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Alexander Minaev via Wikimedia Commons
Alexander Minaev via Wikimedia Commons

8 Farms That Specialize in Unusual Agriculture

Alexander Minaev via Wikimedia Commons
Alexander Minaev via Wikimedia Commons

When asked to think of a stereotypical farm, these aren’t the places most people would picture. Leeches, jewelry, and spider silkgoat’s milk are just a few of the items being cultivated on these funny farms.

1. SPIDER-GOAT FARM

To outside observers, this farm run by Utah State University may resemble a run-of-the-mill dairy goat operation. But the milk produced by the goats at this facility contains something very special: super-strong spider silk. Spiders produce one of the strongest materials on earth, but farming them in large quantities has proven to be a challenge over the years. To solve this problem, researchers turned to a familiar farm animal for help. The spider-goats are just like regular goats, except for the fact that their DNA has been modified with the gene of a golden orb spider. After the goats are milked, the spider silk protein is extracted and used to make things like incredibly tough body armor, fishing line, or artificial ligaments and tendons.

2. (INSANELY) HOT PEPPER FARM

PuckerButt Pepper Company via Facebook

The products Ed Currie grows on his South Carolina farm are not for the faint of heart. Of all his specialty hot pepper crops, one in particular stands out: the Carolina Reaper. It holds the distinction of being not only the hottest pepper on the farm, but the hottest in the world. The pepper, which was bred by crossing a Pakastani Naga with a Red Habanero, can reach up to 2.2 million Scoville heat units. To give that some perspective, a jalapeño measures in at 5000 units and pepper spray at around 2 million. The Carolina Reaper first gained notoriety in 2011 when an NPR reporter “ate a small piece of the pepper, rolled around on the floor, hallucinated and then shared his experiences with the national media,” according to Currie's website. It was awarded the Guinness World Record for World’s Hottest Chili two years later.

3. PEARL FARM

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Pearls form when an irritant finds its way inside an oyster and becomes coated with the mineral substances that make up its shell. Instead of just opening wild oysters at random and hoping for the best, pearl farmers have come up with a way to expedite this process. On pearl farms like Kamoka Pearl—which is located on Ahe, a French Polynesian atoll—oysters are kept in protective nets or baskets hung on lines anchored off shore. When an oyster is large enough, a worker will pry open its shell and slip in a bead or “nucleus” for the pearl to form around. Even though most pearls are farmed in places like Japan, China, Australia, and Tahiti, the nucleuses are traditionally made from the shells of mussels [PDF] from the Mississippi River basin, which are the ideal size and thickness for pearl-growing.

4. EDIBLE BIRD’S NEST FARM

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Bird’s nest soup—literally soup made from the nests of swiftlet birds—is considered a rare delicacy in parts of Asia. Diners are willing to shell out up to $100 for a taste of the stuff, which is essentially just a bowl of bird spit. The nests are traditionally harvested from high atop the walls of caves, but many people are beginning to find more resourceful ways to collect them. In Indonesia, multistory buildings in urban areas are being modified to house swiftlet bird farms. The upper stories of the buildings are riddled with entrance holes, and swiftlet song recordings, insects attractants, and certain scents are used to draw wild birds in. While many see swiftlet farms as the answer to the industry’s over-harvesting problem, their urban locations may be a health hazard to residents nearby.

5. PIZZA FARM

Sadly, these farms don’t actually grow pizza like the name suggests. They do, however, specialize in all the ingredients needed to assemble a pizza from scratch. Most pizza farms produce their own herbs, wheat, tomatoes, and dairy, and some even go so far as to grow the timber for their wood-burning ovens. And in case their theme isn’t obvious enough, some farms divide their crops into “slices” to resemble a pizza pie from above. If you’re interested in visiting one of these places, there are several pizza farms in the Midwest where agrotourists can go to enjoy homemade pizza made with ingredients sourced from the property.

6. MOOSE FARM

Alexander Minaev via Wikimedia Commons

Attempting to milk a moose sounds like a recipe for disaster. But in Russia, there’s an entire farm dedicated to sourcing dairy from these antlered behemoths. The farm opened in 1963 with two calves, and has since fostered over 800 moose. Today, Sumarokovo Moose Farm provides milk to the nearby Ivan Susanin Sanatorium, where it's used as a treatment for peptic ulcers and other conditions. The milk contains an enzyme that’s believed by some to kill ulcer-producing bacteria (but according to many doctors, milk might actually make ulcers worse). For anyone looking to see a 600-plus-pound moose get milked in person, the Sumarokovo Moose Farm is open to tourists.

7. CACTUS FARM

Michiel via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The harsh, southwestern desert doesn’t seem like an ideal place buy farmland—unless, of course, you’re planning to grow cacti. In addition to being the spiny plants we all associate with the Old West, they’re also a lucrative crop. Nopales, a.k.a. prickly pears, were the sixth most popular vegetable in Mexico in 2007, accounting for $150 million in sales. Farms like Red Rock Ranch in California and in Bach’s Cactus Nursery in Arizona both have cacti crops that span several acres.

8. LEECH FARM

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Medicine has come a long way since the days when leeches were considered a cure-all by doctors. Still, many parts of the world continue to practice leech therapy as a common treatment for a variety of conditions. To meet demand for the bloodsuckers, there are facilities around the world dedicated to breeding, hatching, and raising the animals. The International Medical Leech Center near the Russian capital of Moscow produces up to 3 million leeches a year. According to the LA Times, the operation once provided the leeches Joseph Stalin used to treat his headaches and depression. Fortunately for them, the dictator responded well to the treatment and the farm remained open.

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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