Pork processing’s local roots date back four centuries

Published 4:43 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Editor’s note: This begins a four-part series on the origins of the century-old hog slaughter industry in Smithfield.

When Smithfield Foods shuttered the kill floor at its one remaining Smithfield processing plant last fall, it ended an industrial tradition that began here nearly a century earlier and had roots that ran much deeper than that.

And yet, while the story of the legendary Virginia and Smithfield hams has been told and retold, glamorized and often mythologized, the less glamorous but altogether essential story of how the town became a major center of pork slaughter and processing is not so well known.

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Smithfield’s place in the story of pork began nearly four centuries ago, on the tiny farms then being carved from woodlands in rural Isle of Wight, Nansemond and Surry counties during the early days of English colonization. That’s when hogs were first brought to Virginia by English colonists.

These imported European animals were often loosely penned or left to forage at will. They were then rounded up and slaughtered by colonists for food. Their introduction and breeding in the Virginia colony represented a simple fact. Pork is a valuable source of protein, but if you’re going to eat bacon, a hog has to die.

Another important fact is that hogs convert what they eat to meat much more efficiently than do cattle. Thus, to practical-minded colonists, they represented a very efficient means of obtaining large quantities of protein.

During the next two-and-a-half centuries, farmers perfected the raising, slaughter, butchering and preservation of pork. Along the way, enterprising men saw what these farmers were doing as a potential for business.

Capt. Mallory Todd bought hams from farmers, then shipped them out of Virginia in what we now view as the first commercial sale of Smithfield Hams. Thus a fledgling partnership between ham packer and farmer was born.

History continued to change this emerging industry. During the Civil War, northern soldiers stationed in Virginia came to appreciate peanuts, widely known as “goober peas.” When the war ended, their taste for peanuts didn’t.

Nature has a way of taking advantage of conditions, and it just so happened that Southeast Virginia had the right climate and soil to not only grow peanuts, but very big ones — peanuts that would come to be known as the Virginia variety, the ballpark peanut. Isle of Wight, Surry, Southampton and Nansemond and northeastern North Carolina became known as the Virginia Peanut Belt.

And while people loved Southeast Virginia’s peanuts, hogs loved them at least as much. Each fall, after digging their peanut crop, farmers who were looking for cheap food on which to fatten their hogs would turn a herd of them into peanut fields to forage for what was left, and in those days of primitive harvest methods, quite a large volume of peanuts was always left behind. It’s been estimated that 25% of the crop stayed in the ground after peanuts were dug.

It didn’t take many years for farmers and anyone else who ate the meat from these peanut-fattened hogs to realize that it was something special. The effect on salt-cured hams was especially noticeable and was a primary contributor to the idea that a Southeast Virginia or Smithfield Ham was far superior to anything else that could be purchased.

With hogs thus fattened, local farmers were ready for their annual hog kill, a traditional event that usually took place on farms in January. Hogs had to be slaughtered during the winter in order to chill the pork, which was more vulnerable to quick spoilage than was beef.

The hogs were butchered and much of the meat was laid down in salt to be cured and, in time, hung to be smoked to enrich flavor — and keep the flies at bay.

By the end of the 19th century, farmers were raising far more hogs than they needed, and an emerging partnership developed between farmers and small slaughterhouses, which were actually more like butcher shops — or, in today’s parlance, cut floors — that bought carcasses from farmers, processed them and cured the meat for resale or quickly sold it as fresh meat.

Within a few decades, the relationship between farmers and these slaughterhouses had become a major source of farm income and the underpinning of the slaughter industry that would emerge during the 1930s and ’40s.

Read the second part here: Public demand for safe food leads to national changes.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.