the people she meets camping on her land travel full-time, especially those living in RVs.

"They've put everything they own into storage, they're homeschooling their kids, they have more control over their time," she said. "Freedom is a hard thing to relinquish, and I don't see that people are going to give that up easily."

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David Mahlik, an avid hiker from Alabama, said the pandemic made him a Hipcamp early adopter. Now he's a repeat visitor to Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm.

Taking advantage of an early-morning educational tour of the Mangalitsas, who remained safely ensconced in their flora-filled pens, Mahlik recalled the cabins he used to visit with his family annually in Walden, Colorado. 

A driveway winds through the Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm in Waynesville, North Carolina May 12, 2022.

"I just texted my parents and said, 'I think I found the next Walden,'" he said.

Other campers are equally as charmed by the honking geese who settle on the misty river in the morning, the braying miniature donkeys and the opportunity to see especially interesting domestic pigs at home on a working farm. 

As they learn more about the pigs and how they live,  campers also become interested in buying meat. It all adds up, Topel said. 

"We went from zero in 2020," she said. "With the camping revenue and the extras including selling the meat, it ended up being a $90,000 year. And I'd say $48,000 of that was just camping."

Agritourism is what will keep the farm resilient, she said. "At least it keeps that level of panic down in the dark of night," Topel said. 

More about Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa at www.smokymangapig.com.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com