From Yacht Captain to Pig Farmer: Living the Dream

catherine and rick topel
Photo courtesy of Catherine Topel

“Honestly, it was a pork chop,” Catherine Topel, co-owner of Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa said, when asked what inspired her to stop captaining yachts and become a farmer. “On the yacht, we occasionally had celebrity chefs visit, and they would cook us these amazing dinners. I watched that pork chop get cooked on an open grill without ever being covered. And I couldn’t think what’d be more dry than a chop coming off an open grill. We cut into that pork chop with a fork. It was just incredible!”

Smoky Mountain Mangalista started in 2017, when Topel and her husband, Rick, traded the salt for the mud, leaving their jobs as yacht captains and purchasing 200 acres in the rolling hills of Western North Carolina. “We wanted to have our own canvas, create our own business,” explained Topel. “And we didn’t have too much of a picture of what that business might be.

“We just wanted the idea of owning land. And we have family in western North Carolina. It seemed like a good opportunity to do something entirely different.”

pigs in the field

Photo courtesy of Catherine Topel

The savory introduction to pigs bred for their fat, otherwise known as lard breeds, stayed with Topel, and she began her research. Soon, the couple discovered the Mangalitsa, a 200-year-old heirloom pig bred for Austro-Hungarian royalty. This rare pig is also covered with curly bristles, earning it the nickname “wooly pig.”

This layer of bristles, combined with the insulation from the abundant fat, makes them perfect to raise outside all year round, even in the cold winters of the Appalachian mountains. The Topels allow the Mangalitsa to range around their land. “We’re encouraging natural behaviors,” said Topel. “We let them root. We give them a big hole; we’ve got holes that are three feet deep that these pigs go into to wallow.”

Of course, happy pigs produce good eats. The lard from these wooly pigs can be used like butter, and the Topels often spread it directly on crackers. Also, the heritage breed is valued by high-end chefs for both the lard and the meat. Recently, Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa shipped two of their animals especially for the 2022 Florida Michelin Star Guide unveiling dinner.

pigs up close

Photo courtesy of Catherine Topel

The popularity of the local food movement led to the bulk of their sales being made to high-end restaurants. However, when the pandemic caused those restaurants to close, orders dried up, and the Topel’s had to pivot. While participating in a webinar, Topel learned about HipCamp, a company that linked campers and available land, like Airbnb except for camping. She signed up, and today outdoor enthusiasts flock to Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa to enjoy its rolling hills. She even leads guests on tours of the property, answering questions about the wooly pigs.

The Topels knew nothing about working the land when they began their journey. “We simply chose to take a sweeping chance at farming and had no previous experience,” said Topel.

“The agrarian lifestyle and joy in owning land was all that we needed to motivate us. We started our farm from scratch, built our Mangalitsa herd, farming and camping ventures all from the ground up.”

AUTHOR

LA Bourgeois

LA Bourgeois is a writer and creativity coach based in the southern food mecca of Asheville, North Carolina. Her enthusiastic embrace of food and business led her to run a cafe/bar and wine shop in Colorado for a little over a decade. Now, she uses her words to delight her readers and share her adventures at Housewyfe.com.

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