By Bonnie Azab Powell | Illustration by Marcos Sorenson
I have to confess something: I have a hog in this race. In addition to being a freelance writer and editor, I moonlight as a meat slinger, volunteering for Clark Summit Farm in Tomales, CA, helping run its "meat club," a Community Supported Agriculture program that serves about 70 families and has a waiting list of 200 more. With the very occasional exception, I don't eat meat unless I know where it's from. I'll happily order a pork chop labeled Niman Ranch or Willis in a restaurant, confident that the pig from whence it was cut lived mostly outdoors on a small farm, with its tail intact, and wasn't routinely fed antibiotics. But I believe in a "good, better, best" ranking of values when it comes to food, and for me, pork from Bay Area producers tops that hierarchy. Here's why:
Bay Area pork offers true transparency. All the farms listed on page 23 allow interested customers to make appointments to visit and see their operations firsthand. "People know what we're saying is what we're actually doing-you can verify it," says Rebecca Thistlewait of TLC Ranch, near Santa Cruz. "And you can't do that if your producer is in Iowa. You have to rely on their marketing material, and we all know how much misinformation there is out there." Labels that certify humane treatment and sustainable operations are good, but there's just something about being able to meet the farmers and their workers, to see how the pigs are treated and housed, where the sows give birth, and ask questions about what they eat and why, that trumps a website or a brochure any day.
...has a smaller carbon footprint. Sound familiar from the previous page's argument? Well, it depends on which pigskin-shoe salesman is measuring the foot. While it's true that Iowa is the No. 1 U.S. producer of feed grains, not all grain sold in California comes from the Midwest. Most local producers buy their grain from Modesto Milling, "and yes the soy in our feed comes from Iowa, but the wheat and the corn comes from both Montana and California, and the kelp meal comes from California," says Thistlewait. "Sometimes there's barley in there that happens to be from California."
Because grain is expensive, California producers also tend to be more creative with their hog feed. "Our animals are getting between half and a pound of off-farm feed. The rest is either our own grain, culled organic vegetables from our farm, or forage," says Tim Mueller of Riverdog Hog, the new-ish pork arm of Riverdog Farms, proudly. "We are trying to raise animals that have a really light footprint on our ecosystem." (How does it taste? Keep reading.)
Mueller has started growing his own grain for the hogs, to supplement the organic grain he buys from Modesto Milling. Last year he grew roughly 5 acres of peas, 15 acres of barley, and 6 acres of safflower, and this year he'll raise 15 acres of peas, 25 acres of barley, and 6 acres of tritical. "It's all rainfed, totally dry-farmed grain," he says. "I don't believe in irrigating crops to feed them to animals. Most Iowa farmers get subsidies to raise their grain. I don't want to participate in this crazy Midwest grain scene for many reasons."
...contributes to a healthy local infrastructure. The more people demand locally raised pork, the more farmers will be brave or foolhardy enough to try to supply it, and the more the necessary operations that support them-like butcher shops and slaughterhouses-will remain in business. Currently there are three USDA-inspected, swine-only slaughterhouses and six multispecies ones within 200 miles of San Francisco. Most are family owned, and all are very small, handling a few hundred head per week, compared with the massive slaughterhouses in the Midwest that can slaughter hundreds an hour.
"From a food security perspective, we need to go back to having a more regional food supply," argues Thistlewait. "If we don't support it, we're going to lose whatever infrastructure we have left here on the West, the mills, the custom butcher shops, and slaughterhouses. I don't want to be depending on food from across the country when oil prices keep getting higher."
...isn't part of a national problem. According to USDA figures, Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa, three of the top ten hog-producing states in the nation, have had an explosion of factory farms: Since 1996, the number of industrial hog operations has increased by 122% in Minnesota, 140% in Missouri, and 155% in Iowa. In 2007 Iowa alone slaughtered 30 million hogs, or 10 for every Iowan. California, by contrast, killed 2.6 million, or a hog for every 14 Californians. Those three Midwestern states suffer from a surfeit of antibiotics-laced animal manure-far more than the agricultural land can support, which is why the federal government will actually pay for industrial hog operations to create manure "lagoons" and even to ship their waste elsewhere.
Let's be clear: the Midwestern operations Samin lists above are small, family-owned farms raising their animals with care. But the truth is, Iowa needs fewer hogs, not more. "We just don't want that concentration of dust, feces, and pathogens in one area," summarizes Thistlewait. "Let's spread out. Let's have little 250-pig operations like ours all over the country."
...tastes like pork should. "You can definitely taste how we raise our pigs in the pork," says Liz Cunninghame, of Clark Summit Farm. "Our pigs run around and eat a varied diet. They taste like they've had a life." Her hogs get leftover organic whey from Cowgirl Creamery and whatever they can forage in the pasture, in addition to grain.
Thistlewait points out that the famous prized ham from Spain, jamon Iberico, comes from pigs that are finished on acorns. "Pigs don't have to be raised on that much grain to get fat," she says. "Sure, if you feed pigs a lot of trash, then their pork tastes like trash. But there are plenty of high-quality foods that aren't grain." TLC is looking for land with oak trees, so the pigs can forage for acorns in addition to whatever bugs the pasture has to offer. She and her husband Jim Dunlop also get 10 tons of organic culled vegetables from Happy Boy Farm that they feed to the pigs.
Berkeley chef Omri Aronow, who says he is very conscious of his restaurant's ecological choices, ordered a whole hog from Riverdog Hog last spring. He pronounced it "delicious," even if "slightly leaner than the pork I saw when I cooked at Oliveto." (Oliveto sources its pork from Paul Willis and ¬others.)
Mueller admits that last spring's hogs were "a little on the lean side," but "we got them a lot rounder this summer by feeding them lots of good carbs like tomatoes and melon. The current batch has a lot of fat on them." Riverdog hogs also munch on black walnuts from trees in the pasture.
"Basically, we need to be working more with the local chefs about what kind of food system they want to participate in," says Mueller. "Because we should be talking about a seasonal pig, one that gets what's available, rational, and sustainable for it to eat."
First published in the Winter 2009 Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2009 Edible San Francisco. Republished with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced without the written consent of the author or publisher.