See photo set.
One topic of conversation that comes up often in our house is the fact that most people these days don’t know where the food they eat comes from – who grew it or how and where was it raised. My parents, who are now in their seventies, tell me it wasn’t always this way. Used to be one could go to the local butcher who cut the meat right in front of you, who not only knew all the cuts, but knew the farm or the ranch where that meat came from. Over the years, this has changed. Most of us buy our meat already cut and packaged in plastic wrap at the supermarket. Gone are the corner butchers who would grind your hamburger meat fresh for you, or tell you the best way to cook the roast you just bought. Gone too are most small family farms. How many farmers do we know, by name?
Paul Willis, a pig farmer for Niman Ranch, and I met by chance at the Fancy Food Show earlier this year. During a lively discussion in which I expressed exasperation at our modern culture’s collective ignorance about where our food comes from, including my own, “I’ve never even been to a pig farm!,” Paul invited me to visit his. In Iowa. Paul has a rather disarmingly calm demeanor. An invitation from him is no casual “let’s do lunch sometime” but a real come visit the farm. Paul’s sparkly blue eyes must cast a hypnotic spell, because for the last 8 months or so, all I’ve really wanted to do was to visit the Willis farm.
A few weeks ago that opportunity arose. I hopped on a plane, flew to Des Moines, met up with food blogger buddy Alanna Kellogg and headed north to Thornton, Iowa.
Have any of you ever spent time on a pig farm? I didn’t know what to expect. Some people told me “Hold your nose!” And “Don’t wear your best clothes.” Completely unnecessary advice. Sturdy shoes were all that were required.
My first impression of the pigs as our caravan approached the farm was how curious they were. They ran out to meet us, as if to say “hey there, who are you?” As our afternoon unfolded, and we tromped out into the pasture with the younger pigs, that impression expanded to wonder at the joyful nature of these pigs. Paul’s pigs are indeed, happy pigs. They play, chase each other, munch on grass (30% of their diet is grass), frolic, roll around in the mud, and dig in the ground.
Paul had 10 or so sows who had just given birth, giving a few of us the chance to hold a day old piglet. Here’s some useful information if you ever have to pick up a piglet. Hold it by placing your hands under its belly. Do not touch or rub the top of the pig’s back or the pig will squeal in fear. Something about a pig’s instinctual reaction to coyotes.
Some of you might be thinking at this point, what’s the big deal? So what? It’s just a pig farm. (Some of you may also be wondering where the recipe is in this post; there’s link to a good one if you keep reading.) Actually, the big deal is this. Paul is unusual in that he raises his pigs on pasture, outside in nature. His pigs are free to roam, dig, quarrel, play, roll around in the mud, as pigs, the intelligent, curious, playful creatures they are, are wont to do. Paul also rotates his pastures so that fields that hold pigs (and their rich manure) one year, will be planted with the corn and soybeans used to feed the pigs the next.
Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of pigs raised for our consumption have never felt the earth beneath their feet. They spend the entirety of their lives, from birth to death, in crowded, covered buildings, with slats to drain their waste. Sows are kept in pens so small they don’t have room to turn around. These Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, aka CAFOs, produce so much waste, the environment can’t absorb it, and as a result Iowa (10 million pigs, 3 million people) and North Carolina (10 million pigs, 9 million people) are now two of the most polluted states in the nation.
Here’s a photo I shot of confinement operation. Each one of these long buildings holds anywhere from 1000 to 3000 pigs. We passed mile upon mile of rows of these confinement operations in the hundred mile drive from Des Moines to Thornton.
Ever wonder why the natural, antibiotic-free, hormone-free pork you buy at a premium tastes so much better than the regular stuff? It’s because in order to be able to live outdoors and survive the cold weather, the pig must have enough back fat. Only certain breeds, usually the older, heritage breeds have enough fat in them for the pig to survive outside. Pigs who are free to run around in pasture also build their muscles, another source of great flavor. Pigs raised in confinement are such lean breeds that they would die of the cold if not housed. They are also so close together that they must be regularly fed antibiotics to keep them from getting and spreading disease.
Is it not ironic that we take naturally lean cattle, who just want to eat grass, and we raise them in feedlots to fatten them up while at the same time we take naturally fat pigs, and we breed all the fat out of them? Regular pork is so lean these days that it very quickly dries out when you cook it, which is why we tend to slather our pork in rich sauces; we need something to get the flavor back in.
So, where to buy pork from pigs that have been raised with room to roam and with fat on their backs? Niman Ranch is one nationwide available brand; you can even find it sometimes at Trader Joe’s. A natural brand I’ve seen at Whole Foods is Beeler’s. The Berkshire breed of pig makes exceptional pork, you can find more information about it at Berkshire Meats. Fatted Calf in the San Francisco Bay Area is a great source for outstanding pork products.
If you have a good local source of pork from naturally raised, antibiotic and hormone-free pigs that I haven’t mentioned here, would you please let us know about it in the comments? Muchas gracias.